September the 11th, as a political era, lasted approximately ten years, beginning with the attack itself in 2001, and ending with the massacre of left-wing youth in Norway in the summer of 2011.
It progressed in three stages: first, a period of Islamist aggression and Western shock, followed by an era of wars in the Middle East and Islamist retaliation, and finally a broad social and intellectual reaction against Islam in Europe, America and various other affected regions.
For these ten years, Islam was never far from the minds of anyone with a taste for politics, or simply for reality. A foreign religion, once rarely considered deeply outside of specialist academia, dominated the Western news cycle. There was hardly a day when it wasn’t mentioned.
The whole decade was like a movie; explosions, beheadings, tanks, protests, philosophical screeching, warring interpretations. September became everything. For millennials like this author, it defined our development, shaking us out of our youthful disinterest in all things serious.
My initial reaction to the attack was liberal, if not leftist. I gobbled up books by the likes of Noam Chomsky and William Blum, short-cutting my way to the conclusion that America had in some way ‘asked for it’. I was shocked by the extent of America’s past interference in the Middle East, the Western sponsorship of the Saudi police-state and the black helicopter autocracies in Egypt and Jordan. Why were we doing this to people so far away? For oil? How immoral.
That this was an over-simplification became clear several years into the decade, at university, where I came into contact with British Muslims. They were bolshy and serious. They advocated reactionary ideas about gender, sexuality and religious choice, completely (and ironically) in conflict with the worldview I had embraced in their defence.
I was seized with a terror of being trapped with such people. I imagined dystopian scenarios in which they formed a majority. My politics flipped.
In America, though with far less demographic urgency, millions were introduced to the same fear and the same confusion. Why were there any Muslims anywhere in the West? They were swimming against every positive current, commanded to do so by a faith that could never be reformed or questioned as a matter of doctrine. Then came theories of a Muslim conquest of Europe by prolific reproduction, and America hardened still further.
The effects on Americanism during this period are particularly interesting in light of current issues. Having suffered an attack by a completely foreign culture, for completely alien motives, America’s racial system was radically (though temporarily) unsettled. Black Americans were lifted from the bottom of the racial hierarchy, replaced by Arabs, Muslims and anyone resembling them. For much of the decade, a very pure kind of civic nationalism thrived on the American right, with dissensions from the likes of Pat Buchanan (now very much back en vogue) relegated to the far fringes. Black and Hispanic people were more comfortable than ever in identifying as conservative, and were welcomed as such, given their relative patriotism and relative harmlessness. Indeed, America’s traditional minorities all enjoyed a new warmth within Republican circles primarily due to this kind of comparison.
Arabs and Muslims were beheading hostages and blowing up trains for exotic theological ideas completely unrelated to reason. They wanted to enforce laws forbidding miniskirts and porn, music and alcohol, sport and hot dogs. By comparison, blacks and Hispanics, despite their flaws, were essentially benign. Black people made catchy music. They served in the military and killed America’s enemies. Hispanics liked carnivals and girls in bikinis. In a war of modernity against medieval darkness, all who were on the modern side, even primitively, were suddenly native everywhere modernity prevailed. If you were OK with naked women and pork, you were a patriot enough. (Similar weird shifts in right-wing priorities later occurred in Europe.)
Buoyed by this new acceptance, some black and Hispanic Americans, and also LGBT Americans, strode into areas of right-wing society they once felt were too hostile for them. Muslims were the new blacks, the new fags, the new antithesis of America, and not a few minorities were comfortable with this transformation.
The new emphasis of the mainstream Western right played a significant role in the election of Barack Obama in 2008. The greater acceptability of blackness in light of anti-Muslim sentiment meant that much of the popular anxiety the black candidate aroused was wasted on absurd theories about the senator’s religion and middle name. (Recall for illustration the old woman warning John McCain that Obama was an ‘Arab’).
But this could never last.
America wasn’t Sweden, let alone Lebanon, and though great effort might have been expended to keep them so, the inhabitants of suburban Illinois could not remain convinced that ISIS and al Qaeda were the greatest threat to their physical and cultural security.
In time, as the “smoke and dust” of 9/11 faded from popular memory, replaced in vividness and urgency by nearer hazards like Chicagoan gun fights, BLM and swelling illegal immigration from Mexico, people shifted back to traditional American anxieties about race, suburbia, history and the status of black people.
The alt-right subculture idiotically promoted by Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election represented in part a restlessness among right-wing youth to get away from 9/11-ism and return to broader themes of race and identity.
It may be counted as part of the historic character of the Trump phenomenon that it marks the beginning of true post-9/11 politics.