Legacies — 9/11 and the War On Terror at Twenty

Edited by Jay N. Shelat

Introduction: Legacies — 9/11 and the War on Terror at Twenty

Jay N. Shelat

The 9/11 Commission Report and the Limits of the Bureaucratic Imagination

Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

Culture War on Terror

Matthew Mullins

Texturizing 9/11 in the Flat World: Screen Culture, Endless War, and the Literature of Terror

Liliana M. Naydan

Saturday, Witnessing, and the Cultural Logic of Rehabilitation

Bassam Sidiki

Girls Like Us

Hannah Boast

In Poetry’s Field: 9/11, Forever War, and Growing Theory

Amish Trivedi

Pattern Recognition: The Enduring Whiteness of 9/11 Literary Studies

Jay N. Shelat


September 11 has an afterlife. Merely experiential, historical time does not tell the full story. Time acquires a spectral dimension. The collapse of the towers is not their true ending.

Kristiaan Versluys, Out of the Blue

The tragic collapse of the Twin Towers sent the U.S. literary establishment into a spiral. Traumatized and confused, writers took to media outlets to convey their grief and to speculate how the nation and the world could emerge from the smoldering ruins of catastrophe. Authors felt the need to provide clarity to the tragedy, but they relied on rash and angry rhetoric that fueled the general sentiment of disbelief. Dominant authorial concerns with 9/11 have been largely white and tend to represent the attacks without precedent or antecedent. Instead of historicizing and contextualizing responsibly, these initial responses by critics, authors, and artists alike exceptionalized the United States: how on earth could America be attacked? For example, Martin Amis angrily argued in favor of the United States countering with profound violence that "should also mirror the original attack in that it should have the capacity to astonish," yet should remain "non-escalatory" in nature.1 Given this startling non-logic, it seems 9/11 popped a bubbling penchant for Western vengeance. Let's consider for a moment the reality of Amis' proposed mirroring. These are the casualty figures in Afghanistan alone since the start of the War on Terror in 2001, according to the Costs of War Project from Brown University. As of 2019, six US Department of Defense civilians have died, compared to 43,074 Afghani citizens. More numbers: Since 2001, 2,298 US military members have died in Afghanistan, and 42,100 Afghani "Opposition fighters."2 Calculating the differences in these numbers, these lives lost, these victims of senseless ceaseless war, would only tell us the actual escalatory nature of the invasion.

In a different and albeit slightly more confounding vein, Ian McEwan presaged the National Book Award nominated 9/11 Commission Report (2004) when he observed just four days after the attacks that the terrorists' crime was "a failure of the imagination" and that the victims' defiance was "love."3 A charitable reading of McEwan's argument sees him making the point that the inherent response to tragedy on such a profound scale is an attempt to unearth hope in defiance of perceived senselessness; this, however, risks rehearsing platitudes in response to tragedy.

One thing is clear in these two telling examples: both Amis and McEwan refuse to imagine why the attacks occurred, specifically not engaging the worldwide perception of the United States and its interventionist policies, its imperialistic consumer culture, and its self-appointed role of worldwide police force (even before 9/11), and how this all adds necessary context to the attacks. It seems that anger and trauma eschew contextualization. This cluster, then, argues that such interpretations of the attacks are myopic. In each essay, this cluster's contributors show how we must turn to the past to grasp the present by historicizing and contextualizing cultural avenues that have been shaped by the attacks and the Forever War. Doing so limns how cultural realms expose the imperial endeavors that precipitated 9/11 and inspired the war.

As this cluster also shows, writers since the 2000s have tended to be much more critical of the United States and many indeed contextualize responsibly. Books, stories, articles, threads, posts, and countless other forms of media now convey the horror and trauma of the Forever War abroad and divulge the racist attacks people face domestically in the Age of Terror. While my frustration with rash "hot takes" by literary superstars is obvious (in addition to Amis and McEwan, we might consider John Updike's and Tom Clancy's fictional responses), I do think the need for writers to step forward as chroniclers of our time to find the heart of the matter reveals narrative's exalted position in times of trouble.4 According to Kristiaan Versluys, narrative addresses "the need to understand, the need to 'place the event.'"5 However, it is this kind of trouble, moral panic, uncertainty, emergencythe need to order the chaosthat Erica Edwards asserts, "[makes] periods."6 Periodization, she helpfully reminds us, is "a cloak for imperial warfare and suicidal isolationism" that "[mystifies] racial formations," and the post-9/11 era, at least to me, represents this very cloak and mystification.7 September 11th was the bloody-fingered dawn of a new age.

This kind of historical rupture is hard to parse. On the one hand, it's true: the world fundamentally changed after the attacks, marking noticeable shifts in policing, security, warfare, and other material facets of life. On the other hand, however, centering the United States as the world's axis is "insular and naïve" and bolsters its imperial projects.8 Indeed, American invasions of the Middle East were as traditional as apple pie by 2001 and the euphemistic moniker "War on Terror" continues to excuse and temper the imperial violence abroad. This ambivalence surrounding periodization signals the weight 9/11 and the Forever War carry in the cultural and literary landscape. Throughout this cluster, we see a widespread yet quite specific concern with 9/11, the War on Terror, and the routine invasion of the Middle East as prompting exigent desires for narrative solutions, seeming to suggest a new cultural era contoured by attempts to render sensible the post-9/11 era.9 The afterlife of 9/11 manifests in cultural and material ways that shape our world today. The American government, moreover, stridently treats 9/11 as a shift. According to Ben Rhodes, a former deputy of national security advisor to Barack Obama, a sign that reads "EVERY DAY IS SEPTEMBER 12TH" hangs in the innermost recesses of the CIA.10 This sign props up 9/11 as a lodestar, clearly severing the before from the after, and it notates how the attacks provide historical clarity about America's past, present, and future. Though, more than anything, it motivates and justifies imperial violence abroad. The sign tells us that in the eyes of the government, we will always live in the shadow of no towers.

September 11th as the start of the Age of Terror necessarily provokes a question about the limits of the era. When does September 12th end? Recent legislation from the Biden administration seems to gesture towards an end to invasion, a major contributing factor to what we know as the post-9/11 period. On April 13th, 2021, President Biden announced the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan by the twentieth anniversary of September 11th. The anniversary seems a symbolic moment to end the imperial invasion whose goal has been "to punish Osama bin Laden and his Qaeda followers."11 Yet, as soon as American troops began to leave Afghanistan in mid-August, the Taliban seized the nation and catalyzed a humanitarian crisis. Thousands seek refuge, and the United States has yet to acknowledge the imminent refugee crisis it helped create. The swiftness of the Taliban's reinstatement to seats of power highlights the United States' spectacular failure to nation build and revitalizes the importance of understanding the imperial contexts under which the Taliban was formed. It seems the last 20 years fighting terror have been for naught.

In addition to the backfiring of removal, in a bipartisan vote, the House of Representatives repealed the Authorization for Use of Militarized Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002. Almost two decades and hundreds of thousands of deaths later, it seems that the futile invasion of Iraq too is swept under the rug with empty admissions of regret. It is clear then that the Forever War lives up to its name; it's not over by a longshot, despite these legislative moves. When we consider the devastation wrought in the Middle East because of imperial might, we recognize that its alarming ramifications now define the lives of millions. This is particularly true for the millions of refugees displaced by the ceaseless fighting and invasions in the name of liberation. Such provocations afford an understanding of the legacy of 9/11 and the pulls of the attacks' influence. 9/11 shows us how quickly hegemonic history can cordon off periods of time into a before and after. While providing an in-depth answer about the end of the post-9/11 era goes beyond the purview of this cluster, the essays here begin to parse the complicated ways in which 9/11 and the War on Terror resonate in the literary sphere two decades later.

Over the last 20 years, we continue to see the ramifications of 9/11 domestically, and we also see how the Forever War, with its uprooting imperial energy, affects innocent noncombatants in the Middle East. But two decades of books, essays, threads, op-eds, Breaking News, and other forms of writing about the attacks and their enduring aftermath have accorded critical insight to fully scrutinize contemporary historical and literary legacies. This cluster surveys the literary response to 9/11 and the War on Terror twenty years later and tracks some of the most notable changes in such rejoinders. In this cluster, you will find essays that take up the immediate cultural aftermath of 9/11 and the start of the War on Terror. In a chapter excerpt from her book Epidemic Empire, Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb reads The 9/11 Commission Report as an instance of diagnostic rhetoric used to paint a dichotomy between a healthy white United States and a sick Brown world. Matthew Mullins coins the phrase culture war imperialism and studies two Christian nationalist novels Mission Compromised and The Jericho Sanction by Oliver North to show how this type of popular fiction bolsters an "us" versus "them" ethic; North does this by deploying the imperialist language used to promote the War on Terror and to also fuel a culture war in the United States. Expanding outward to consider the buzzword of the century, "terror," Liliana Naydan speculates how digital devices and media play into and bolster the notion of terror, and how literature can texturize hegemonic attempts to smooth out the narratives that have emerged in the wake of 9/11; she also ends by drawing fruitful connections between 9/11 and the COVID-19 crisis to presage the inevitable proliferation of COVID literature and its relationship to American national identity.

Pieces in this cluster also articulate more recent responses to the War on Terror and how the literary imagination speaks to the international tensions that mounted in the early to mid-aughts. Juxtaposing Ian McEwan's Saturday and Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad, Bassam Sidiki notes how disability studies an underutilized theoretical approach in 9/11 studies limns the concomitant missions of national rehabilitation in Iraq and the subjective rehabilitation of the terrorist into "normal" citizens. Hannah Boast considers the notion of proper neoliberal citizenship as an ideological weapon in her investigation of the Israeli Defense Forces and the mandatory conscription laws that require women to serve time in the army; situating this service requirement against the justification that the invasion of the Middle East was meant to "liberate" Muslim women, Boast articulates how the pop cultural phenomenon of women IDF fighters indexes Islamophobic and imperial rhetorics.

Two essays in this cluster interrogate how 9/11 shapes higher education and the field of contemporary literature at large. Amish Trivedi examines the ways in which 9/11 and the Forever War enter academic departments and in particular literature classrooms: these emergencies are used to worsen preexisting problems of the Program Era by giving administrative and political justification to the ongoing defunding of public education. Finally, I survey seven 9/11 literature monographs and attempt to get to the bottom of why scholars of contemporary literature still privilege white authors in their studies of the attacks.

These papers especially take into consideration the global reception of American empire, how the Forever War speaks to a history of violence endemic to the nation, and the literary reaches of these violent projects. Considering the reception of 9/11 and the War on Terror over the last 20 years through literature, social media posts, academic trends, and other mediums, the papers here offer fresh, urgent perspectives on the Age of Terror and its cultural significance.


  1. Martin Amis, "Fear and loathing," The Guardian, September 18, 2001.[]
  2. Neta C. Crawford and Catherine Lutz, "Human Cost of Post-9/11 Wars," The Watson Institute, November 13, 2019.[]
  3. Ian McEwan, "Only love and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set against their murderers," The Guardian, September 15, 2001.[]
  4. Quite possibly the most infuriating and prevalent of these hot takes comes in the form of John Updike's profoundly racist novel Terrorist. Genre fiction superstars like Tom Clancy also present problematic literary responses to 9/11 that not only exceptionalize the United States but also paint prejudiced and stereotypical pictures of Islam.[]
  5. Kristiaan Verlsuys, Out of the Blue: 9/11 and the Novel (Columbia University Press, 2009), 4.[]
  6. Erica R. Edwards, "The Incessant War," Post45 Contemporaries, September 11, 2020.[]
  7. Ibid.[]
  8. Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb, Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror 1817-2020 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 290.[]
  9. Neither the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting in France nor the 7/7 bombing in London provoked the overwhelming scale of response that 9/11 did, especially as both were represented as extensions of the historical break that 9/11 catalyzed.[]
  10. Ben Rhodes, "The 9/11 Era is Over," The Atlantic, April 6, 2020. []
  11. Helene Cooper, et al, "Biden to Withdraw All Combat Troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11," The New York Times, April 13, 2021.[]

Past clusters