Chapter 3: How Everyday People Understood 9/11

People sought a recognizable reference to make sense of the tragedy.  For many, the images of 9/11 resembled something out of Independence Day, a big budget action film, complete with buildings exploding.  Hollywood prepares us for this moment.  They give us a frame of reference.


“As millions of people watched the horrific spectacle of the Twin Towers collapsing after the September 11th terrorist attacks, many eye-witnesses and survivors compared the dramatic images to a Hollywood movie. Speaking exclusively to Panorama, top Hollywood producers, directors and writers explain why many films seemed to predict the atrocities of September 11th. Die Hard’s Steve de Souza says terrorism plots became popular because they appeal to the global market place where Hollywood now makes most of its money. The image of the terrorist attacks “looked like a movie poster, like one of my movie posters”, he says. Lawrence Wright, who wrote The Siege, felt the same as he watched September 11th unfold: “This looks like a movie – my movie.”  Several blockbusters like The Siege, Die Hard and The Peacemaker show how Hollywood had researched scenarios such as hijacks, bombs in New York, manhunts for Muslim extremists and even the use of planes as guided missiles aimed at Washington.”

See also:  Hollywood Enlists in the War by Marc Cooper


The following table presents the images themes of 9/11 in various forms.  I compare this to an in-class exercise I gave in the 9/11 class.  It was a word association game, when I asked them to list anything that comes to mind when I say the phrase, “9/11.”  Not all of my students’ reactions make objective sense, but the mind takes people to strange places, and seems as legitimate as anyone’s private memory of 9/11.

Weekday students from 9/11 course All 9/11 Documentaries (mainstream and conspiracy) Mainstream Media 9/11 Documentaries Conspiracy Explanation Documentaries
Planes WTC explosions from the most spectacular angle possible Off screen narrator with dramatic voice On screen narrator (man behind desk, in front of video screens) talking calmly
Planes hitting WTC Screaming (OMG!) Speeches by Bush Video and soundbites of Bush and Bush administration officials
WTC burning, smoke and fire Naudet film of first plane hitting WTC North Dramatic music with instruments typically found in orchestras Rock or other modern music
ground zero, hole Computer simulations Sad stories told over tinkling piano or slow violin Pictures with arrows pointing to blurred/ heavily pixilated images
Dust, People covered in dust Pentagon 5 picture video Victims’ stories, crying, courage Slow-motion of planes hitting buildings
Firemen/firefighters People running, covered in dust Officials’ stories, tearing up but not fully crying Experts and professionals expressing skepticism
Phone calls of the people in planes, in the WTC UBL walking in the wilderness
Families, people Mujahedin in Afghanistan
People jumping from windows Eyewitness stories
Shock, confusion, Anger, sadness
NYC mayor Giuliani
Flight 93
Where I was when I saw it
How I got the information (television, newspapers)
Personal memory of an unrelated event that occurred on that day
Terrorist, terrorism
War (also wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, WWIII)
USA, America
George w. Bush
George Bush in Booker Elementary, Florida
Islam, Muslim, Arabs
Osama bin laden
Clash of civilizations
American foreign policy change
Movies about 9/11 (fahrenheit 9/11, World Trade Center, United 93, 11 minutes later)
Songs (Enya), music videos

Cultural Manifestations

9/11 touched deeply into American culture and has stayed there for a long time.  But, cultural manifestations aren’t about the event itself, but the themes surrounding the event, primarily “terror” and “war.”  The television series 24 wouldn’t have been as popular before 9/11; numerous fiction films about or inspired by the wars, such as The Hurt Locker (won Academy Award for Best Picture of 2009), Green Zone (starring Matt Damon), The Messenger, In the Valley of Elah, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Stop-Loss, Lions for Lambs and a number of others.  Many of them were not successful films.  There are some movies about 9/1 directly: Paul Greengrass’ United 93, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, are major ones.  Perhaps the most famous of the 9/11 films is Michael Moore’s popular documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, though the Academy Award winning best documentary Taxi to the Darkside, about the prison at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan and Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, about American military’s abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, are, arguably, better records of the War on Terror.

Early cultural themes of 9/11 focused on the responders to the World Trade Center site:  they were “heroes” of 9/11, especially the New York firefighters who, as a responding organization, suffered the greatest disproportion of losses, and the victims of the attacks.   Even the term “heroes” changed.  Budweiser’s “Real American Heroes” changed to “Real Men of Genius.”  America’s brief infatuation with working class heroes declined sharply afterwards.  Later themes concerned blame for 9/11, and the Iraq War (Afghanistan is not mentioned as much, Pakistan hardly at all). The themes of terror and war have outlasted them all.

Most of the attention was focused on the WTC.  When describing 9/11, most people think of the WTC.  Attack on the Pentagon is probably third, behind Flight 93, though many might not remember where it crashed.  Design plans, if limited to the original WTC site, would have to rebuild both towers in order to get all 10 million square feet of office space.  This would mean building on the site of the former WTC towers.  Because the PA reports to the state of New York, rather than NYC government, Gov. Pataki (and, Gov. Cuomo, his successor) has great control over the rebuilding effort.  Pataki called the site “hallowed ground.”

”We will never build where the towers stood,” Pataki said.  In addition to calling the place where the towers stood ”hallowed ground,” Mr. Pataki said the footprints ”will always be a lasting memorial for those that were lost.” He added, ”Their sacrifice must be remembered for all times to come, and I will do everything in my power to make sure that happens.”

Notes on Collins’ “Rituals of Solidarity” (2004)

It has become axiomatic that tragedy begets solidarity, in that a major event pulls diverse social groups in proximate social space, reducing emotional and ideological distances.  Collins (2004), however, is the first to theorize as to the forms and duration of this process.  Using a variety of data, Collins argues that social actors, including individuals and organizations, use national solidarity rituals to stake a claim in self and socially perceived importance.  Solidarity rituals, then, engender a complex set of contradictory behaviors, such as “where a homeless man [is observed] with flag stickers sewn to his bags” (Collins 2004: 64).  Measuring duration, however, depends on the ancillary phenomena being examined, as public opinion polls indicating Presidential approval and “criticisms of security” both have slightly different shelf lives.

This is mostly about 9/11, with allusions to some other terrorist events and wars, e.g. dramatic events.  Collins theorizes about the solidarity process over time, going from “conflict breeds solidarity” to “how long does the solidarity last and what happens within the solidarity?”  Collins argues that there occurs “ritualistic mobilization,” a struggle over symbols and access to collective attention.  This occurs within a “hysteria zone,” “a period in time during which emotions are focused collectively and during which attacks are expected” (81).  How long the zone lasts depends on the event and the context in which the event occurs.

Solidarity can be measured by presidential approval rating.  GWB enjoyed a 90 percent approval September 21-23, 2001.  84 percent for FDR a month after Pearl Harbor.

The nation is a political symbol.  When attacked, or perceived as attacked, solidarity forms around the symbols.  But not just any symbols: those symbols that are emblematic of leadership and value strengths.  Flags, the President and other symbols of the nation.  Solidarity arises from a dramatic incident.  Solidarity’s emotional process is greater than the sum of its constituent emotive parts.  Displays must be visible to others, though donations (blood, money) can be symbolic.  Rituals are symbolic events.  In this case, those events designed to produce solidarity.

Immediate period:  1-2 days is hushed emotions before overt solidarity rituals break out.

Second period: 3-7 days of rapid build up

Third period:  2-3 months of plateau

Fourth period: 6-9 months of tailing off

Over the years, there are intermittent reminders, such as the 5 year anniversary of 9/11 and, now, the 10th anniversary.  These solidarity rituals require an audience.  Types of rituals include, concerts, sports, memorials for the dead (on YouTube and in public spaces).  For the government, victim compensation is a means of ritual solidarity.

Solidarity rituals are not done by everyone and of equal intensity.

Ritualistic solidarity displays can “protect” minorities thought to be involved as the enemy: flags on taxis, in shops owned by “Arab” looking people.  Symbolic display can be for commercial advantage “good for business” to show that the business supports the solidarity process and the symbols that were attacked during the dramatic incident.

At the extremes, solidarity rituals will not penetrate some social groups, while others will hold onto the rituals long after most people have stopped.  Rituals themselves can also produce conflict between those who want to display the rituals and those who feel it is inappropriate; between anti-war and pro-war factions, and over access to ritual sites.

Security rituals are methods that are ostensibly ineffective for providing security, but are done for their ritualistic value (many procedures at airports and in stadiums are such ritualistic security procedures).  All members take part, adding to the ability of the ritual to reassure the anxious.  Ritualistic security, too produces conflicts between pragmatists (this is unnecessary, provide real security, not the ritual) and security zealots who feel that any security measures, including the ritualistic kind, can keep people safe.  Ethnic and racial profiling of terrorists is part of this debate.  Human rights violations can occur in the hysteria zone.

Patriotic Themes:

United We Stand

Never Forget


Immediately after 9/11, Americans consumed flags and other American symbols, presenting them in full view and, where appropriate, at half-staff:

‘Old Glory sprouted all over the Washington area, flapping from doorposts and shops as well as government buildings and embassies, which lowered their flags to half-staff. A motorcyclist outside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building had two small U.S. flags attached to his helmet, like patriotic rabbit ears.’

—  The Washington Post September 13, 2001, Pg. B01 Mary Beth Sheridan and Lena H. Sun.

Others attempted to bridge distance through donations of blood, money, and work, representing a diverse array of social groups:

‘For those of us who are raised to the left, I thought, ‘Hmm, are we patriotic?’ ‘ said Jessica Skintges, 32, a self-described leftist from the District who was giving blood. ‘Well, yes, we are.’ Skintges, an equal opportunity officer at the Department of Justice, said she had ‘a lot of friends who are peaceniks, who protest the death penalty, who never felt patriotic. And now they want to paint a flag on their cars.’

—  The Washington Post September 13, 2001, Pg. B01 Mary Beth Sheridan and Lena H. Sun.

Minority groups feel the need to bridge distance between themselves and the hegemonic power.

‘Vietnamese American leaders also urged people to donate blood and money to relief efforts.  ‘The people in the Pentagon helped us; they were our allies,’ said Doan Huu Dinh, a South Vietnamese army captain who heads a local coalition of Vietnamese veterans.’

—  The Washington Post September 13, 2001, Pg. B01 Mary Beth Sheridan and Lena H. Sun.

‘The warden’s office at Centinela State Prison got a letter last week from an inmate serving a three-year sentence for selling drugs.  The inmate was horrified by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and asked officials to withdraw $100 from his personal account and donate the money to families of the victims in New York.  ‘Many inmates on their very own, from the moment this happened, wanted to do something,’ said Deavonne Long, a spokeswoman at the Imperial County prison.   ‘These inmates,’ he said, ‘are Americans, too.’

—  The San Diego Union-Tribune September 25, 2001, Pg. B-2, ‘State prisoners work to help terror victims,’ Alex Roth.

Special Section: White Noise and 9/11

Fiction, too can prepare us for this moment.  See White Noise by Don Dellilo:

‘Members of an air-crash cult will hijack a jumbo jet and crash it into the White House in an act of blind devotion to their mysterious and reclusive leader, known only as Uncle Bob.  The President and First Lady will miraculously survive with minor cuts, according to close friends of the couple.’ (Delillo, 1985:146).

Clear parallels exist between the events in White Noise and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  A catastrophic event drives the central plot of White Noise.  A large, poisonous cloud, ‘the airborne toxic event,’ envelops the college town where the story takes place.  Neither the townspeople, nor the reader learn the details regarding the composition of the cloud (other than the name of the chemical) or its actual hazard to the community.  The objective of this plot device seems, rather, to generate reactions from the characters.  On September 11, 2001, the catastrophic events of terrorists using hijacked planes as weapons to destroy symbols of America are well known (for an emotional history of the event, see Dallmayr 2002).

Leader Reaffirming Authority While Staying Out of Immediate Area of Danger 

From White Noise

‘It was said the governor was on his way from the capitol in an executive helicopter.  It would probably set down in a bean field outside a deserted town, allowing the governor to emerge, square-jawed and confident, in a bush jacket, within camera range, for ten or fifteen seconds, as a demonstration of his imperishability’ (Dellilo 1985: 130).

From September 11, 2001

“The president was in Sarasota, Fla., when he received word of the attacks on the World Trade Center. He placed the country’s military on the highest stages of alert as he returned to Air Force One, which flew to the Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana as part of a Secret Service move to insure the safety of the president.  ‘Freedom itself was attacked this morning and I assure you freedom will be defended,’ Bush said on his arrival at Barksdale. ‘Make no mistake. The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.’  Less than two hours later, Bush was in Air Force One again, this time landing at the Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb., the home of the Strategic Air Command.”

— Chicago Sun-Times September 12, 2001 Wednesday, p. 10

Correlation is not evidence of some supernatural prescience on the part of the author, but rather a statement of similarities that provide the basis for further inquiry.  These are examples of the observation powers of the author, providing a sound foundation from which to use the book as a generator of theory.  Furthermore, correlations are not causations.

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