Professor Martin Halliwell, University of Leicester
Ten years ago I was sitting in my car in Leicester when a bulletin came through on the local radio about the first plane flying into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Startled for a few moments, I rushed to watch the BBC coverage just in time to see the hit on the South Tower. As the huge structures collapsed I was struck by the unreality of the images and the implausibility of the reports from Washington DC and Pennsylvania that compounded the unreal visual spectacle that was unfolding to a global audience – the loss of nearly 3000 lives too immense to comprehend.
With the massive media coverage of September 11 continuing over in the next few years, I decided to offer a final-year undergraduate option, ‘American Culture after 9/11’, just once, in 2006, in an attempt to understand the many layers – cultural, religious, ideological, geographical – surrounding 9/11. It was very instructive, for me, to talk to British students who would have been just starting 6th Form when the events occurred, but who had grown up in the shadow of the Twin Towers and its destructive global consequences in terms of US foreign policy.
Between 2005 and 2008 I worked on an edited collection with my colleague Catherine Morley, entitled American Thought and Culture in the 21st Century, which was published just as President Obama took office. One of the aims of this volume was to work out to what extent 9/11 could be seen as a turning point in the political, social and cultural life of the United States.
With the unfolding of the banking crisis and the economic gloom that has followed, it is widely thought now that 2007-8 was a more profound turning point than 2001. However, as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 looms in a very different political climate, when jobs, unemployment and health care are high on the US agenda, the symbolism and memory of that day remain raw.
I am currently on a research trip to Washington DC. Arriving into Dulles Airport on the afternoon of 23 August I missed by just one hour the earthquake which hit Mineral, Virginia and shuddered up the East Coast. Only a fortnight before the 9/11 anniversary, the closing of the Washington Memorial after the earthquake and concerns about the infrastructure of New York City took on fresh proportions, only to be intensified when Hurricane Irene rushed through the Outer Banks of North Carolina heading straight for Manhattan. In an unprecedented move, a nervous Mayor Bloomberg closed down the subway, air and bus systems and advised New Yorkers to stay indoors. As it turned out Manhattan missed the worst of the winds, but the city’s cautious approach to the Hurricane was surely shaped by the events of ten years previously, symbolized by the ‘We Remember’ flag which will be flown at the entrance to the Twin Towers on 11 September this year.
A few days before the 9/11 anniversary, I went to see the exhibit ‘September 11: Remembrance and Reflection’ in the National Museum of American History on the Mall in Washington DC. A massive queue of around 2000 people waited to see fifty objects on display for one week only: items ‘recovered from the three sites attacked that fateful day’ and other objects ‘that relate to how American lives have changed since then’, including a torn briefcase recovered from the South Tower, a battered logbook of a flight attendant on US Airlines Flight 93, a bashed fire truck door, postcards, debris, the remains of a clock. This attempt to tell the story of 9/11 through broken and fragmented objects speaks to how powerfully 9/11 still figures in our lives.
Martin Halliwell is Head of the School of English and Professor of American Studies at the University of Leicester. A former Director of the Centre for American Studies at Leicester, he is currently the eighteenth Chair of the British Association for American Studies (BAAS). Established in 1955, BAAS is the national body that supports scholarship on the history, literature, politics and culture of the United States. A specialist in twentieth-century literature and culture, Professor Halliwell is currently completing a cultural history of American medicine between 1945 and 1970.