When 19 al-Qaeda hijackers flew four commercial airliners — one crashed following an attempt by heroic passengers to regain control, one plowed into the Pentagon and two rammed New York’s Twin Towers — it seemed the world sat glued to a million different TV screens. After the first report, I ran home as crowds stared at the news in bars, restaurants and bodegas. Reflected off those screens, it looked to me like New York City was filled with hundreds of burning towers.
The surreal moment had a truth. September 11 was instantly split by political ideology into many 9/11s. But the one that ended up defining the past 20 years was the right wing’s version. “Never forget” may be the slogan, but the right “never forgot” 9/11 because it never remembered it correctly. The national trauma of Ground Zero became a call to fight. Since they do not see people of color as citizens or even human, the “war on terror” transformed into a war on democracy.
The Two 9/11s
Here in New York, smoke rose from Ground Zero, carrying the ash of over two thousand people into the sky, and grieving families lit candles near photos of loved ones, buried under a mountain of debris. On the left, 9/11 was partly understood as the inevitable blowback of U.S. imperialism. On the right — and in many cases, in the center — it was portrayed as an attack on “Western civilization.”
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Coming back from volunteering at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center where I helped organize relief supplies, I saw a man talking to a large crowd. “You can’t bomb the whole world,” he pointed above their heads, “and not expect it to come back at you.” Three months later, Seven Stories Press published 9-11 by Noam Chomsky, explaining the al-Qaeda attack as blowback from U.S. foreign policy. Chomsky said, “In much of the world the U.S. is regarded as the leading terrorist state.” In the pages, he cited U.S. state terrorism against Nicaragua, its support of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon that left 18,000 dead and the arms shipment to Turkey to slaughter Kurds. Chomsky explained 9/11 was caused by U.S. arming Islamic fundamentalists in the 1980s in order to create an “Afghan Trap” for the Soviet Union. When Osama bin Laden saw U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia, he sought to overthrow the client state to create a pure Islamic caliphate. In 2004, bin Laden released a video saying inspiration came from the U.S. backing Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. He said, “While I was looking at these destroyed towers in Lebanon, it sparked in my mind that the tyrant should be punished with the same and that we should destroy towers in America.”
After the Twin Towers fell, the far right’s version of 9/11 crystallized; the enemy was not fundamentalists but people of color and non-Christians whose existence undermined the U.S. from within. The motif of the “internal enemy” deepened the further right one went. Some on the right blamed 9/11 on its victims, implying that many marginalized New Yorkers deserved to die.
“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, ‘you helped this happen,’” Rev. Jerry Falwell said on Pat Robertson’s show “The 700 Club” on September 13, 2001. Falwell saw terrified New Yorkers, covered in dust, through an ideological lens of Christian nationalism that made them into the “sinful” who caused this suffering.
His vision differed only in degree from neo-Nazi reactions to 9/11, monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracked respect for al-Qaeda. In one post, Rocky Suhayda of the American Nazi Party said, “It’s a DISGRACE that in a population of at least 150 MILLION ‘White/Aryan’ Americans … we provide so FEW that are willing to do the same” — essentially calling for neo-Nazis to commit similar acts of terrorism.
For the settler-colonial complex, difference is danger, and enemies are everywhere. This type of thinking pervaded the right and center-right response to 9/11. It also led to Trump’s presidency. It led to the January 6 attempted coup at the Capitol. And it fuels the ongoing right-wing attempts to destroy democracy to save white supremacy.
Circle the Wagons
“Islam is peace,” President George W. Bush said. “These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent war and terror.” The speech took place at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., two weeks after al-Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people. The goal, according to the Bush administration, was to prevent vigilante violence against Muslim Americans and show what “compassionate conservativism” meant. On the ground, the FBI reported that in 2001, there were 481 hate crimes against Muslims, a wild spike compared to years before. Three people were killed. Many, many more were targeted, discriminated against in the workplace and in schools, and singled out for extra airport security. Racist violence not only targeted Muslims, but also racial and religious groups perceived to be Muslim.
This violence made the red in the American flag look like blood. 9/11 did not cause new racism but released what existed under the surface. The United States is a settler-colonial nation in which European colonizers attempted to replace Indigenous people through genocide, and enslaved millions of Africans to create massive wealth. Murder cleared space to erect a permanent state and a racial vocabulary to justify the violence. Each generation inherited the mythology through popular culture. The common theme was that Anglo-Saxon America had to be safeguarded against threats.
It’s in our language, like the phrase “circle the wagons” which comes from the seizing of Native land in the West by settlers who rode wagons and circled them when they faced resistance. It’s in Thomas Dixon’s 1902 book, The Leopard’s Spots, in which Black men are portrayed as animalistic brutes, and in the 2018 film, The Quiet Place, where dark snarling creatures hunt a white family. It’s in early American captivity narratives and Western film showing whelping, “bloodthirsty” Natives, a motif analyzed in Reel Injun. It’s in popular culture’s portrayal of Arabs as “savage” and Muslims as “terrorists” — from Aladdin to Iron Man. What one repeatedly sees in this mythology is the white American being portrayed as a victim of violence inflicted by people of color.
The right-wing settler-colonial complex made 9/11 more than a tragedy — it was a trigger of paranoia. It hit a core and sensitive cultural trauma, defined by Ron Eyerman in his 2019 book Memory, Trauma, and Identity as “… a dramatic loss of identity and meaning, a tear in the social fabric, affecting a people who achieved some degree of cohesion.” Later, he explained that that trauma has to be “explained” through “public reflection” for later generations. The “tear in the social fabric” for the right was white bodies supposedly torn apart by Native people fighting the theft of their land, when outnumbered duringthe U.S.’s foundation. Added to that was the terror of enslaved Africans rising up in Nat Turner’s rebellion and in scores of smaller slave revolts. The settler colonial myth of people of color being violent to whites made 9/11 an existential crisis for conservatives, who continue to ignore how many working-class people of color died in the Twin Towers, like those memorialized in Puerto Rican poet Martin Espada’s poem “In Praise of Local 100.”
In the years that followed, history seemed to conspire to heighten that anxiety. President Obama was elected. During the campaign, fringe far right conspiracy theorists said he was not born in Hawaii but Kenya, and was a secret Muslim. Republican voters told then-candidate Sen. John McCain that Obama palled with domestic terrorists and one woman said he was “Arab.” Media personality and next president Donald Trump took “Birtherism” to new heights, demanding Obama present a birth certificate, stoking racial animus until finally relenting.
In the eyes of a colonial-settler mindset, Obama was the terrifying sign that whites would be “vulnerable” again and people of color would elect socialists to seize their property. Election night 2008 saw gun sales go off the charts. Over Obama’s two terms, pollster Cornell Belcher’s book, Black Man in the White House, tracked the rise of “racial aversion.” He said, “It was a predictable backlash to the first time the vast majority of whites — their political will did not have an outcome that they wanted.”
Fear and loathing bubbled under the surface, until again, Trump came in the 2015 presidential campaign and blasted it through the megaphone of his mouth. He warned of “rapist” Mexicans and Muslims as a “Trojan Horse,” and called for a travel ban on Muslims. He recycled 9/11 to stoke red state rage, saying, “There were people that were cheering, in the other side of New Jersey where you have large Arab populations, they were cheering as the World Trade Center came down.” It was a lie. It was believed anyway, though, because the right wing truly sees itself as a hapless victim of history.
The right’s use of 9/11 reached beyond Trump to the semi-intellectual sphere with Michael Anton’s essay “The Flight 93 Election” (referencing the plane where passengers fought the hijackers) in Claremont Review of Books. He warned that if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, Big Government would cannibalize civil society, open borders and flood the U.S. with hordes of “Third World foreigners” to lock in a permanent majority. (Unfortunately, Clinton’s agenda was in reality much more centrist.) Anton’s essay was a stylized take on the “white replacement” conspiracy found in the far right.
Again, the colonial-settler complex. Again, the fear of being overtaken. Again, the panic that the Natives and foreigners are winning. It led to panic at the 2018 midterms, when the initial members of The Squad (Representatives Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) were told by a weakened Trump to “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Trump came hard at Representative Omar, a Somali American and Muslim, with a video splicing footage of the burning Twin Towers with a speech she had given.
And then Trump lost. Encouraged by the bitter ex-president and led to believe an election lost meant they lost America, known on the right as “white replacement” in which people of color outnumber whites and seize control. It is a nightmare fantasy that drove a ragtag coup was attempted on January 6, 2021. Officers were wounded. Wild-eyed right-wingers fought with police. For those who ransacked the Capitol and the many who supported them, it was the climactic battle of 9/11.
Twenty years after September 11, President Joe Biden removed the last of the U.S. military from Afghanistan and the far right had an interesting reaction. The American far right praised the Taliban. On Telegram, an encrypted app used by neo-Nazis, cheers poured in for the Islamic fundamentalists as one post said, “If white men in the West had the same courage as the Taliban, we would not be ruled by Jews currently.” It is a similar sentiment to the one expressed by the far right when al-Qaeda first rammed planes in the towers and Rocky Suhayda said in response, “’White/Aryan’ Americans … we provide so FEW that are willing to do the same.” On the other side of the Atlantic, the European far right warned of an invasion of refugees from the collapse of the U.S. puppet government in Kabul.
The far right praised terrorists while paramedics, firefighters, construction workers and military tunneled through a mountain of rubble to rescue desperate people on 9/11. They pulled survivors out. They breathed in toxic dust that destroyed lungs. Some died of cancer.
They did that dangerous work in spirit of humanism. It is the same spirit that moved pilots and humanitarian workers to get fleeing Afghans onto planes as the Taliban closed in. It is the same spirit that drove the tireless work of activists over the past two decades. It is a vision that rejects the white-supremacy-structured foundation on which this country was built. The social movements that changed the face of the country ultimately make an appeal to our greater humanity, even if they begin with defending a specific racial group or gender or class. Racism still exists. The legacy of it is still seen today. But social movements are chipping away at that foundation, more and more each day.
The far right hates what the U.S. is becoming. It is possessed by a settler-colonial vision to protect a purity that never existed. The rest of us, the vast majority, have to take the true lesson of 9/11, during the crises that will come — climate change, more attempted coups by Republicans, economic meltdowns — to do what the first responders did and keep risking ourselves to make sure everyone gets out alive.