From the Ground up

Artwork by Luigi Almuena

(This article was first published in print in issue 13 of the Philippine Collegian on 13 September 2012.)

As much as the world has moved on, it remains haunted by ­the spectre of fallen towers.

The attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, commonly referred to as 9/11, destroyed a 16-acre trade complex in New York City and killed around 2,749 people. After eleven years, the event still resonates in many Americans. .

The opening of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the Ground Zero site last year, as well as the completion of the One World Trade Center tower this year, brought renewed hope and optimism to the American nation, especially in light of its flailing economy.

This renewed optimism, however, comes at the price of racial and cultural rifts perpetuated by the American media, necessitating changes in the rhetoric of American politics and electioneering.

Phantom towers

Film and television have always been a means of propaganda, disseminating and fortifying certain ideologies by presenting recurrent images. Since 9/11, American media has produced numerous films and television programs that tackle the repercussions of the terrorist attacks.

After the attacks, producers edited out images of the Twin Towers from their films, wary of the possibility of inflicting unnecessary national trauma by the sight of the towers. While this seemed an act of sensitivity to the grieving public, it can also pass as denial that the attacks even happened. By erasing the image of the towers, American media allowed their nation a period of denial to deal with their grief and to cling to their waning perceived power.

More than a decade hence, deletions have been replaced by insertions, with the towers seemingly rising up from the ashes, standing tall and untarnished even in films and television shows that are set at present. Sci-fi TV programs like “Fringe” offer parallel universe scenarios where the terrorist attacks did not happen and the World Trade Center had not been destroyed. While these may serve as mere cinematic liberties, these also project US’ fantasy image of remaining untouchable even after the reality of the attacks.

The American media has been instrumental, not just in the coping and the rehabilitation of a grieving nation, but also in reflecting the country’s growing schizophrenia. As 9/11 commemorative stickers and banners scream “Never Forget,” outstanding media representations of Ground Zero hints heavily of denial and forgetting. However, as the American media perpetuates images of resurrecting towers, it also paints terrorizing portraits of the established “other,” reminding the nation to never forget its “true” enemies.

Infidels within

Since 9/11, the world has seen films and television shows constantly raising suspicion of terrorist plots against the US government. Muslim nationals from Arab nations are often portrayed as traitorous, bomb-toting extremists sent out to destroy key US cities and government institutions, with federal agents foiling their intricate plots before time runs out.

This skewed racial representation is the direct result of then President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” rhetoric, whose ambiguities set the conditions for heightened suspicion, paranoia, and racial intolerance. Most critics have described it as a “melodrama”, where a victimized America constantly fends off a villainous “other” threatening its moral values, freedom, and democracy. This dichotomy paved the way for the distorted condescension of “real Americans” and created resentment towards migrants, especially Arab and Muslim nationals.

Racial intolerance intensified after the 9/11 attacks, as non-white constituents immediately became suspects of terrorist activity. After 9/11, racial discourse in America intensified as it sparked debates about immigration, and the validity of racial profiling and stereotyping. Even Filipinos have become suspect to scrutiny due to our increasing presence in the United States and the color of our skin.

Bush’s “War on Terror” also entailed the capture of John Walker Lindh, an American enemy combatant found in Afghanistan. His capture inspired film and television shows like ‘Homeland’ which plays on the theme of “enemies within”, with American traitors infiltrating the CIA and the US government to initiate a terrorist plot.

Such media representations intensify paranoia and dissent, calling for round-the-clock surveillance and reportage, with every citizen made suspect, with every individual a potential terrorist. In turn, the US government aims to placate the growing mistrust and suspicion by changing their rhetoric to suit the needs of a post-9/11 world.

Moving forward

As the US national elections loom, television screens abound with red, white, and blue banners displaying familiar slogans and even more familiar faces, with President Barack Obama running for re-election against Republican Governor Mitt Romney. Through the slogan “Forward,” Obama urges the nation to leave behind the war-mongering rhetoric of the past administration while at the same time touting his regime’s execution of alleged 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

In his recent weekly address honouring the 11th anniversary of 9/11, Obama highlighted the death of bin Laden, the construction of New York City’s One World Trade Center, and the end of the war in Iraq as prime examples of “just how far [America has] come as a nation” after the terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, Romney and the rest of the Grand Ole Party (GOP) aim to revive religious Christian fundamentalism, waging a war against liberal policies and intensifying their campaign to return to conservative morality, as if in retaliation to perceived attacks on American culture and liberty.

The GOP leaders’ continued war against Muslims and Islam becomes apparent in their fear-mongering rhetoric and election campaign. Former GOP presidentiable Rick Santorum openly supports profiling Muslims at airports to prevent possible terrorist attacks. Herman Cain, also a former GOP presidentiable, likewise argued that banning Islamic centers in Tennessee does not constitute religious discrimination.

The GOP leaders still hold conspiratorial beliefs regarding the danger posed by America’s Muslim community. With Bush gone, a new generation of Anti-Muslim conservatives are waging an all too familiar war, tagging Islam as a “cult” and a “very violent religion.” Such distrust allows the New York Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to put certain mosques and Islamic centers under constant surveillance.

The terrorist attack on 9/11, comparable to the bombing of Pearl Harbour and atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is an act of extreme aggression that has changed the world forever. As America struggles to move forward, the rest of the world remain affected by their actions following that fateful day. As much as the Obama administration struggles to move past America’s futile “War on Terror”, the world has yet to forget and, perhaps, it can’t afford to. As it stands, one could only surmise the outcome of the coming US elections, with the phantom of the fallen towers casting a dark shadow on future administrations.

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