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Essay: 9/11 fear and distrust

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  • Subject area(s): Media essays Politics essays
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  • Published: June 16, 2021*
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  • 9/11 fear and distrust
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In popular media, the portrayal and aftermath of 9/11 resulted in stories and documentaries depicting people distrusting “the other” and even their own governments. After 9/11, many people felt paranoid that intruders from other countries would continue to bring war on US soil. This prompted many US citizens to sign-up for the draft and fight back against said intruders. However, once people started to realize that pointlessness of the war and the expansion of the surveillance states, citizens started to turn on the government. 9/11 caused people to feel a lot of distrust and that bled into the media that was produced during that time period.

The immediate reaction after 9/11 was the fear and distrust of “the other”. In this case, “the other” alludes to those of Arab or Muslim descent. In Doug Ireland’s “In These Times” article, it is stated that the media was “incautious” when it came to rushing to judgment and put blame on Muslims and Arabs, in general, for the attack. Clips of Palestinians on the West Bank celebrating 9/11 were put in constant rotation on News Channels and false news stories of potential Arab-looking terrorists were presumptuously aired. This paranoia lead to death threats against American Muslims, shots fired at Muslim communities, and racial profiling by authority figures. According to Ireland, this all happened within a month of the 9/11 attacks (Ireland, 2001).

Paranoia towards “the other” leaked into post-9/11 cinema such as “United 93” and “American Sniper”. In both of these films, everything is black-and-white. The Americans are depicted as “good” and the Arabs lack any sense of humanity. For example, “American Sniper” stars Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal who courageously puts his life on the line to defend his country. This memoir depicts Kyle as a broken hero best known for having the largest number of confirmed kills of any U.S. sniper. The film hardly touches upon the remorse that Kyle feels for murdering so many men and is determined on portraying the late Marine as a hero. As A.O. Scott’s film review touches upon, the movie feels like a classic Hollywood fable of good vs. evil and treats every Arab in the film to be a murderer. A child has to be sniped down for attempting to blow up an American tank, another child picks up a RPG and almost fires it and a harmless looking woman calls men to take the American soldiers down. Every Arab in this film is a bad guy, which hurts the realism of the film. Kyle’s main antagonist, another sniper, is cartoonishly evil, rarely speaks and is in the film to be an evil terrorist bent on killing Americans. As the New York Times pointed out in their review, “’American Sniper’ can be seen as an expression of nostalgia for (Bush’s) Manichean approach to foreign policy. It can equally – and this may amount to the same thing – be seen as upholding the Hollywood western tradition of turning complicated events and characters into fables and heroes” (Scott, 2012).

“United 93” is another film that dilutes the 9/11 attacks into a basic good vs. evil narrative. The film takes place in the United 93 flight that was hijacked by terrorists, but due to the selfless passengers who fought them off, thankfully never reached its destination. However, the film is problematic in many ways. When “United 93” first started showing in theaters in 2006, an article entitled “Muslims fret over reaction to ‘United 93’” was published in the Easy Bay Times. In this article, Safaa Ibrahim, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations stated her concern on how the film could possibly “stir-up anti-Islamic sentiments” (Jones, 2006). This is because the film perpetrates fear against Arabs and Muslims as their only representation in the film are terrorists. The film doesn’t educate potentially ignorant viewers that not all Muslims are radicalized terrorists. This visceral and disturbing film even prompted a couple to hurl insults at Muslim viewers after one of the showings (WND, 2006). As demonstrated by films such as “American Sniper” and “United 93”, media created after 9/11 reflects the fear and paranoia that white America felt towards “the other” during this time and the bigotry towards Muslims that was sparked by the attacks.

This fear pushed the American government to call a war that lasted more than a decade entitled “The War on Terror” to put a stop to terrorist groups in the Middle East and those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The war persists today and has now become the longest in U.S. history and also one of the deadliest, as thousands of young men and women have been killed. Although troops were pulled from Iraq, many still reside in Afghanistan and are still fighting in this endless war.

Due to the bloody, aimless war commenced by the Bush administration, many people also started to feel distrust towards to U.S. Government and its military. Many people went from feeling patriotic and ready to serve to feeling weary of the Government’s actions in the Middle East. The war has been questioned by many popular films, disturbing documentaries and enlightening articles throughout the years. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” film is the most notable example of a film dismantling the Bush Administration and its War on Terror. The most memorable sequence in this eye-opening documentary depicts Lila Lipscomb, an incredibly patriotic woman with an American flag hanging in her front-yard and a strong support of the Army. However, when her son is shot down while in a Black Hawk helicopter serving in the war, her entire outlook on the conflict changes. This feeling is heightened when she receives his final letter written before his death stating that Bush’s war is pointless. Lipscomb’s change of heart serves as the emotional core of the film and represents America as a whole turning on Bush and the War on Terror.

Another documentary dispelling the war in the Middle East is the disturbing “Dirty Wars” film by Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill. The film shows the aftermath of many questionable U.S. army operations that lead to several civilian casualties and the destruction of many homes. The most memorable sequence covers the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki. After disapproving of America’s attacks on civilians, he became a terrorist. Not only is he assassinated, but so is his innocent 16-year old son. He is not killed because of the crimes he committed, but the crimes he may commit in the future after being raised by a radicalized terrorist. This realization disturbs Scahill and causes him to really question the lengths the American army is willing to go to put a stop to terrorism. The film flips the narrative on the war and asks the audience “are WE the real terrorists”?

People also began to become weary in the government after to the rise of the surveillance state. After 9/11, U.S. intelligence grew through web surveillance and phone tapping. These precautions were put in place to keep citizens safe, but eventually led the same citizens to fight back. In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked the the Government’s violation of privacy laws, the expansion of the surveillance state, and exposed its large budget (Green, 2017). This paranoia has led to many films that channel Orwellian’s “Big Brother is Watching You” cynical attitude of government fearing.

The Bourne movies are an example of high-grossing paranoid style political action thrillers that grew in popularity during the mid- 2000’s. The film stars Matt Damon, a highly skilled CIA agent who uses his vast skillset to take down corrupt agents of the American government and exposes the CIA “as an all-powerful bureaucracy that can track anybody, anywhere, and is comfortable wiping out journalists, innocent bystanders, and even its own agents in the service of dubious war-on-terrorism aims” (Douthat, 2010). The Wachowski Brothers also contributed to the paranoid action thriller subgenre with the highly-influential “V for Vendetta”. The film follows the pursuits of V, a vigilante driven to put an end to the government’s totalitarian regime, which as taken control of the media and the curfew. V trains Evey, a woman V saves from government henchmen, to rise up against the oppressive authority. Both “Bourne” and “V” allude to the paranoia many citizens in the US felt after feeling lied to about the pointless War on Terror and discovering the horrifying truths about the country’s booming surveillance state.

Many films, television programs and documentaries created after 9/11 showcased the paranoia that people were feeling after the attacks and after feeling betrayed by their own government. As time went on, media focused less on xenophobic power fantasies and more on anti-government paranoia. Not only could American citizens not trust “the other”, but they couldn’t even trust their own government.

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