Terrible images of 9/11 were ground into the American psyche relentlessly following the attacks of 2001.
The planes striking the towers, the terrible fall, the dazed survivors covered in ash – these images became unforgettable cultural touchstones. The dark mood of those early days was perfectly captured by Art Speigelman’s cover for the New Yorker magazine on September 24: a black page, with the darker Stygian black outlines of the now-destroyed towers.
National Public Radio host and media critic Brooke Gladstone says the American people were dealt with as if they were in mourning.
“There was a lot of tiptoeing around,” Gladstone notes. “There was a feeling that people couldn’t raise questions about the government, not because you were prevented from doing it actively, but because it somehow seemed in bad taste.”
Those who bucked the trend found themselves quickly silenced: Left wing comedian Bill Maher’s cable TV show was cancelled after he criticised the bombing of Afghanistan.
Books on the attacks and terrorism are still coming out a decade later. The 9/11 commission report was an instant bestseller, topping the lists for months. At least two highly acclaimed novels, Clair Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, deal with 9/11 and its aftermath.
Nashville, which seems to consider itself the repository of patriotic instincts, quickly generated 9/11-inspired profitable hits like Alan Jackson’s “Where were you when the world stopped turning”. Toby Keith sang the belligerent “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue”, subtitled “The Angry American”.
Rock and roll largely sidestepped 9/11, but rapper Eminem’s flippant 2002 video “Without Me” featured the hip hop artist dressed up as Osama bin Laden, dancing in a cave to a hip hop beat.
Perhaps surprisingly, Hollywood has still not created any truly memorable films about 9/11. Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Centre” told the story of two police officers trapped in the rubble. The made-for-cable flick “Flight 93” was a thriller-style dramatisation of how passengers on one hijacked plane fought back .
The film that may have best captured the helpless panic and sudden horror of 9/11 was the allegorical “Cloverfield”, in which a giant, raging monster appears out of nowhere to ravage Manhattan.
FOX Television capitalised on fear of terrorism with the hugely popular show “24”, featuring secret agent Jack Bauer played by Kiefer Sutherland. The show’s formula requires Bauer to beat up and torture suspected terrorists, foiling their plots at the last minute.
Unlike Cold War pop culture hero James Bond, the archetypal hero of the post 9/11 era is Jason Bourne: an agent at odds with his own government, trapped in a widening arc of conspiracies, fighting his way through a world where, cynically, no one can be trusted.
Even the American pastime of baseball has been touched by 9/11. Beginning immediately after the attacks and until this day, fans are now expected to stand and sing Irving Berlin’s patriotic anthem “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch.
Despite early predictions about the “death of irony”, Gladstone says predictions that 9/11 would permanently alter American culture fell flat.
“9/11 was an enormous event, but so was the Cold War, so was the Vietnam war, they all had their impacts, they all are like ripples across the water and American culture keeps moving on, according to its own terms and its own rhythm.”
As new towers rise at “Ground Zero”, 9/11 has taken its place alongside the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Wounded Knee, and other violent and shocking episodes that make up a part of the American story.