Creating a History of 9/11

Today marks the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Since the attacks themselves, many Americans have vacillated over how to commemorate the events that killed roughly 3,000 people and inflicted billions of dollars in damages. Just as important, the consequences of these events have had a global reach and affected innumerable people. In this sense, the war on terror, which includes the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and ongoing operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, was a direct consequence of 9/11. Any discussion of those events is bound to elicit emotional responses, particularly as the attacks are relatively recent.

As historians, we want to explore the subsequent events of 9/11, efforts to commemorate those who lost their lives, and ask how certain groups have effectively created a history of 9/11. Is it possible to create a history of 9/11 that does not involve American policy in the Middle East? To what degree has 9/11 changed the course of history? Is the period in which we currently live an aberration in the history of geopolitics or was 9/11 part of geopolitical continuity?

The 9/11 Memorial, which continues to build its permanent collection consisting of oral histories and artifacts associated with the attacks, is one way to create a history of events. Museums offer one means by which history can bring us comfort, a way to rehabilitate a region or group from a traumatic event. When historians and the public speak of reconstruction and rehabilitation, few realize that this process consists of rehabilitating one’s history and culture. History is then as much involved with the present as it is the past, and historians are partly responsible to help facilitate and expand discourse of the attacks and their ongoing influence in world affairs.

The global reach of the 9/11 attacks was both immediate and strong. From the perspective of security – individual as well as national – parts of the world are today vastly more complex. Airport security was virtually revamped in a long but quick process that continues to impact travelers as well as the travel security industry itself. The impact of 9/11 on security extends far beyond travel into the personal as well. Today questions of personal privacy quite often intersect with issues of national security, and a string of events the world over have brought into question the role of government in surveillance and oversight.

Creating a history of 9/11 is further complicated by conspiracy theories which attribute the planning and execution of the attacks to parties other than al-Qaeda. Many theories have claimed that some high-level U.S. government officials were aware of the attacks in advance, while others have gone so far as to suggest and show evidence that the attacks were planned and executed under direct order from Washington. Generally speaking, historians do not engage in or with conspiracy theories. But a history of 9/11 would be incomplete without an exploration of the impact that conspiracies have had on how the events are remembered and recorded. Considering that a current Google search of 9/11 lists numerous conspiracy-related links, it would be irresponsible to ignore conspiracy theorists and their continuing impact. This does not mean that those who engage with the history of 9/11 should accept or reject conspiracy, but rather that we interpret conspiracy as part of an expansive and diverse continuum.

A history of 9/11 must also consider the role of the human body. Bodies have long intrigued scholars interested in history, but mostly as abstract vessels through which other topics have been explored. But recently some historians have begun to engage with the body as a research tool to better understand embodiment and materialization, where the body itself is defined not as a conduit for change but as maker (and unmaker) of change itself. As it relates to 9/11, we must understand that bodies make and shape history. This means recognizing the presence of bodies (alive and dead) in all efforts to reconstruct and rehabilitate. Both body and mind are shaped by the human condition, and our methods of remembrance must take these factors into account.

Some historians operate under the premise that history ends the day you’re born, where, for example, an individual born in 1980 should not study and/or write about events which occurred after that date. Under this premise, persons having lived through 9/11 might be unable to offer an objective history of the events. Complete objectivity cannot be obtained, but historians nonetheless push back against some elements of the human condition that impede our efforts. As our regular readers will attest, Clio’s Current does not operate under such a premise. We are more than comfortable with our ability to offer historical perspective on recent as well as past events, peoples and issues. We attempt to understand the limitations of our own abilities and to discuss those limitations within a diverse and ongoing contextual discourse. We recognize that no work of history is perfect, so we strive to diversify our content and provide our readers with insights that may otherwise be overlooked. This means pushing the bounds of ‘history proper’ and engaging in continuous discussion and debate. The history of 9/11 should be explored accordingly, where all opinions have the ability to add to our collective understanding. Speak up and join the discussion.