Twenty years is both an eternity and the blink of an eye.
To be 20 years old in America means you're eligible to enlist in the Army, but also too young to remember the event that cleaved our nation into its defining pre- and post- eras. Twenty years is long enough for shows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City to be revived, but also not yet long enough to numb the surprise at seeing the Twin Towers appear in their early-season opening credits. Twenty years is long enough, also, for critics to attempt to pin down what the events of that clear, late summer day in New York City meant for our greater culture: the novels that were subsequently written, the TV shows that were scripted, and the endless superhero movies, with all their unsubtle Manhattan fight scenes, that were shot.
But 20 years have not, in fact, been long enough for many American directors, writers, and musicians to mature past their patriotic knee-jerk reactions quite yet — which is why, two decades on, we are still waiting on a seminal piece of 9/11 art.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Though great art can, on occasion, be born in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event — John Steinbeck, for example, wrote his Dust Bowl opus Grapes of Wrath within half a decade after the start of the Oklahoma drought — it often takes decades to properly process the implications of a national tragedy. Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory arrived 39 years after the start of World War I; Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line arrived 57 years after America's entry into World War II; and even Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, perhaps the greatest historical novel ever written, wasn't published until nearly half a century after Napoleon's invasion.
It could still be 30 years yet before the United States comes to terms with 9/11 in a more meaningful way than the patriotic flag-waving that ensued in its immediate aftermath — and maybe even longer. That's not to say there hasn't been good art addressing September 11 in the intervening years: Bruce Springsteen's The Rising from 2002, Steven Spielberg's sci-fi allegory War of the Worlds from 2005, and Cormac McCarthy's dystopian novel The Road from 2006 come to mind as stand-outs of this quasi-movement. But at the same time, Springsteen's revenant idealism already feels outdated in light of the decade of divisions and jingoism that followed, as well as the disappointingly short-term memory our nation has had for the first responders; War of the Worlds is not free of the kind of toxic xenophobia that unfortunately continues to define this decade; and The Road was only indirectly inspired by the attacks, and not to the point that it offers an alternative interpretation of the 9/11 narrative the U.S. has otherwise written for itself.
The most visible effects of 9/11 on culture have been in action and superhero movies. There, though, writers have relied on overly-simplified tropes of good vs. the evil "other," repeatedly "returning to this idea of intimate cataclysms, resolved through a small band of heroes saving the day," Emily VanDerWerff wrote on 9/11's 10th anniversary for Vox. "Many of these films conclude with battles of earth-shaking import that seem to ultimately boil down to one city, where the destruction rains down. There's something so personal about it." She added rather optimistically that "superhero movies will not be dominant forever," though as recently as this past December, socially conservative movies like Wonder Woman 1984 continue to push a propagandistic portrayal of the U.S. military that wouldn't have been out of place in 2002. "[W]hat with all the unhinged nationalism and creeping fascism in these movies," The New Yorker wrote in its own review of the film, "life, lately, imitates art."
That art remains so reactionary these 20 years later proves we're still living through "the 9/11 era," and therefore unable to process it with the benefit of distance. Indeed, a new poll published Tuesday found that 53 percent of Americans hold unfavorable views toward Islam, marking a "mistrust and suspicion of Muslims" that perhaps didn't start with 9/11, but was "dramatically intensified" by the attacks, The Associated Press writes. Likewise, former President Donald Trump's Muslim ban stemmed from the same Islamophobia that caused him to openly lie about seeing "thousands of people" in a "large Arab" community in New Jersey supposedly cheering when the World Trade Center came down. And only this month has the U.S. military finally retracted itself — against the stubborn objections of many in the media and government elite — from its two-decade-long war in Afghanistan, an unmitigated disaster and embarrassment that calls into question America's self-righteousness after the towers fell.
The future promises art that more fully captures how the incomprehensible tragedy of 9/11 also bred the ugliest version of American patriotism, what a decade of pointless war does to a nation's psyche, and how the greatest existential threat to our country isn't to be found overseas but is in fact homegrown. It may just take many more years of consequences before we finally have the hindsight to piece it all together.
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.