Baylor Expert: 9/11 Reshaped Every Aspect of American Life – Not Necessarily for the Better
English professor, culture expert says terror attacks damaged America, but it’s not too late to recover sense of purpose and generosity
WACO, Texas (Sept. 10, 2021) –The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon continue – 20 years later – to have profound effects on everything from America’s political, religious and cultural polarization to American entertainment choices, said Baylor University faith and culture expert Greg Garrett, Ph.D., professor of English.
“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that an event that shook our sense of security and our identity would be reflected in every aspect of American life,” Garrett said. “But what does surprise and alarm me is the degree to which 9/11 continues to shape our attitudes about race, religion, immigration and the Other, whether that Other is in Afghanistan or just across town. The United States initiated a perpetual war against terror in response to the 9/11 attacks, and the fear that took root in the American psyche has proven difficult to shake.”
Garrett, author of more than two dozen books, is internationally recognized as an expert on faith, culture, race and story, and he argues that the reaction to 9/11 can be measured just as much through literature and culture as through accounts of executive orders and covert military operations.
Country music, procedurals and reality TV after 9/11
“Initially, Americans supported the War on Terror across political, religious and cultural lines,” Garrett said. “Country musicians like Toby Keith leaned into militant songs about American greatness and righteous revenge. The top-selling act the Chicks (then the Dixie Chicks) was drummed out of country music for their public stand against going to war. The TV show 24 reflected the growing darkness of America’s extra-legal approach to that war—the willingness to use torture, rendition and the opening of a dark site in Guantanamo Bay to house suspected terrorists—and it actually shaped opinion and policy as it grew in popularity and influence.”
Two other types of television shows became extremely popular as a result of 9/11, Garrett said. Procedurals (shows such as CSI, Law and Order and House, M.D.) gained a new popularity because they offered viewers something the ongoing War on Terror never could or will: closure.
“A serious problem was introduced in every episode, grappled with and solved by the end of an hour,” he said.
Another type of show that leapt in popularity in the months and years following the attacks – reality shows – offered “train-wreck escapism,” Garrett said.
“The contestants on Survivor and The Bachelor, and the wayward souls on Jersey Shore and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, presented exaggerated versions of our present moment that allowed viewers to forget about the dark actuality of the times,” he said.
Springsteen, Harry Potter and critiquing ‘moral failures of the War on Terror’
Not all popular culture offered reinforcement or escapism, Garrett said, adding that some of the most powerful pop culture from 2001 onward critiqued the “moral failures of the War on Terror and critiqued the American people for so readily accepting them.”
“Punk rock, always a prime medium for protest, was one of the earliest forms of dissent,” Garrett said.
Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot reached the top of the charts in the United States and 18 other countries, ultimately selling 16 million albums. But mainstream acts like Bruce Springsteen also asked complicating questions about the attacks and their aftermath.
“After primarily offering empathy and comfort in The Rising (2002), Springsteen realized that America had betrayed many of its most important ideals, as revealed by songs like ‘Your Own Worst Enemy’ on the No. 1 2007 album Magic,” Garrett said. “Later novels in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the most popular fictional narrative of all time, introduce questions of torture and terror, and powerful TV dramas like Battlestar Galactica and the British import Doctor Who also criticize the choices made by the American government and its allies.”
Zombies and the Apocalypse
Perhaps the most significant byproduct of 9/11 in our culture is the resurgence in apocalyptic stories such as 28 Days Later, Sean of the Dead, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, World War Z and The Road, Garrett said.
Stories about the Zombie Apocalypse – whether in games, books, comics, TV or movies – asked serious questions about what it means to be human, and about what moral compromises a person might be willing to take to stay alive, Garrett explained. They also reflected the new 24/7 sense of encroaching menace that “seeped into our culture and lit up our phones at all hours of the day and night.”
“You could fight all day every day against this menace, these creatures who look like humans but seek your destruction. And then the next morning, you still have to rise and confront it again,” Garrett said.
‘Not too late’
“People 20 years ago said that 9/11 changed everything, and so it did.” Garrett said. “But 20 years later it is not too late to recognize that the fears those attacks brought to the surface don’t have to be the way we continue to live. In my faith tradition, Jesus constantly admonishes his followers not to be so afraid. We make bad and selfish decisions out of fear. We abridge hospitality, compassion and liberty when we believe we are endangered. That’s not the America I grew up in, and it’s not the America in which I hope to die. That America, the light of the world, the city on a hill, Lady Liberty lifting her torch to welcome all, is the America that our founders dreamed, and that we can dream once again.”
ABOUT GREG GARRETT, PH.D
Greg Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor of English at Baylor University and Theologian-in-Residence at the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Paris. An award-winning professor, Garrett has written about 9/11 and its aftermath in a number of books, including One Fine Potion: The Literary Magic of Harry Potter (Baylor University Press), Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse, and A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation (both Oxford University Press).
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 19,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.
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The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s largest academic division, consisting of 25 academic departments and eight academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit baylor.edu/artsandsciences.