My wife never calls me at work unless it is important, so my heart beat a little faster as I picked up my ringing cellphone and answered.
“Airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers,” my wife said, her voice strained and terrified. “They think it was terrorists.”
It was September 11, 2001, a day that would forever alter the world.
I hope my children will never know how that moment feels. I hope they will never experience that gut-wrenching pit in the stomach, that terrible feeling that your world has somehow been ripped apart, that sure knowledge that everything you thought was safe isn’t, and that desperate scramble for news—any news—just so you knew something.
That day, my boss set up a radio tuned to an all-day news channel in the break room. We huddled around it as new words entered our vocabulary: Al-Quaida, Bin Laden, jihad. None of us got any work done. Later that night, during every break at school, I gathered with other students in the lobby, all of us staring numbly at a TV tuned to CNN. Few of us knew each other that night, fewer of us spoke, all of us were united.
It was a day I will never forget.
It was a day that changed us forever.
The long shadow of 9/11
Every year, on the anniversary, I think back on that day and the weeks that followed immediately after. For days, I walked around feeling sick and haunted. My dreams were filled with screams and fire and buildings crashing to the ground. I cried often.
Later, a simple analysis of how the 9/11 terrorist attacks helped propel the first Spider-Man film to record-breaking heights would launch me on an unexpected journey to document how that terrible day changed the way we look at and talk about superheroes. I spent four years researching comics and superhero stories, talking with fans and experts, and writing down my thoughts. I became an expert on the topic. The resulting book, The Superhero Response, even landed me a place on Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics on AMC (2017), which aired right after The Walking Dead.
Looking back, today, on the 17 years since the attacks, I can still see the long shadow of 9/11 and how it influences our culture, our popular media, our politics, and our every day life.
We must remember that 9/11 changed everything. EVERYTHING. The fact that it had such a profound impact on comic book superheroes is a direct reflection of the impact it had on us as a people.
On that day, a new enemy entered our worldview. It was an enemy that had always existed, the nameless, faceless terrorist who strikes out at the honest, upstanding people, but until that day, he had been an abstraction, a line from a news item in a country far away. On 9/11, he became real, tangible, and frightening. He found his way into the way we think and see the world. He was the Joker in The Dark Knight, an agent of chaos who struck out without rhyme or reason.
The truth of the terrorists was, in fact, much murkier than this terrifying vision suggested, but actions are governed much more by what we perceive than reality. So it was this shadow that drove our discourse and our politics. Whether we like it or not, it is this same shadow that drives much of what we do today.
Last week, in a stunning, unprecedented move, the New York Times published an anonymous op-ed by a “senior Trump administration official” claiming to be part of an inside “resistance” working to “thwart parts of [Donald Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations.” Whether you believe the op-ed writer is a hero or a hack or a fictitious creation, President Trump’s Twitter calls of “TREASON!!!” and of a Deep State conspiracy owe much to 9/11. After all, what is the difference between a terrorist who crashes buildings and one who thwarts governments from the inside. In fact, Kellyanne Conway, senior counselor to President Donald Trump, even said that she thought “the motivation [of the op-ed] was to sow discord and create chaos,” echoing the Joker’s call to "Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.”
The real reaction to 9/11
In the wake of 9/11, Ruth Serge, the creator of the Voices of 9/11 project, said that “The real reaction of 9/11 was to make everyone more human.” To some degree, I believe that was true. It bound us together in our human frailty. All of a sudden, we were not the invincible, unconquerable people we once believed. We were exposed and vulnerable to a hidden shadow, an agent of chaos. And worst of all, that shadow could be anyone.
The real reaction of 9/11 was to make everyone more human.
In the years that have followed, few would deny that we have become more and more divided as a nation. We once thought the attacks would bring us together, much the way Pearl Harbor brought together the Greatest Generation. The opposite has happened. We are more distrustful, more isolated, and more fearful than ever before.
Today, I saw a Twitter argument where the differing sides posted statistics about the other, some claiming that more than 50% of all Democrats believe Russians actively changed the voting numbers of the 2016 election to ensure Donald Trump’s victory while others claimed that more than 50% of all Republicans believed that millions of illegal votes were cast. The truth is that neither side has evidence that either occurred, but the mistrust and fear that someone else who believes something different is out to steal the country away and destroy our way of life runs so deep that we’ll believe just about everything.
It is so sad.
Toward the end of the first Spider-Man film (2002), the superhero finds himself in a precarious situation. Dangling from a bridge, holding onto a line attached to a cable-car filled with kids as well as his beloved Mary Jane, he can go nowhere as the Green Goblin races in for the kill. But then a miraculous thing happens: New Yorkers on the bridge above attack the Goblin with brick, rocks, and trash.
“You mess with Spidy, you mess with New York,” one of them yells.
“You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us."
It is the one scene that was added to the film in the wake of 9/11, a visual reminder of our initial reaction to the terrorist attacks. In the wake of danger, we pulled together, we comforted and lifted one another. The gut-punch feeling of those first few days faded as we came together as a country and vowed to work together to be better. Cracks quickly appeared, it is true, but for a moment, for one glorious moment, we were united. We were invincible. We were superheroes.
I believe we can be that again. I believe that, in spite of all the vitriol and partisanship, in spite of the wedges that have been driven between us by our fears and prejudices, what binds us together is far greater than what pulls us apart. It won’t be easy, and I do not have all the answers. I just know that it will be worth it.