Remembering 9/11

James Fitzgerald

[This piece accompanies ‘Forget 9/11’, which is published in Critical Studies on Terrorism and can be found here (open access).]

The twenty-year anniversary of 9/11 was always going to be a major event. The day itself marks an event in the truest sense; a jarring incision into the organic flow of culture and politics that marked the ‘real’ end of the 20th century and created a new temporal and political distinction between ‘pre-9/11’ and ‘post-9/11’. The annual tradition to re-excavate the trauma of that day—through well-meaning and important acts of remembrance—rightly recalls the memories of lives lost in both tragic and heroic circumstances. Similar tributes to lives lost in ‘Srebrenica’, ‘Bloody Sunday’ (and other tragedies of violence distilled into place, name and time) speaks to the enduring importance of memory and conflict, particularly at a time when facts are being routinely decoupled from the truth and the loose re-articulation of ‘real’ events has become such a potent political/cultural phenomenon. Little wonder that Holocaust chroniclers reflect on this slippage with increasing dismay (see Gorog, 2019; Bloomfield and Schneider, 2021): should the refrain ‘never forget’ shift from an imperative to an aspiration, history warns of a high price.

All the same, one should not discount the price to be paid in remembering traumas. True, the innumerable commemorative projects that surround 9/11 preserve the importance of the event (and its victims), but they also imbue it with a sense of singular significance (see Jarvis, 2021) that can warp our appreciation of its more banal, deleterious effects.1The success (and iconography) of the attack was unprecedented, the logic (Jihadist/anti-modern) was not; an act of perceived self-defence against an “occupying power” is a history as old as terrorism itself, so too an overreaction on the part of the attacked state—in this case, launching the disastrous War on Terror. It is in this spirit that James Der Derian attributed the essence of 9/11 not to the astonishing sight of crumbling towers, but to its ahistorical affect—the inevitability that the film of original shock could never be revisited without “funnelling the experience through the image of American exceptionalism” (2002). Per Der Derian, to recall this exceptionalism—which is ingrained in tributes to 9/11—is to also recall the bogus dichotomy that lay at the heart of the War on Terror; it is to reanimate the neo-conservative ethos that defined Jihadist terrorism as an existential (and external) threat to America’s definitive values of self—neatly encapsulated in its signifiers ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’. The political discourse of the War on Terror left little room for nuance and in the stark ‘us versus them’ frame that hinged on an already-realised worst-case scenario of ‘9/11’, the threat horizon was soon jacketed around those who might become responsible for another 9/11: that is to say, Muslims; those who did not quite belong to a post-traumatic sense of American—or Western—self.  

Countless studies confirm the creeping effect of xenophobia and hate crime centred on Muslims not only in the aftermath of 9/11 (see Nacos et al., 2011; Lajevardi, 2021) but in the aftermath of other Jihadist attacks (in the West) that are typically threaded back to Ground Zero. Performative displays of solidarity—such as lighting the Eiffel Tower in French colours following the Paris attacks (Nov. 2015)—reinforce an original sense of liberal cosmopolitanism but this can only be sustained by re-treading a familiar good Muslim/bad Muslim narrative in which determinations on either side are judged by the presence or lack of violence (see Mamdani, 2004). And so, when President Hollande delivered his commemorative remarks in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, he need not have mentioned 9/11; the fundamental arbiter of the modern ‘bad Muslim’ is already locked into the contemporary terrorism-threat vocabulary and cannot but be inferred: “This is a terrible ordeal which once again assails us. We know where it comes from, who these criminals are, who these terrorists are.”

In the post-9/11 environment, ‘knowing where the threat already comes from’ does not merely function as a perversely reassuring platitude, it also encapsulates the preventive logic of counterterrorism that has rapidly expanded in the past twenty years. Built on a professionalised ethos of “never again”, post-9/11 counterterrorism quickly spawned the Prevent/Counter Violent Extremism (P/CVE) industry that cut its teeth—and continues to draw significant funding—on its mission to prevent the ‘radicalisation’ of predominantly young Muslim men into those who would commit violent acts of terrorism (Kundani, 2011, 2018). This narrow focus has created substantial blind-spots and sure enough, CVE initiatives to counter far-right violent extremism have been typically underfunded and fewer in number than those focused on Jihadi violence (ibid). This schism does not square with the empirically observed threat emanating from far-right terrorism, which, since 9/11, lays claim to more deaths in the US and Europe than Jihadist terrorism (Bjorgo and Ravndal, 2019). The threat appears to be growing too. The most recent Global Terrorism Index report (2020), for example, records that while there was just one recorded far-right terrorist attack in 2010, this compares to 49 in 2019, a year in which 82% of all terrorism-related deaths in the West were attributable to far-right attacks (ibid, p. 62). Far-right terrorist attacks in the West have increased 320% from 2014 to 2019 and in an environment where the demonisation of Muslims as ‘others’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘unwanted migrants/Refugees’ (see Fitzgerald, 2017a, 2017b) helps to sustain a sense of purity among the far-right (narratives that lie at the heart of various right-wing terrorist manifestos, including those penned by Anders Breivik [Oslo, Utøya, 2011] and Brenton Tarrant [Christchurch, 2019]), we are reminded of the inherent dangers in continuing to recycle the horrors of 9/11 and the familiar Orientalist narratives that it unleashed.

When we look back on the twenty-year anniversary of 9/11, we should mark it as anything but a day of triumph. Having announced his intention to withdraw all remaining troops from Afghanistan on 11 September 2021, US President Joe Biden’s clumsy attempt at pathos spectacularly backfired, as the desired symbolism of ‘victory’ was supplanted by a more fitting iconography of chaos and human tragedy. The scenes of the evacuation left little doubt that Afghanistan finds itself no better off after twenty years of the US-led War on Terror; the United States (and by extension, the West) similarly diminished by self-destructive violence. Speaking on 9/11, Jenny Edkins argued that although we, naturally, rush to pay tribute to death, “memorialisation takes a variety of forms…[i]t can reclaim the dead either as political beings or as bare life.” (2003, p. 246). As a desperate Afghani man fell from the wheels of a departing US military plane in late August 2021, it is difficult not to see his death as being anything but political and bare: one more sacrifice to the original event—another ‘falling man’ and another senseless victim of post-9/11 geopolitics.


Dr James Fitzgerald is Assistant Professor in Terrorism Studies at the School of Law and Government and Founding Director of the Erasmus Mundus International Master in Intelligence and Strategic Studies (IMSISS).

Previously co-convenor of the BISA Critical Studies on Terrorism Working Group (2013-2017), he specialises in applying political theory to dynamics of terrorism and political violence (and vice-versa). He is variously published in top-ranking journals, including Critical Studies on Terrorism and First Monday and his current research focuses on ontologies of terrorism and intersections of conspiracy with political violence and ‘radicalisation’.

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