Ten Years After 9/11, It’s Still Good Guys Vs. Bad Guys

Even as a young person, I was more interested in the gray areas than in good versus evil.

In announcing Osama bin Laden’s death, President Obama invoked a simpler time in our country when we all rallied together in the wake of national tragedy:

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family… [T]onight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11.

A New York Times article a few days later talked to young people who grew up in the shadow of that event and celebrated bin Laden’s death in the streets. It describes some of the celebratory scenes that broke out that night:

In Washington, college students spilled in front of the White House chanting “U.S.A! U.S.A.!” and puffing cigars. In State College, Pa., 5,000 students waved flags, blew vuvuzelas, and sang the national anthem and the chorus to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Cheering students jumped into Mirror Lake at Ohio State — as they do with big football games — and swelled the Common in Boston.

The young people in the article say their jubilation at his death is due to the black and white outlook September 11th gave them. “The attacks were the first time they had considered that people in the rest of the world might harbor ill will toward Americans,” the article says. “The experience established the world in polarities of black and white, with Bin Laden being the new emblem of evil.” Neil Howe, a writer and historian, told the Times that for my generation, “Evil is evil, good is good. There are no antiheroes, there is no gray area. This is a Harry Potter vignette, and Voldemort is dead.”

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But my experience of that time and the years since has been significantly different. I was in my senior year high school English class when I was told that planes had hit the World Trade Center. What President Obama remembers fondly as unity, I remember as a time filled with blind uber-patriotism that was just barely covering deep grief and confusion. While the Times talked to students who felt the 9/11 attacks split the world into stark black and white relief, for me it became even grayer. It did indeed make me think about the fact that there were people in other parts of the world that hated Americans — but that only prompted me to ask why. How could people so far away hate what America represented that they would want to kill so many of us? Hate us so much that they would give their lives to kill us? What had we done to create an image of ourselves in that part of the world that was so despicable? I lived in that gray area, trying to understand what it said about our country and our relationship with other countries, while everyone else I knew waved flags.

That was what felt so uncomfortable about the “unity,” which translated into stars and stripes plastered along every surface, chants of “USA! USA!,” and singing the national anthem. It was a way to not have to think about the complexities and tough questions that the event brought up. Chris Hayes saw this most clearly manifested in the huge rise in the use of the term “bad guys” after 9/11. “‘Bad guys’ was a phrase that channeled our rawest emotions in the wake of 9/11, emotions that we collectively mythologize,” he wrote recently in The Nation.

To sing the national anthem, to put your hand on your heart, to fly the flag from your window, felt right and comforting, as if we could find collective refuge in this new and terrifying but refreshingly simple world we had suddenly come to inhabit — a world in which we were attacked, a world in which we must defend ourselves, a world in which bad guys were out there and wanted to do us harm.

It was that thirst for a world in which we were good and the others were bad that led to our entrance into a war in Afghanistan to seek revenge, he writes. And it was a desire for things to be simpler than they really were.

I found myself feeling that discomfort once again as I watched people pour into the streets and proudly shout, “We got the bastard!” after the announcement of bin Laden’s death. It furthers the “bad guyism,” as Hayes puts it, that kept us from questioning ourselves as a nation in the aftermath of the attacks. There’s no sense in telling people how they should feel in reaction to such an important event. Emotions rightly range from somber to relieved to joyful. But it’s the way we talk about it in public, the way we come together as a nation to experience it, that says something about how we think of ourselves in relation to the world. We’re still the good guys. And anyone who questions that is a bad guy.

Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0.