Where I was on 9/11 is irrelevant, so I’ll spare you. Where I was at the exact moment the United States declared war on Iraq, though, is perhaps worth sharing.
Like many spring breakers in late March of 2003, I was at a Daytona Beach nightclub. Around 10:30 p.m. or so, the DJ faded out the music—probably Bone Crusher’s then-inescapable “Never Scared”—and announced to a dance floor of drunken, sunburned teenagers that we were now officially at war. (Or more so, anyway.) Right after sharing this information, as U.S. forces carried out their first air strikes in Iraq, the DJ dropped the needle on Outkast’s “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad).” The crowd lost its collective mind, dancing ecstatically to an antiwar song that recent events had now rendered eerily literal.
That moment was emblematic of the way pop culture had twisted and contorted in the carnage of 9/11 and its aftermath. Existing material was suddenly imbued with new meaning, and projects in development had to be recontextualized or reconsidered altogether. Jackie Chan seemed prescient, in a positive way, for delaying the start of his ultimately scrapped film Nosebleed, about a window washer working at the World Trade Center; rap duo The Coup seemed prescient, in a negative way, for the ultimately scrapped cover art on its November 2001 album Party Music, which depicted the Twin Towers mid detonation.
It would take many years, however, before anyone could gain enough distance, information, and perspective to see the full cultural impact of 9/11. Many remember things like the Freedom Fries moment and the wave of searching war movies, from The Hurt Locker to American Sniper. But there are plenty of other cultural consequences of 9/11 that most people have either forgotten or never heard about in the first place.
The assumption of fragility
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the major TV networks aired four straight days of nonstop commercial-free news coverage, forfeiting about $200 million worth of advertising in the process. Some channels, like The Food Network and HGTV, stopped airing programs altogether, with a title card onscreen instead expressing sympathies for the deceased. Pretty soon, though, a lot more was missing than ads and some shows.
Clear Channel Communications, which has since rebranded as iHeartMedia, developed a list of 164 songs it deemed too upsetting for airplay in the wake of 9/11. The company sent a memo to all of its 1,100+ radio stations, strongly urging them to avoid these tracks. While it’s easy to see why songs like “Bodies” by Drowning Pool and Soundgarden’s “Blow Up the Outside World” might have made the list, less clear is the necessity of keeping Rage Against the Machine’s entire discography off air—and the decision to remove The Bangles’s “Walk Like an Egyptian” feels borderline racist.
Over on TV, executives similarly concluded that Americans were too fragile to handle violent content at this time. TBS shelved movies like Lethal Weapon, for instance, in favor of family-friendly comedies like Look Who’s Talking. More broadly, the powers that be decided Americans needed to be sheltered from any reminder of the 9/11 attacks—despite the fact that most people could think or talk about little else. Networks cut the word “terrorist” from TV versions of films like E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and Back to the Future, NBC edited out a Friends joke about bombs at the airport, and the very concept of terrorism had to be stripped from the hotly anticipated video game Grand Theft Auto 3. Cable networks altered films featuring destruction in New York City—including both 1998 meteor movies, Armageddon and Deep Impact—along with any imagery of the World Trade Center, which was also excised from upcoming films like Spider-Man and Maid in Manhattan. (Spider-Man director Sam Raimi also then added an enjoyably corny moment to his film, celebrating New Yorker solidarity.)
One of the changes that best represents the nascent concern for consumer sensitivity, though, arrived in the 2002 thriller The Bourne Identity. Director Doug Liman ended up doing reshoots on the Matt Damon vehicle to make sure the CIA would not be seen as the film’s villains. Such an outcome, after all, might make the team behind The Bourne Identity appear to be the worst thing anyone could be perceived as at the moment: anti-American.
Cancel culture, 9/11-style
A popular rejoinder to conservative complaints about cancel culture is that conservatives once canceled the Dixie Chicks. As the story goes, the pop-country trio now known simply as The Chicks spoke out against George W. Bush in 2003, announcing at a London gig that they were “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” They were then met back home with canceled show dates, radio boycotts, and CD-destroying parties. But this band was just one example of the opposition to American dissent, post-9/11.
One of the first and most public examples was Bill Maher, then host of ABC’s late-night debate show Politically Incorrect. On his first episode after 9/11, Maher took exception to the common framing that the terrorists who attacked America had acted cowardly. “Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly,” the host said. The blowback was instantaneous and intense, and even though Maher apologized soon after, ABC canceled Politically Incorrect. (Jimmy Kimmel Live! was created to take the show’s place.) In a speech denouncing Maher, and accurately summarizing the national mood, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer noted that, in times like these, ”people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.”
Anyone who didn’t watch what they said could be assured that others would be paying attention. A pair of college professors who were critical of President Bush’s actions on 9/11 were summarily dismissed for their remarks. The Baseball Hall of Fame canceled a 15th-anniversary celebration of the movie Bull Durham in 2003 after its stars, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, voiced opposition to war in the Middle East. (The president of the Baseball Hall of Fame later expressed regret for the decision.) Finally, also in 2003, veteran TV host Phil Donahue was fired from his MSNBC show because, as an internal memo summarized, his show had become “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
MSNBC executives back then had no idea of the network’s Rachel Maddow future. But they sure understood which way the wind was blowing at the time.
The patriotism Olympics
While dissent had essentially become verboten, jingoistic exhibitions were strongly encouraged. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the world of sports.
The first mass public assembly after 9/11 was the WWE’s Smackdown, which aired on September 13, live from an American flag-festooned arena. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball would remain shut down for four more days, making it the longest pause in the league’s history since World War I. Baseball came roaring back, though, on September 17, with a Mets vs. Pirates matchup—and some notable changes. Both teams wore the Stars and Stripes on their uniforms, with the Mets donning caps inscribed with NYPD and NYFD rather than their own insignia. More consequentially, an assistant media relations director with the San Diego Padres suggested replacing the standard seventh-inning stretch song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” with the more solemn “God Bless America.” The commissioner of the MLB liked this idea so much, he mandated it for all teams indefinitely. The song remains a special-occasions MLB standard to this day, with both the Yankees and Dodgers still playing it at every game.
Despite no direct correlation between patriotism and sports, similar displays sprang up nationwide, far beyond baseball. During a football game the second Sunday after 9/11, between the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings, sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Academy unfurled an enormous American flag across Soldier Field, upping the patriotic ante. After winning a NASCAR race that same day, Dale Earnhardt Jr. carried a large American flag around the track, a gesture most race winners repeated for the rest of the 2001 season. Flag fever had taken hold. In fact, as the New York Times later reported, a cottage industry of enormous flag makers soon emerged just to accommodate demand from sporting events, which culminated in a 2008 All-Star Game appearance of a flag as long as a 15-story building. All sporting events had seemingly evolved into the Olympics of Patriotism.
Propaganda for the whole family
In October of 2001, acting on behalf of the FBI and the White House, Fox’s long-running hit America’s Most Wanted aired a Friday night special episode on the “Most Wanted Terrorists.” Pretty soon, messages supporting the war effort, warning of future terrorism, and recruiting for the army began to appear everywhere. A recent viral twitter thread, for instance, showed off the Disney Channel’s post-9/11 efforts at incepting some rah-rah spirit in its tween audience. The station’s Express Yourself shorts, featuring a stable of young stars like Hilary Duff, started airing in January 2001, before taking on an explicitly patriotic bent after 9/11.
It was an odd fit for an audience too young to have meaningful consent manufactured for them, but no more odd than some of the era’s other efforts at televisual messaging. Shortly after 9/11, the U.S. State Department ordered a $15 million public relations campaign called the Shared Values Initiative. It was designed to show the rest of the world that America was a welcoming and friendly place for Muslims—even as bias, intimidation, and worse against Muslim Americans ran rampant. Madison Avenue advertising legend Charlotte Beers was recruited to direct a series of short films promoting individual success stories in what became known as the “Happy Muslim” campaign. The project was an utter failure, abruptly discontinued not long after it began.
Then there was Enduring Freedom: The Opening Chapter, an optimistically titled short film that followed U.S. Armed Forces fighting the War on Terror. The $1.2 million short played before the feature presentation in 4,000 theaters across the country for about one month in the fall of 2002, before cinema chains pulled the plug. Although theater owners claimed the short had simply run its course, and was taking away valuable advertising space from hot trailers, some viewers found it to be tacky propaganda for a war effort they didn’t yet know would ramp up further in the spring.
Lest military officials worry about enough young people being moved to enlist, however, the Army had also just released America’s Army: Operations, a free PC game it spent millions creating, with the express purpose of recruitment.
A lot of other attempts to foment support for the war effort were more subtly packaged, however.
The government feeds Hollywood
The 2002 short film Operation Enduring Freedom: The Opening Chapter, detailed above, was the direct result of a hush-hush meeting the previous fall between government officials and Hollywood executives. Led by President Bush’s most trusted adviser, the Republican strategist Karl Rove, and attended by the likes of HBO’s Chris Albrecht and CBS head Les Moonves, the meeting was openly in service of creating an “arts and entertainment task force” to support the War on Terror.
It’s unclear how many of the meeting’s attendees actually acted on it, but some of the impact appears traceable. CBS’s CIA-set series The Agency was created in 2001, but by fall 2002, the show featured plot lines about Iraqi defectors leading CIA agents back to their homeland to identify weapons sites. During its highly rated seventh season in the spring of 2002, CBS’s naval-based hit JAG suddenly found its heroes fighting Al-Qaeda. The following year, CBS unveiled NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service), a ratings juggernaut with a terrorism subplot in its first season, and in 2006 the network launched The Unit, a show from reactionary playwright David Mamet that centered on counterterrorism.
Although, as Variety reported of the meeting in 2001, “The White House emissaries were careful to avoid suggestions that any form of propaganda films would be fostered by the new task force,” what else does one call a joint effort between the government and the entertainment industry to create pointed wartime messaging?
Hollywood feeds the government
Before the meeting to discuss selling the war on terror in November 2001, another meeting took place between government officials and key figures in the entertainment industry. Rather than give marching orders, however, the point of this meeting was to solicit ideas from Hollywood creatives on future terrorist scenarios the U.S. might expect, along with potential solutions. Die Hard screenwriter Steven E. De Souza, Fight Club director David Fincher, and even Being John Malkovich creator Spike Jonze were among those assembled for the surreal speculation session at the U.S. Army-funded Institute for Creative Technologies in California. Intelligence services might have surmised that Bin Laden was determined to strike in the U.S., but it was an Iron Man comic, after all, that predicted in 1994 an attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
The U.S. government got more than just meetings out of Hollywood, though. In the years after 9/11, the two entities appeared locked in a recursive feedback loop around the ethics of counterterrorism. The most prominent example is Fox’s hit thriller 24, which increasingly mirrored real-life events, and may have in turn influenced government officials and military staff—particularly on the issue of torture.
Although 24‘s gimmick was that each episode corresponded with one hour in a season-length single day, the show’s true focus seemed to be on whether the ends of saving the day are justified by the means of torture. (Its answer? An emphatic affirmative.) The show followed counterterrorism expert Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) as he sought to defuse the latest in a series of constant threats to the U.S., frequently through “enhanced interrogation.” The show was reportedly a favorite of President Bush, and according to Diane Beaver, a lawyer who had been a staff judge advocate at Guantanamo Bay in fall 2002, a lot of people working at the military prison were fans. As Beaver told The Guardian in 2008, “Some described to me how the series contributed directly to an environment encouraging those in the interrogation facility to see themselves as being on the front line, and to go further than they otherwise might have. 24 also made it more difficult for those who objected to the abuse to stop it.”
The show’s ongoing portrayal of torture as a reliable, justified tactic eventually prompted the dean of West Point to fly to California in the fall of 2006, with three professional interrogators in tow, in an attempt to convince the show’s creative team to instead “do a show where torture backfires.”
Perhaps such a show would help accomplish what the fallout from Abu Ghraib apparently had not.
The shaping of the MCU
Finally, 9/11 helped steer the course of what is currently the world’s most popular entertainment force across film and television: the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The aforementioned Iron Man—the metal-clad alter-ego of zillionaire genius Tony Stark—was originally conceived as a fighter against the “Communist menace,” facing off against villains such as the Red Barbarian and the Crimson Dynamo. In fact, at one point in the comics, Nikita Khrushchev personally tried to take him out. Not long after 9/11, though, writer Warren Ellis retconned the character’s origin story, tracing it to the first Gulf War instead. By the time the MCU launched with 2008’s Iron Man, the title character got another origin story makeover. This time, Tony Stark was captured and tortured by some of the Afghan terrorists who had been purchasing Stark’s weapons unbeknownst to him.
The attacks on 9/11 don’t just linger in the MCU through Tony Stark’s genesis, though. Future films in the franchise include oddly realistic acts of terrorism obviously inspired by those perpetrated that day. The implication seems to be that if superheroes had existed in real life back then, 9/11 might never have happened.
But they don’t, and it did. And pop culture will never let us forget.