In the past 12 years since the catastrophic attacks on September 11, 2001, portrayals of the attacks and their aftermath have been repeatedly depicted through a variety of cultural mediums, ranging from memoirs to television news stories and especially film. All these representations are powerful in their own ways, but how many movies need to be made before 9/11 and its aftermath change from a global tragedy to a commercial fetish? Furthermore, do these films help society heal or does it just perpetuate hatred?
French theorist Guy Debord argued that, due to a growing consumerist culture and the proliferation of mass media, “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation”. In other words, Debord believed that the image had become central in contemporary society and had supplanted human interaction. In relation to films about 9/11, I believe that, whilst watching a film about the attacks could be somewhat cathartic, the process of fully healing is not complete through watching a film. And since mass media is indeed paramount in contemporary culture and film is utilized as a means of escape, movies about 9/11 have been used as healing mechanisms, but have failed to work. If anything, the proliferation of films about 9/11 and its aftermath has made the tragedy a consumerist commodity.
There are not many films centered on the attacks themselves, but many more about the aftermath ranging from the light hearted films such as Spielberg’s The Terminal, which explores the reality of firmer airport security in the post 9/11 era, to Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me, in which the main character is struggling with the psychological trauma of losing his family in the attacks. Two prominent films that focused on the attacks themselves were Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and Paul Greengrass’ United 93. Some films just happen to mention 9/11 for the sake of it, like Allen Coulter’s forgettable Remember Me, which is a painful (to watch) love story that ends with Rob Pattinson being in one of the towers on September 11. The most recent and controversial film belonging to this category is, of course, Zero Dark Thirty. The problem is not that there are films centered on 9/11; Hollywood has made countless films on other traumatic times in American history, such as the Vietnam War and Pearl Harbor. The problem lies in how these films perpetuate fear and hatred so many Americans harbored following the attacks.
Zero Dark Thirty has garnered a mix of critical acclaim and criticism, but just because it was not a celebratory narrative of Osama Bin Laden’s death, does not mean that it has not encouraged Islamaphobic reactions within the general American public. A collection of tweets that are circulating the internet are demonstrative of this.
One that particularly struck me simply stated, “Watching Zero Dark Thirty and there is an Arab family sitting behind us. #Sketched.” Another, much less subtle said, “Zero Dark Thirty makes me want to shoot Arabs with assault rifles.” If you ask me, any film that invokes this kind of response should not be celebrated in the way it has been. It is not art if it encourages this kind of response.
Two years ago, I was at a Magnum Photos event where war photographer Peter Van Agtmael was unveiling some of his unseen photographs from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interestingly, a great deal of the photographs included were taken when he was already back from photographing the wars. He related a story about how when he was back he had trouble sleeping at night, so he would stay up watching TV, and inevitably would see a commercial late at night selling 9/11 commemorative coins. He also recounted how uncomfortable it made him feel walking around New York City amongst people who seemed largely unaware that the country was at war.
When one walks by what used to be the twin towers in New York City, it is impossible not to notice how the site has now become the epitome of consumerism, with 9/11 memorabilia such as twin towers souvenirs being sold in the stalls nearby. This is not to say that we should simply forget what happened, but while the damage both physically and emotionally that resulted from the attacks is greater than I can explain in words, the subsequent damage the United States sought to evoke in retribution has not resulted in a healed society.
It does not take the reproduction of 9/11 through commercial commemorations and films to seal what happened into collective consciousness. The reality is that American society will never forget what happened, it’s impossible. However, this constant commercialization of the attacks has resulted in remembering what happened and forgetting what happened after. When those people tweeted about their resulting hatred of Muslims after watching Zero Dark Thirty, they remembered 9/11 and simply forgot the destruction their own country has wreaked worldwide as a result of those attacks. They have forgotten that the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush cashed in on the horror of 9/11 in ways that are incredibly disrespectful to the thousands who lost their lives that day. On the wake of the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death, they forgot the insurmountable hurt they felt when footage of Afghans celebrating 9/11 was released, and decided to essentially have a frat party outside the White House. Even IHOP was giving out free pancakes the following day.
Collective political memory is powerful, but in this case the commercialization of 9/11 has led one of the most influential nations in the world to transform into a fear mongering and hate inciting force.