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Joy, Grief, and Disillusion

by Prof. Dr. Jessica Gienow-Hecht

№ 7/2021 from Sep 13, 2021

Prof. Dr. Jessica Gienow-Hecht, author of "Sound Diplomacy. Music and Emotions in Transatlantic Relations, 1850-1920", with a very personal piece on the September 11 attacks. The author ponders on what the impact of "9/11" means for US-Americans' perception of freedom and security, for the marginalization of a specific minority in U.S. society, and whether it has triggered a national sell-out of liberal values.

Woman looking out of the window at Top of The Rock, New York City

Woman looking out of the window at Top of The Rock, New York City
Image Credit: Joshua Newton on Unsplash

I know exactly where I was, on September 11, 2001, at 9 am. I was working on a manuscript pertaining to transatlantic relations prior to World War One. My desk stood in an old, rickety home, located on a peninsula on the North Shore, near Boston. The weather was gorgeous: a beautiful morning, in the distance the ocean waves sparkling the way they only do in the early fall. And I remember that I was profoundly happy: Next to my desk, in a swinger, our first daughter was sound asleep. She had just been born, and I could not imagine being more at peace with the world than I was on that morning.

I cannot say why I turned on the TV. What a grave decision! Live, I watched the shocking pictures of the second plane crashing into the World Towers, people dying, buildings burning, everyone at a loss to explain. I could not find a way to bring that shock together with the emotions I had had, just seconds before.

The impact of September 11 generated an enormous amount of patriotism, unity, but above all: an unprecedented display of public emotions in U.S. society, unprecedented at least in my lifetime. There were public tears, vigils, demonstrations, songs, moods, all focusing on “United We Stand”. My mother told me on the phone that none of her friends asked about her youngest grandchild any more: everyone talked about the attacks on the World Trade Center. The collective trauma was not just the event itself, but the fact that there had not been any international attacks on U.S. American soil in nearly 200 years. Wars tended to happen, increasingly, in distant places with unspeakable names that most U.S. Americans would have been unable to locate on the map.

Since then, I have often thought about what September 11 meant, really, for the way we feel about freedom and security, and whether it triggered a national sell-out of liberal values. Liberal societies always live with the tension between freedom and security. The more secure people feel, the more freedom they are willing to grant and exert. The less security there is, perceived or for real, the more they are willing to curtail those freedoms in the name of security. The irony remains, of course, that such curtailments typically cite the very values they suppress, as a rationale for tightened security measures. That is, in essence, the story of the Patriot Act of 2001, stipulating torture, detainment without trial, data control and extensive surveillance measures. Some of these stipulations have expired. Most have remained in place, if under a different name.

It’s not just September 11 that has changed U.S. society, notably its understanding of liberal values. It’s the way U.S. politicians have reacted to the events and the majority of the American people have complied. As a result, the image and reputation of America has been irrevocably altered and, indeed, tainted. Both domestic groups and international partners eventually refused to go along with successive invasions starting that fall. German defence minister Joschka Fischer’s exclamation vis-à-vis his U.S. colleague, Donald Rumsfeld, became a symbolic rallying cry for an entire generation’s disillusion: The recognition that U.S. foreign policy remained illiberal even if it touted liberal values including women’s rights and the right to vote abroad.

This morning, a radio station asked me if September 11 had created a rift in U.S. American society, notably with an eye to the Muslim population. That, of course, is not the case. The origins of the division of U.S. society, much talked about in recent years, go back hundreds of years. It entails the enslavement of millions of African Americans, the genocide of Native Americans, the marginalization of everyone who was not white, male and Protestant. Still, September 11 has highlighted the fate and position of a specific minority in U.S. society, integrated it deeper into the public civil rights discourse but, also, rendered it much more vulnerable to outside slurs, attacks, and defamation.

In February 2002, a U.S. tabloid ran a story on the partners of 9/11 victims who had since given birth. One of these was Baraheen Ashrafi from New York, whose husband had served as a waiter in the Windows on the World restaurant. She gave birth to a son, two days after the attack. In the article, she recounted the consolation of motherhood but also many instances of discrimination, often based on her traditional dress. “The unprecedented mixture of joy and grief they are dealing with,” the editor who invited the women, recounted, “really brings home the overpowering nature of the tragedy.”

My own daughter has grown up since then. She is now 20, has three younger siblings, worked in Southeast Asia, is frequently in the US, and is off to college this fall. My manuscript on the role of emotions in transatlantic relations has long appeared in print. I kept the tabloid with the stories on the widows of 9/11. And sometimes, I take it out and look at Baraheen Ashrafi and the impossible mixture of joy, grief, and disillusion sparked on that day, lingering on.

Prof. Dr. Jessica Gienow-Hecht is a Principal Investigator at SCRIPTS, Head of the Research Unit "Borders" and Professor of International History at Freie Universität Berlin.