Guest Lectures: June 11 ,2010

Here are the lecture notes from my guest lecture at the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw (PowerPoint is here: Post-9/11 American Society):

I taught a course on 9/11 for the American Studies Center at the University of Warsaw in Spring 2009; it was perhaps my favorite course to teach.  I am lucky to be able to revisit, and revise, some of my earlier lectures on the subject.  

The terrorist actions on September 11, 2001 changed the United States and the world.  Across the world’s universites, and across all academic disciplines, there have been few courses focusing entirely on the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath.  There are courses on terrorism and many courses include the events of 9/11, but few concentrate on it, at least from the available descriptions of courses.  

I should note from the outset that the term 9/11 is shorthand for the event.  This is American-centric, as Europe usually puts the day first, and then the month (11.9.01).  The 9/11 name has become more than the date.  It now signifies other concepts, too; 9/11 signifies the totality of the experience on the United States and the world, something larger than even the attacks themselves, and perhaps larger than the attackers had anticipated. 

Why take – or teach – a lecture on a singular terrorist event?  9/11 had a profound impact on almost all aspects of American society.  It has thus far, and it may continue to in the future.  For how long, I don’t know.  I know they still talk about Pearl Harbor. 

Academically, 9/11 had an impact on the social sciences and history, among others.  Sociologists and political scientists ask of 9/11, was this an event that created social change?  If so, what changed?  Can we point to the event of 9/11 and say, this is the point from which all social and political change has come? 

As we will see, the idea that “all social and political change” resulted from 9/11 is not accurate, and is potentially misleading.  It is true, in the words of Cofer Black, the former Head of the CIA counter-terrorism center, “There was a before 9/11, and there is an after 9/11.”  It is also true, in the words of Condoleeza Rice, former National Security Advisor to President Bush from 2001 to 2004, “The world has changed so much that it is hard to remember what our lives were like before that day” (9/11 Commission Testimony).  Even if no major public official has said it directly, the shorthand for this sentiment has become that “everything changed” after 9/11. 

This lecture analyzes the major social and political events that are directly related to 9/11.  Considering the time constraints – a lecture, as opposed to a full course – I can only cover some of the major changes, leaving many somewhat more minor, but nevertheless interesting, aspects of the impact of 9/11 left unsaid. 

The main idea I want to leave you with is this:  9/11 had, and continues to have, a profound influence on how Americans, and many around the world, think and act; its impact has been felt in almost every area of human social life, and the origins of many thoughts and actions are traceable to 9/11; yet, the impact of 9/11 must not be overstated: for many thoughts and actions, ranging from confidence in political and economic institutions, to voting, to political party affiliation, to religiosity, and others, 9/11 had but a brief and not long lasting impact.  In short, those engaged in 9/11 research need to ask three questions:  What changed?  How radical are these changes?  and how long have these changes lasted? 

In choosing what to talk about, we should strike a balance.  Just like Philippe Petit, the French wire-walker who tight-rope-walked between New York City’s World Trade Center “Twin Towers” in 1974, we go only so far in one direction and don’t tempt fate. 

I will touch on, but will not be able to discuss in any satisfactory detail, the following important aspects of 9/11: 

—  What Happened on 9/11? Mainstream Media Coverage of the Events of 11.9.01, Official Government Explanation and Unofficial Conspiracy Explanations. 

—  Why Did It Happen?  Before 9/11 Cold War and Middle East Policy, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, Government Agencies and “The Wall” between government agencies (FBI, CIA, NSA, and the rest of the intelligence community). 

—  The Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from Bush to Obama:  The Neoconservative Movement and the Bush Doctrine, Official Reasons for War (Connections to 9/11), Obama and Afghanistan. 

—  9/11 in the American Electoral Campaigns, 2002 – 2010. 

—  Changes in European attitudes toward Americans after 9/11. 

—  Rendition and Torture:  Secret Prisons in Europe, Extraordinary Rendition from Bush to Obama, the Department of Justice and the CIA, and Bagram, Abu Grahib, and Guantanamo Bay. 

—  Economic impact of 9/11 

I will cover in more detail: 

—  Post-9/11 Domestic Policy from the Bush Administration to the Obama Administration: The War on Terror, The 9/11 Commission, Government Reorganization and Other Government Responses, Civil Liberties and the PATRIOT Act. 

—  Social and Cultural Landscape after 9/11: Public reactions to 9/11, Arabs and Muslims in Post-9/11 American Society, and cultural manifestations. 

—  Attitudinal and Behavioral Impact of 9/11 on American Society 

The Overall Impact of 9/11 on American Society

To understand how important 9/11 is, it is vital to understand the immensity of the immediate impact of 9/11.  It made people do things they wouldn’t, under ordinary circumstances, do. 

Immediately afterwards, and for some while after, 9/11 was felt in every corner of Americans’ lives. For a national tragedy of this scope, for a cultural and psychological shock of this magnitude, there was no modern script to follow.  Well, perhaps there was: a Hollywood script.  Many witnesses to the event likened the World Trade Center attacks to a Hollywood blockbuster movie, with dazzling special effects.  

After the attack, during the first few hours, during the first few days, it was a protracted “figuring-out” process: what to do now?  For weeks, 9/11 dominated the news in all possible media.  Sports and cultural events were cancelled, with no clear indication as to when they could be resumed.  People, desperate to do something, flew flags, donated more blood than the American Red Cross could handle, donated money, put up make-shift memorials, cried in public, wondered what will be hit next, and when, became scared of going up in tall buildings, created conspiracy theories, and endlessly consumed media – any media – on the subject. 

Notes on Collins’ “Rituals of Solidarity” (2004):  It is axiomatic that tragedy begets solidarity, in that a major event pulls diverse social groups in proximate social space, and reduces emotional and ideological distances.  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).  When attacked, or perceived as attacked, solidarity forms around the symbols that are emblematic of leadership and value strengths.  Flags and the President are prominent symbols.  Solidarity displays and events are designed to show that “we are all one.” America was squarely in the hysteria zone. 

This includes security rituals.  These methods that often ineffective, done for their symbolic 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.  If you want real airport security, fly El Al to Israel; its as strict a security ritual as one will find. 

Even 9 years after the event, 9/11 retains a sacred space in American history and collective memory.  It was one of those events where people recall, years later, where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about it.  New York Governor George Pataki called the World Trade Center site “hallowed ground.”  Humor related to 9/11 is still incredibly risqué.  It has also become largely a New York event, even though the event occurred at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and in western Pennsylvania.  Dominant images of 9/11 are of the second plane hitting one of the towers, the World Trade Center towers in flames, collapsing, people running in the streets.  It is these memories that helped fuel post-9/11 domestic and foreign policy from Bush to Obama.  

Post-9/11 Domestic and Foreign Policy from the Bush Administration to the Obama Administration

Governmental response to 9/11 can be thought of along two major dimensions that are, eventually, (re)-shaping each other: Ideology and Action.

Ideology: the set of ideas that form the base for governmental action immediately after 9/11.  The ideological component/aspect of the 9/11 response ensures legitimacy for action. 

The early Bush administration position on 9/11 was that this is not a crime, this is war.  This enabled the administration to use a powerful image – war – to push through massive government reorganization and mobilize the nation to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, coined as the “War on Terror.”  They said this would be a long, enduring war.  

Actions were also based on the themes of U.S. strength in the face of adversity, of unity in action, and dichotomy of us versus them. Eventually these themes were merged with the idea of U.S. sovereignty in deciding what is best for its own security.  The U.S. has the right to defend itself, its freedoms and values, which they claim defines democracy generally: America acts not only for itself, but for all nations who are democratic. This is coupled with the administration position on foreign policy stance: “You are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”  The theme of fear and looming threat becomes increasingly present in governmental discourse. 

Action:  Governmental response to 9/11 is based on the 9/11 Ideology.  Major actions include: 

(1)  War on Terror (domestic):  Curtailing of civil liberties with the USA PATRIOT act of 2001 and executive directives, granting law enforcement and government authorities with greater access to private communications inside and outside of the U.S.  Selective imprisonment and harassment of suspected enemies of the state: this mainly affected people of Arab descent or name. 

(2)  Expansion of Executive Power:  Powers of the President has expanded, allowing the President to withhold greater amounts of information from the U.S. public, to curtail civil liberties in the name of war. 

(3)  9/11 Commission:  One year after, President Bush created an independent 9/11 commission, whose purpose was to investigate the causes of the attacks and suggest remedies for prevention of future attacks.  The 9/11 Commission was created as a result of pressure from families of the victims of 9/11; initially, President Bush was satisfied with the congressional report, but changed his mind when prominent Senators helped to voice claims made by the families of 9/11 victims that an independent commission was needed.  

(4)  Government Reorganization:  A dominant 9/11 theme is that airport security lacked sufficient rigor.  To this end, the government took over airport security, leading to the creation of the (a) Transportation Security Administration. One major theme of the investigation into 9/11 was that government agencies were “walled off” from each other: there was a need for greater inter-agency collaboration.  This led to centralizing of authority, including (b) creation of Department of Homeland Security and (c) a national intelligence coordinator, whose job it is to facilitate collaboration and sharing of information between all of the intelligence agencies in the U.S. intelligence community.  

“With bureaucracy there is birth but never death.”  —  Philip Mudd, former CIA and FBI analyst and senior research fellow at the New America Foundation  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/us_and_canada/10175606.stm

(5)  Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Pakistan):  After the invasion of Afghanistan, the President used 9/11 imagery, and the threat of a new and more devastating 9/11, to mobilize the nation to war in Iraq.  Under Obama, the war shifted focus from Iraq back to Afghanistan.  Obama’s major expansion of the predator drone program – a robotic plane that flies via remote control and can shoot missiles– widened the war to the Pakistan border, essentially expanding the Afghanistan war to Pakistan, as well.

The most lasting impacts will probably be the government reorganizations, the expansion of executive power, and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.  Ideologies of Presidential administrations can change with new administrations, though legacies remain. 

Social and Cultural Landscape after 9/11  

Public reactions to 9/11, Arabs and Muslims in Post-9/11 American Society, and cultural manifestations. 

Cultural Manifestations

 9/11 touched deeply into American culture and has stayed there for a long time.  But, most 9/11 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 9/11 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 NYFD firefighters who, as a responding organization, suffered the greatest disproportion of losses, and the victims of the attacks.  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. 

Through all this, a major and profound, yet amazingly little researched shift in the cultural and political landscape occurred:  the declining cultural and political position of al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden.  Initially, al Qaeda and bin Laden were the focus of American hatred.  As the wars spread to Iraq, and as Afghanistan and Pakistan took center stage, al Qaeda and bin Laden started to fade into the background.  This major shift has yet to be fully analyzed and appreciated by today’s scholars. 

Status of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 

Since the identified 9/11 hijackers and planners were all from the Middle East, and that al Qaeda is a Muslim run organization, 9/11 became synonymous with Arabs and Muslims. Middle Easterners are more visible in America than ever before.  Considering that most are associated with Muslims and Islam, and Americans seem to have growing negative feelings toward the religion, increased visibility has not enhanced their status.  

The U.S. government had sent mixed messages about people from the middle east: While the government – including Bush –said on many occasions that the vast majority of people from the middle east are “good people,” their immigration and national security policies have targeted them as undesirables.  They have been subjected to ethnic-profiling and special registration, and the number of visas issued to them decreased.  New judicial decrees place a disproportionate number of them in indefinite detention.  Middle Easterners respond by viewing the government with greater suspicion, though some, from middle class backgrounds, responded by trying to promote their culture and become more politically active. 

The status of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. changed over the years.  Strangely, people trust Arabs less one year after 9/11 than during the month of 9/11.  As for Muslim-Americans, the only change from 2000 to 2003 occurred two months after 9/11, when people had increasing favorable opinions of this group.  Over the course of one year, about the same percentage of the population feels Arab-Americans are more sympathetic to terrorists (about 1/3rd). 

What explains this?  Perhaps the relentless rhetoric on the political right that argues that Islam is a religion of war, and that immigration should be severely restricted. 

Attitudinal and Behavioral Impact of 9/11 on American Society 

In general, we see many areas of American society affected, but for a short duration.  Trends in various aspects were slightly interrupted by 9/11, but eventually returned.  For example, gambling in Las Vegas experienced a short disruption, but five months after the attack, gambling returned to pre 9/11 levels (Eisendrath et al 2008 in Cornell Hospitality Quarterly).  Many political aspects, especially, returned to their late 1990s levels. 

It’s important to understand that 9/11 occurred during a period of intense political polarization: by the late 1990s, discourse by political elites portrayed conservatives (Republicans) and liberals (Democrats) as two opposite sides with a long distance between them.  These ideological factions argued that the consequences of leaning toward one side or another were disastrous: a fight for the heart and soul of America.  This discourse lessened between September 11 2001 and after the elections of November 2002, and intensified between 2003 and the present day.  The potentially unifying moment that 9/11 presented was likely a mirage, a lull in the rapidly polarizing political scene.  9/11 likely intensified this polarization. 

Conclusion and Discussion 

What is post 9/11 society?  I don’t know, but everyone says we live in it.  How long will it last?  I’m not sure what pre-9/11 society was, other than 9/11 did not happen yet.  Some take pre-9/11 society to mean a lack of general awareness of non-state-based international terrorism, or the potential for violence by extremists who profess to be religious and who profess to incite terror in the name of Islam.  

The state of 9/11 social science scholarship is weak.  Most of the most visible 9/11 scholarship (found via the internet) is done by the conspiracy theory movement, who argue that the official explanations for what happened on September 11, 2001 are insufficient.  Major historians have not taken up 9/11 like they did other national tragedies (usually, recent events like these are considered to be “too new” for historians to work on).  So, 9/11 scholarship falls on a multidisciplinary mix of mostly health and psychological research, some social sciences – mostly from political science –, physical sciences (engineering, computers) and some humanities. 

What we do know:  9/11 had, and continues to have, a profound influence on how Americans, and many around the world, think and act; its impact has been felt in almost every area of human social life, and the origins of many thoughts and actions are traceable to 9/11; yet, the impact of 9/11 must not be overstated: for many thoughts and actions, 9/11 had but a brief and not long lasting impact.  Thus, we know little about post-9/11 society.  Thus, we lack a lot of detail on the answers to the three main questions:  What changed?  How radical are these changes?  How long have these changes lasted?   Other questions are important too:  how will 9/11 be remembered?  What will be the durable impacts of 9/11 on particular groups in American society?  Let’s begin.

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