How the Pop Culture in the United States Depicted the 9/11 Attack

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9/11 Reflected In US Pop Culture

As millions of terrified people watched, the World Trade Center, a landmark of America, crashed to the ground in a resounding thud, sealing the fate of the almost 3,000 people trapped inside and injuring thousands of others. The plight of the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001 are infamous for their bloody and lasting effects on the nation. September 11th occurred in the context of rising tensions between the United States and Middle East countries in the decade prior to the attack. The over-powering US military presence in the Middle East following the collapse of the USSR set the tone for the violence and hatred from the Arabs toward the US in the years to come. The fateful attacks that occurred on September 11th, 2001 left deep rooted impacts on American society, and though it was 15 years ago, it is still heavily reflected in pop culture through movies, books, political cartoons, and TV shows. The strong representation of the September 11th attacks in American pop culture serves to emphasize the fact that the attacks are a conflict in American history that will not soon be forgotten.

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In more detail, in order to properly discuss the 9/11 attacks as a conflict, one must provide an underlying definition of the broad term conflict. Conflict, a very subjective concept, has been present since the creation of humans and is not limited to any universal definition. Though it doesn’t have an explicit definition, an inclusive interpretation can be provided. Conflict can be categorized as any dispute or hostility that results from a strong disagreement, in regards to beliefs or opinions, between people and/or groups that can ultimately lead to combative action, whether that be physical, verbal, or mental. Under this classification, conflict has the ability to transform and apply itself to nearly everything; therefore, conflict includes armed attacks, political debates, war, and arguments of any kind. Conflict is drawn to the U.S, like a moth drawn to the flame; it has had the U.S. wrapped up in its vile hand slowly suffocating it for many centuries. Many may challenge the provided definition of conflict, claiming conflict is explicitly war, or outright refuting the definition. However, one can’t solely define conflict as war because while wars are a type of conflict, conflicts are a complexity that exceeds war. It’s significant to realize that conflict has evolved and transformed past the simplicity of war and is now a complex creature seemingly everywhere. Conflicts affect everyone at one point or another, and it is important to be aware of how to resolve them when it’s on a global level.

Furthermore, 9/11 can be classified as conflict because the hostility is between the U.S. and Al-Qaeda over a disagreement concerning their differing beliefs, and Al-Qaeda took combative action in order to support their belief. The September 11th attacks are clearly a conflict as it meets the given definition and embodies the essence of a conflict. Furthermore, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were one of the bloodiest and boldest attacks on US soil and can be compared to the earlier attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred 60 years earlier in 1941. Both attacks were a turning point for our nation, revealed a vulnerability in the US, and both greatly affected our foreign policies. Now that 9/11 has been established as a conflict, an account of the September 11th attacks needs to be given.

The September 11th terrorist attacks, which consisted of several hijacked planes and suicide bombers, aimed at New York and Washington, rocked the nation; they not only resulted in the death of thousands but also served as a startling realization that the United States was not invulnerable. The attack, months in planning, was organized and executed by an Islamist group known as Al-Qaeda and their associates (Bergen para.1). There were several key players that were crucial to the successful engineering of 9/11 including Khalid Sheikh, Osama Bin Laden, and Mohammed Atta. Khalid Sheikh was originally from and grew up in Kuwait; he became affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood when he was 16 and then moved to the United States in order to attend college. Sheikh, an operational planner for Al-Qaeda, was the orchestrator behind the concept of September 11th (Bergen para. 3). Originally, Sheikh had formulated a failed plan known as the Bojinka plot, which detailed the idea of loading bombs on up to twelve planes on route from Asia to the United States and blowing them up. However, once this plot was foiled, Sheikh, still eagerly wanting to attack the US, approached Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda, with the idea, and the plot of 9/11, which condemned thousands to their death, began (Bergen para. 4). With the full support and finance of Osama bin Laden, and therefore Al-Qaeda behind it, the plot for 9/11 quickly ignited and was soon a well-developed plan of action.

Moreover, as aforementioned, the terrorist group Al-Qaeda was found responsible for the horrific and devastating attack on the United States. The plan consisted of placing 19 hijackers within the US, well in advance of the attacks, where they were trained and prepared for the day of attack. Mohammad Atta a loyal member of a radical Islamic group known as the “Hamburg Cell”, was recruited as the lead hijacker and given operational control of the attacks. Once the planning was finalized, the hijackers prepared and waited for the day of the attacks (Bergen para. 7). The plan was put into action on the fateful morning of September 11, 2001 at Boston’s Logan Airport with the departure of American Airline flight 11 and United Airline flight 175. Flight 11, destined for Los Angeles, was over the Adirondack Mountains when it suddenly backtracked and headed straight towards New York City where it crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. It viciously tore through the 110th floor and then proceeded to explode. After 22 agonizing minutes of panic and disarray, flight 175 ripped through the south tower of the World Trade Center where it too exploded. The combined explosion and heat resulted in the complete destruction of the towers infrastructure as revealed when the 2nd Tower collapsed inward, followed shortly by the 1st. Simultaneously, two other planes were on their way to attack Washington D.C., one hit the Pentagon 29 minutes after flight 175 and killed numerous government officials. The other flight, United Airlines flight 93, was on its way to Washington when the passengers banded together and plunged the plane in to the ground, killing all on board, and successfully preventing the fourth attack (Schultz para. 5; Combs and Martin para. 6).

Additionally, there are several main factors that ultimately caused 9/11 as stated by Osama bin Laden himself in his “Letter to America” in November 2003. First, according to Bin Laden, US support of Israel, in regards to Palestine, was an attack on Arabs; he believed that “every person whose hands have become polluted in the contribution towards this crime [the creation of Israel] must pay its price,” which Al-Qaeda paid in full on behalf of the US through the 9/11 attacks. Another key factor that led to the attacks was an increase in US military control in Middle East countries, namely Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq leading up to the attacks. This served to add fuel to the fire of hatred burning within Al-Qaeda towards America. Osama bin Laden was enraged and claimed that “[US] forces occupy our countries” and “spread military bases throughout them” thereby “corrupting our lands” in regards to the increase and permanent presence of US military in Middle East countries (“Full text: bin Laden’s”).

Another key cause to the 2001 attacks occurred about 20 years prior. Bin Laden claims that the earlier Lebanon War of 1982, between Israel and Syria, where the US “supported the Jewish aggression against [the Arabs] in Lebanon” planted the desire to punish the US for their actions (“Full text: bin Laden’s”). In a tape, released in 2004 to Aljazeera, bin Laden states that after viewing “the demolished towers in Lebanon” he had an idea to “destroy towers in America” in order to get proper justice for the injustice done to them in Lebanon (“Full Transcript”). Overall, the direct causes of 9/11 can be linked all the way back to the 1982 Lebanon War, the increase in US military control, and US support of Israel.

Finally, the significance and effects of 9/11 were far reaching and long lasting on the nation. The 9/11 attacks were one of the first major terrorist attacks on United States soil and served as a wakeup call to the serious threat of terrorism. Some of the major impacts of 9/11 include changing US foreign and domestic policy, enactment of NATO, and a shift in American attitudes toward the government. In more detail, in the days following the attacks, Bush drastically altered his foreign policy; he disregarded the nations previous attitude that resembled something akin to isolationism and garnered the support of nations worldwide claiming “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” in a rallying cry that unified the world over the common enemy of terrorism. The attacks marked the beginning of one of the longest wars in US history the War on Terrorism. In addition to foreign policy, the attacks had a significant impact on US domestic policy in terms of making it stricter and stronger. Some of the changes included strengthening security in US government buildings and airports, developing the cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, and creating programs for loans to help ease the economic damage from 9/11. Furthermore, following the attack, Article 5 under NATO was enacted which “declared that the terrorist actions constituted an attack against all NATO members, which would respond as if they had been attacked themselves;” this was a very significant action as Article 5 had never been enacted before ( Berger para. 24; Kaiser para. 4).

Additionally, the September 11th attacks resulted in a rise of nationalism and patriotism throughout the nation. The citizens of America were left feeling terrified and shocked after 9/11, many fearing more attacks were coming, and even more mourning the loss of loved ones. Americans formed a united front and in the days following the attacks many claimed a desire for stronger government involvement which was a drastic shift from the previous distrustful attitude many Americans held toward the government. The September 11th attacks have also had a lasting impact on American culture which is demonstrated in the immediate pop culture reaction that rose following the event and the continued reaction that can be viewed fifteen years later in present time through movies, books, and political cartoons.

In more detail, the long-term effects of 9/11 can be seen throughout the pop culture media reaction trailing from a few days after the event to present day. This reaction is plainly displayed in songs released in the months following the attacks which highlighted the emotional distress and anger felt by the American people. One of the first songs produced in direct reference to 9/11 was “When the World Stopped Turning” by Alan Jackson which was released two short months after the attacks. The song personifies the emotional havoc that wrecked the nation and symbolized the feelings of fear and shock that the American people felt. Jackson introduces the attacks by asking where the audience was when “the world stopped turning on that September day” alluding to the concept that 9/11 altered the US forever. He continues to develop this idea by asking a series of questions such as “Did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones and pray for the ones who don’t know?” and “Did you rejoice for the people who walked from the rubble and sob for the ones left below?” that many felt encompassed the raw emotions America was feeling (Jackson).

In addition, the darker and bloodier side of the September 11th attacks was represented in Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising, which was released on June 20, 2002. Springsteen’s album told the powerful, yet heartbreaking experience of 9/11 from the point of view of victims, first responders, and families. Springsteen comments on his own album, stating that “it’s the best example of a pop culture artifact that mined the dark depths of 9/11’s chaos” whose remark can clearly be validated by the lyrics of several of his songs. The song “The Rising” makes a hauntingly beautiful comparison between a firefighter ascending up the stairs of the tower and his ascension up to heaven. The song begins by describing the harrowing experience of climbing the stairs as the firefighter “makes [his] way through the darkness” and then goes on to allude to rising up into the afterlife in the chorus “come on up for the rising” and verse “Lord as I stand before your fiery light” which emphasize the concept of the firefighter walking up heaven’s staircase (Springsteen).

Overall, the songs reveal that 9/11 had an immediate and significant impact on American media. The songs, and the positive feedback to them, not only demonstrate the whirlwind of feelings and reactions that many Americans had towards 9/11, but also served to showcase the extent of damage done by the attacks on American society and values. While many songs approached the topic from an emotional standpoint, films attacked the politics behind the terrorist attacks.

One such example of a film that concentrated on 9/11 from a political standpoint is Michael Moore’s film “9/11 Fahrenheit”. The film, released in June 2004, centers on the aspects of pre-9/11 paranoia and fear and discusses at the length the idea that Bush used the 9/11 attacks as justification and an excuse to start a war in Afghanistan and Iraq. This movie develops the idea that the Bush administration had a prior relationship with bin laden and exposes “corruption” within the government (“Fahrenheit 9/11”). This film aimed “to stop Bush from fixing the next election as he fixed the last” and was instrumental in sparking the creation of conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 that are still talked about today (Berger para. 13).

Furthermore, the removal of, and lack of mention in regards to the twin towers and events of 9/11, in movies and television following the attack is the perfect representation and impact of September 11th in pop culture. Several examples include Men in Black 2, Friends, and Spiderman 2 all of which were released within a year of September 11th. Spiderman 2, released in 2002, originally had two scenes involving the towers: one scene where Spiderman catches a helicopter with his web in between the towers and another one where the camera just panned over them. However, both scenes were later cut from the movie, with a more patriotic image of Spider Man holding the American flag being added. Similarly, the ending to the 2002 film Men in Black II actually had to be re-filmed due to the controversy of releasing a critical scene involving the World Trade Center. Initially, a portal opened up in the Towers releasing UFOs into the sky, however it was later edited to the Statue of Liberty. Lastly, this removal of events regarding 9/11 is evident in an episode of Friends Titled “The One Where Rachel Tells…”, filmed and released in 2001, in which there was a scene where while in the airport Chandler makes a joke about bombs but this scene was later deleted, re-scripted, and reshot following the attacks (Meyer). The removal of the towers in Spider-Man 2 and Men in Black II display the fact that many Americans, especially New Yorkers, were still extremely sensitive to the topic; the reference in Friends being removed shows that while pre-9/11 that bomb joke may have been found funny, in post 9/11 America, it would have been found tasteless and offensive.

Moreover, an important pop culture source that can be used to judge American attitude towards 9/11 are political cartoons. The political cartoons, all drawn days after the attacks, depict the raw emotions many Americans felt. First, many Americans, understandably were angry and “a combination [of] fear and anger, driven from a strong reaction to protect the country from its enemies” led many to desire revenge as depicted by the cartoon of the eagles claws going towards the terrorist (Friedman 105). The eagle is representative of the United States and their goal of capturing the terrorist who is ignorantly laughing. (e.g. see fig.1)

Another feeling, was a more doomed, eye awakening one in terms of realizing this was just the beginning; the image to the right with the terrorist sleeping displays this perfectly. It symbolizes the idea that the terrorists have been “sleeping” until 9/11 (Fig.2) and now the real “War on Terror” has begun. (e.g. see fig.2)

Lastly, Americans felt a loss of innocence and a sense of normalcy. As displayed by the last political cartoon, as a nation, Americans felt lost and shocked. (e.g. see fig.3) The son represents the desire of all Americans for things to return to the way they were pre – 9/11 (“The September 11 Attacks”). (Fig.3)

Lastly, one of the most recent pop culture references in regards to 9/11 can be found in Republican candidate Donald Trump. Trump has made numerous anti-Muslim remarks and comments throughout his campaign; he has even gone as far as supporting the idea of banning Muslims from traveling to the US and establishing a database, exclusively for all the Muslims present in the United States. Trump is a known islamophobe, which went on a rise in the last decade and a half due to the September 11th attacks and consecutive Muslim attacks on the US. Last year, following September 11th, Trump claims to have seen Muslims in New Jersey cheering and celebrating, which whether true or not, evidently displays the lasting effects of 9/11. Trumps comments and claim reveal that the September 11th attacks are long from forgotten and have heavily influenced present day American culture and values.

In a final analysis, the September 11th attacks had a permanent impact on America which can be traced through the pop culture of the last 15 years. Pop culture centering on September 11th is crucial to comprehend the conflict as a whole. Unfortunately, many Americas are not fully educated on the events leading up to, following, and occurring during the September 11th attacks. While reasonably quick to remember the planes crashing into the twin towers, which is just the tip of the iceberg, most are unable provide the historical causes leading up to that day or the affects thereafter. The pop culture surrounding this event helps individuals to fully understand the event to its greatest extent. Pop culture references of 9/11, ranging from TV shows to songs, give a detailed analysis and are vital to fully understanding the attacks themselves in regards to immediate reactions and the permanent impact they had on American society.

To conclude, the bloody attacks that took place on September 11th 2001 left a lasting impression on American culture and was a significant conflict in American history. Pop culture is important to American society because rather than representing the majority view, every individual has the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinion with the nation which can be seen in 9/11 pop culture. Pop culture references in regard to 9/11, past and present, found in TV shows, books, movies, and political cartoons serve to highlight the detrimental effects the conflict of 9/11 had on America and the indirect part it played in shaping American views from then to the present.

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