Placing 9/11 in its Historical Context a Generation Later

Curator's Note

There are certainly problems with conceptualizing history through divisions of time based on catastrophic or traumatic national events, such as often happens in discussions of the attacks of 9/11. Many at the time, including scholars, felt as though 9/11 had happened "out of the blue" (Versluys), but the events had origins in American foreign policy and events long brewing largely outside of public attention. The video clip above helps to establish a sense of the history that led up to the attacks of 9/11, even if it glosses over some important details, such as America’s level of involvement in these events. For instance, during the Soviet War in Afghanistan (1979-89), a Cold War proxy war, the CIA was one of the primary financial backers that helped arm the Afghan Mujahideen in their efforts to oppose Soviet forces in their country, only to withdraw this support in the early 1990s. This mujahideen would later, in part, become al-Qaeda, the organization who would claim responsibility for organizing the attacks on September 11, 2001.

For the most part, as Judith Butler laments, the attacks of 9/11 did not draw the American imaginary toward international concerns to become a “part of a global community” (xi), but instead brought about a traumatic concern with domesticity (Duvall and Marzec 384), recreating the myth of American exceptionalism from the Virgin Land that was ideologically unable to adapt to life after the attacks and the subsequent imposition of the Homeland Security State (Pease 155-168), one that better justifies state of emergency acts, such as invasive security measures in America and “violation[s] of individual privacy rights” (Takacs). This domestic turn inward urged the nation to intensify its contemplation on itself, and events like the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and a spiking increase in Islamophobia within our nation began to turn a critical eye on our own long-standing civil rights issues. While this inward turn in response to 9/11 may have cut America off from an opportunity to become a more involved and cooperative member of the international community, it did result in foregrounding real issues at home, such as the racial inequality now opposed by movements like Black Lives Matter, sexual harassment and assault now countered by the Me Too Movement, and the deep currents of white supremacy running through American culture that made headlines after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. In short, 9/11 was not an isolated and mysterious event, but one that exists among a continuum of historic events that have had a series of often unforeseen or unintended consequences both progressive and oppressive that still affect American culture and the world today.


Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 2004.

Duvall, John and Robert P. Marzec. “Narrating 9/11.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 57, no. 3, Fall 2011, pp. 381-400. Project Muse, doi:10.1353/mfs.2011.0069.

Pease, Donald E. The New American Exceptionalism. U of Minnesota P, 2009.

Takacs, Stacy. “Monsters, Monsters Everywhere: Spooky TV and the Politics of Fear in Post-9/11 America.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, March 2009,

Versluys, Kristiaan. Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel. Columbia UP, 2009.


Thank you, Nathanael, for this perspective! Reading your note and watching the video brought the following question to the front of my mind: what is the media's responsibility in reporting events? The media has more information at their disposal than a consumer. The media's owners decide what information to release, what frame to use to report any given story, what facts to keep behind the gate/to not release. Your note implies the (limited) perspectives consumers were given by the media in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 but also in the years that followed. The video you provide was released last year, giving a more recent frame. 9/11 media coverage permits us to trace the evolving 'conceptualization of history' over time.

In response to your question about the limiting framing of media coverage of 9/11, I couldn't help but think of that same thing when watching this video as well. It seemed to me that History, the makers of this video as originally aired on television, was catering to their predominantly American viewers, painting the history in a pleasing light to its primary audience. Really, all historical accounts are constructions of a particular narrative, one that by necessity leaves out some aspects, highlights others, and inteprets connections between events that denote a given (ideological) pespective. It always seem to me that, in the end, history shows us that no side is entirely innocent and that we all have blood on our hands. The question is, what do we do now? I would be most interested to see how the re-telling of 9/11 changes over the years to come.

I love that this submission illuminates a widely believed mythos....that the attacks of 9/11 exist in a vacuum where evil people attacked us "out of the blue" because they hate our freedom. As in most things, the nuance and detail is ignored when telling and retelling the story of this dark chapter. 

Tracing the genesis of the attacks of 9/11 back to multi-generational foreign policy doesn't require a leap of logic. However, most tellings of the even simply ignore it. Just as the mujahideen (Taliban) became a well-equipped and trained force thanks to American dollars and weaponry, so has the history of instability in the Eastern Rim of the Mediterranean been created by spheres of influence established in circa 1916.


To the victors of WWI went the spoils of the region. Large populations of influence were separated apart by borders drawn by the victorious powers dividing up the defeated Ottoman Empire. We have been there since forever...exerting our influence.

Thank you, Nathanael for this post; I'd like to keep thinking about the possibility of a genealogy that links the post-September 11th inward turn you described and subsequent movements for social justice. It's a claim that strikes me as counterintuitive but perhaps a reason for optimism.

Turning to consider the artifact you chose, and in light of your comment that the piece elides American support for the Taliban against Soviet troops, I find myself wondering whether such a partial history is better than nothing, or if it might, in some ways, be worse.

Earlier today, I was teaching about discourse analysis in my senior seminar, and we were talking about the notion of 'truth effects,' the way that various actors claim authority for the knowledge that they produce and circulate.  Although we didn't talk about 9/11 - now I'm wishing we had - I found myself reflecting on that discussion as I was watching that video.  

Looking at this clip, and reflecting on Monika's question about media responsibility, I was struck by the use of things like maps, archival footage, and dates to anchor the narrative and give the impression of trustworthiness.  Even as it is narrating the historical precedents for September 11th, this video is also demonstrating how 'history' is made.  Given its high production values and heavy traffic in the usual signifiers of historical truth, I wonder about the consequences of its omission of the crucial American element in the history of the Taliban.  (Parenthetically, I was also struck by the narrator's incredulous tone of voice when she reported that being beaten and tortured "only strengthened" Zawahiri's extremism.)  The narrator's admonition at the end, about the government's failure to appreciate history and so to anticipate the attacks, further solidifies the impression that this story is complete and definitive.  

Given that we are increasingly teaching students who know September 11th only as history, if they know it at all, the question of accuracy and completeness in our accounts becomes more urgent with the passage of time.  

I completely agree with your concern about the cultural legacy of 9/11. Inevitably, it seems that all historical accounts are both partrial as in limited and partial as in biased, whether intentionally or unintentionally. My question is more to ask to what political ends is the narrative of 9/11 being retold in order to support? How will it be retold in the future? Is this the political work we want its legacy to effect? What can we do to change the cultural legacy of the attacks of 9/11?

Hi Nathanael,

You make such an important point about the context 9/11 resided in.  However, I think for a lot of people it really did come out of the blue - or the preceding events didn't seem connected enough to be directly related.  It is interesting how we absorb and work with the constant flood of political and current events information from the media - what sticks, what we connect, what we forget, etc.


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