Psychologists have abundantly documented the presence of flashbulb memories.
Often related to historical events, these memories mark a significant turning
point in our everyday lives, whether it is the Pearl Harbor attack, the first
lunar landing, or the John F Kennedy assassination. These memories form such a
powerful residue that when recalled they inevitably stir up related memories
and situational context.
Many who may not have witnessed the JFK assassination or a similar catastrophic
event can remember where they were when the event took place or what they were
doing at the time. These historic events carry such emotional and symbolic
they are often considered catalysts for systemic social change. Very few people
will dispute that the events of 9/11 were a significant turning point in
American history. Our world has not been the same since.
On the morning of 9/11, I remember driving on a busy highway in New Jersey and
listening to the radio when the news broke of the first plane striking the
World Trade Center. Sportscaster Warner Wolf provided the first-person account
on the Don Imus show from his apartment window overlooking the Twin Towers in
I recall Imus expanded his program that day to cover the horrific events as
they unfolded. Around ten o'clock in the morning, Wolf reported, "The tower is
not there. It's gone. It's gone. It's collapsed. It's not there. It's
disappeared ... I can't believe what I am seeing. I just can't believe it."
(WABC Radio 2009).
I was stunned with disbelief. Don Imus reported, "It's the worst attack on this
country since the Pearl Harbor attacks ... The news is that both towers of the
World Trade Center have collapsed. The congressional leadership has been taken
to a secure location. The country is clearly under a serious threat." (WABC
Radio 2009). Our lives were changed forever and have not been the same again.
The events of 9/11 represented an attack on the US financial nerve center and
by extension an attack on the forces of globalization and progress. In the
greater New York City area, all sense of normalcy and safety was fundamentally
changed, and Americans became conditioned to looking over our shoulders,
feeling a phobic sense of paranoia when boarding planes, getting painstakingly
searched at airport check-ins, and always feeling on guard in public places.
The historian Eric Foner claims that we will continue to debate the
significance of the events. Our world changed in many irreversible ways:
11 rudely placed certain issues on the historical agenda. Let me consider
briefly three of them and their implications for how we think about the
American past: the invocation of freedom as an all-purpose explanation for the
attacks and a justification for the ensuing war on terrorism and invasion of
Iraq; widespread acquiescence in significant infringements on civil liberties;
and a sudden awareness of considerable distrust abroad of American actions and
motives. (Foner, 2004).
Even as we pull out of Iraq, the
impact of the events of 9/11 shifted toward Afghanistan, where American forces
will remain involved until 2014, the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization
deadline for withdrawal.
I have visited Ground Zero on many occasions and have seen the displays of
human emotions plastered to the walls of the Trinity Episcopal Church; the
shards of memories and broken dreams serve as a stark reminder of the fragility
of goodness. Trinity Church became a sanctuary on the day of the attacks and
continues to be so on every anniversary of the attacks.
The subway system under Ground Zero, which I have observed through the thick
and hazy window of a moving subway car, used to be a massive crater under the
former Twin Towers. As the last stop on the Path Train and the E line, Ground
Zero is a reminder of a gaping wound on America's cultural subconscious. The
event will continue to be a turning point in history, when on an ill-fated day
the forces of evil for a flashbulb moment overtook the forces of progress and
Ground Zero's redesign offers a place for collective grief and mourning.
Psychologically, grief and mourning can lead to transformation and renewal;
thus, it may foster the birth of a new collective consciousness born of the
sacrifice of people from all over the world, both the workers in the global
economy and the countless innocent victims. Metaphorically, the ashes and the
bellowing smoke of 9/11 touched all corners of the Earth.
Some have called this a great human tragedy, a towering inferno for our times;
others see these events as the seeds of a new beginning, a call for a renewal
of the American agenda for the next century. Yet others view 9/11 as emblematic
of the passing of the old American glory, the fading away of an empire, and the
start of the post-American world.
Even as I was putting the last touches on this book, the recent uproar about
the plan to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero opened up old
wounds among the families of victims and the general population. It also
brought to the forefront the underlying dynamic, the "paranoid style of
American politics", operating in the American psyche (Hofstadter 1996).
As the protests about the mosque began to spill over into hate speech and
violence against Muslim cab drivers in New York City and against other mosques
around the country, the perception that [President Barack] Obama is a Muslim
who sympathizes with the Islamic agenda reared its ugly head again.
Bipartisan polls by the Pew Research Foundation found that almost 30% of
Republicans continue to believe Obama is a Muslim (Pew Research 2010a).
Clearly, this perception seems to have become reality in the minds of millions
of Americans, very much like the claim that Obama is a socialist out to take
over or destroy the American economy.
A large percentage of Americans, mostly made of those who may not have voted
for Barack Obama in the first place, continue to believe he is the other, a
foreigner who is taking the country in the wrong direction. Here, the issue of
Obama's identity might go to the heart of the American identity.
Disputes about his social and economic policies always seem to invoke the image
of a socialist or Marxist law school professor lecturing us from the
teleprompter and appearing somehow clueless about the basics of real capitalism
and disrupting the American way of life, a common refrain from his opponents.
As a Newsweek cover story pointed out, just two years after assuming office,
the hopeful and ebullient Obama image seems to have transmogrified into the
worst misperceptions and fears of the extreme right; he is now turned into the
"terrorist-coddling, war mongering, Wall-Street-loving, socialistic, Godless,
Muslim President" (Media Matters 2010).
Although before and during the election it was only a fringe group that
believed Obama is an extreme left-leaning politician, a larger number of people
have now joined in the anti-Obama chorus.
In many ways, the events of 9/11 shook American identity to its core, and we
are still living through the aftershocks. Not unlike the Pearl Harbor attacks
or the JFK assassination, 9/11 will continue to shape successive generations of
Americans. According to an intelligence expert, the 9/11 attacks ushered in a
new age of American vulnerability and exposed the dark side of globalization.
A radical Islamic group whose idealized conception ...
... of society
is rooted in the seventh century turned the hallmarks of our 21st century
networked world - the Internet, satellite phones, and commercial jets - into
weapons. The increased proliferation of dangerous technologies and the
existence of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda that would not hesitate to use
weapons of mass destruction raise the specter of potentially worse
mass-casualty attack in the future. (Litwak 2002, 77)
ninth anniversary of the attacks I went down to Ground Zero to witness the
progress on the reconstruction and to take part in the rallies a few blocks
away. As I walked into crowded lower Manhattan with a professor and a colleague
who teaches at a local college, I was impressed by the civil discourse taking
place in a 10-block radius. The anti-mosque rally stretched many blocks and
featured speeches by the families of 9/11 victims, representatives from local
churches and synagogues, and firefighters and first responders.