It has been ten years since my grade 11 science teacher came into our class room and announced that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Details were vague, but they were clear by second period: there had been two planes, the towers were down and it was not an accident. My Modern Western Civilization teacher pulled in a TV and turned it on so we could watch the news. His simple excuse: “This is history.”
I had never before witnessed an event which dominated every area of the media. Magazines naturally were the first reflections of the new environment. The changing colours of autumn that year would not be red, yellow and orange but red, white and blue. ‘Entertainment Weekly’ arrived with an American flag on the cover and the query “What lies ahead”.
The world appeared momentarily united, but this was an illusion, as was George W. Bush’s sky-high approval ratings. ‘Vanity Fair’, no friend of the Republican Party, profiled Bush, Dick, Condi and company with all the patriotic heroism they could muster.
‘Vogue’ featured the Star Spangled Banner and Britney Spears. Inside, the editors had pushed up a photoshoot of spring’s romantic white dresses by American designers set against the New York City skyline. Fashion in 2001 had, as James Wolcott put it, become utterly bored with itself and its dominatrix-Madonna-1980’s retreads. Reacting to the changed zeitgeist with remarkable speed, fashion editors, designers and stylists pulled a giant U-turn: 2001’s black spiked boots would be replaced by 2002’s soft peasant blouse.
Movies, on the other hand, responded to the shifting culture with all the swiftness of a lumbering brontosaurus. Then Hollywood rushed out two different 9/11 movies, neither of which anybody saw or liked. Perhaps you need more distance from an event to memorialize it with the ‘Gone with the Wind’-‘Titanic’-‘Pearl Harbor’ treatment. The wars started as a result of the terrorist attacks are still on-going, as is the threat of violent extremists. As the clichéd joke would have it, the 9/11 films had come ‘too soon’.
The only reflection of this anxious decade I see reflected in cinema are the popularity of super hero movies (we un-ironically yearn for saviors in tights) but I suspect their abundance has more to do with CGI advancements and movie studios eager for franchises than the shakiness of the collective psyche.
I felt a personal loyalty to New York City. I had visited only twice, but it was the first place I arrived in feeling like I had been there before. From Big Bird to Carrie Bradshaw, my life had been filled with Manhattan-dwellers and Brown Stone steps.
When I wore a ‘I Heart New York’ button on the first anniversary, I remember a girl at school rolling her eyes: “Oh, that’s just Americans exaggerating again,” was the jist of what she said. A shocking example of warped political priorities.
We all know what happened next. Bush missed his opportunity to capture Osama bin Laden and instead spent billions of dollars invading a country which had nothing to do with the attacks. In doing so, he frittered away both his popularity and international goodwill, and, by cutting taxes at the same time, began the debt crisis which he deposited on his successor.
Ironically, it was Barack Obama, the one suspected of being a closeted Muslim and Manchurian candidate by hysterical Republican conspirists, who made a priority of finally capturing the al-Qaeda leader. But it will be the Bush recession which will plague his re-election bid next year.
And now it’s been ten years and what have we learned? Sometimes it seems like not very much. We’ve learned to be cautious about political leaders who will use national tragedies to ram through their agendas. We’ve learned that violent extremists can crop up anywhere (the ‘Toronto 18’) and can come from any religious or cultural background (Norway’s Anders Breivik). We’ve learned that combating religious fanaticism while respecting spiritual freedom is a very tricky balance to strike, yet one we must continue to strive for.
I realize this has been a messy, unfocused post. Perhaps on the 20th anniversary my thoughts will be a little more ordered.