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A Case Study: September 11th and The American Reaction
Elie S. Badesch
04.29.02-St. Louis, MO

IntroductionNationalism, as it is known today, is a relatively modern phenomenon. Indeed, nationalism was born out of the 18th century – the first cases of nationalism are dated to directly before, during or soon after the French Revolution. Nationalism can be defined as "an ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of autonomy, unity and identity of a human population, some of whose members conceive it to constitute an actual or potential ‘nation’." This social phenomenon seems rather odd at first glance. After all, in any substantially sized group of people, there is no way for every individual to personally know each other. Why, then, do these populations feel so strongly connected? It makes sense for a small community to feel a certain amount of solidarity, but how do massive, modern populations feel this national, collective consciousness? Three authors, Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm and Emile Durkheim, speak directly to this question – each offering an explanation on the phenomenon of nationalism or population solidarity.

In order to answer these difficult questions, it is beneficial to examine a specific case study. In the United States, following the terrorist attacks September 11, 2001, there was an extraordinary surge of nationalism and national pride. Although it was New York and Washington D.C who experienced all of the physical damage, citizens in Arizona, Kansas and Wisconsin grieved for their losses and put American flag stickers on their cars’ bumpers. People all the way across the nation truly felt as if they, themselves, had been attacked – even though the ruble was thousands of miles away. Americans united in the wake of September 11th, but why? Anderson, Durkheim and Hobsbawm would each address this question somewhat differently. Each social scientist, however, would, likely, attribute this perceived solidarity to the force of nationalism.

Finally, it is necessary to ask whether nationalism is a force for good, or a force for evil. Many might argue that nationalism, by its nature, is dangerous, exclusive and aggressive. When thinking about Nazi and Ku Klux Klan rallies, it seems as if the power of nationalism and solidarity is capable of the most horrendous evil. On the other hand, many social theorists, like Emile Durkheim, would argue that a sense of nationalism is virtually necessary, and quite beneficial, for human populations. As an ideology, nationalism is able to provide man with the collective responsibility, identity and solidarity he requires as a social creature. This paradox must be further explored in order to better understand nationalism, its effects, and its capabilities.
Why Do People Feel This Sense of Solidarity?Benedict Anderson, in his book Imagined Communities, attempts to understand the widespread expansion of nationalism in the 18th century, a large-scale, macro, social phenomenon. Essentially, Anderson claims that nationalism is an intellectual movement, one which arose around a set of beliefs in the late 18th century. He believes that nationalism is a "cultural artifact" and, thus, must be studied historically, with a focus on change over time. Only then, Anderson believes, can one understand why modern populations give feelings of national pride such "emotional legitimacy."

Anderson argues that nations, or massive populations, are not actual communities, but, rather, are imagined. In other words, nationalism does not bring together a group of people who share some real bond, but, instead, "invents nations where they do not exist." The populations, Anderson notes, imagine their nation as "limited", "sovereign" and "as a community." It is limited because any given nation has set, physical borders and every population is, at least somewhat, exclusive. Thus, members of a group can define the parameters of their nation, or population. A nation is also imagined as sovereign, because nations, historically, rose out of an era that put to rest antiquated notions of a "divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm." Nations, in desiring unhindered, direct freedom, began to think of themselves as sovereign and necessarily autonomous. Finally, Anderson argues, nations are imagined as a community – a "deep horizontal comradeship." Without this profound, internal feeling of solidarity and cohesion among the group, people would be unwilling to risk, and even give, their lives for the protection or betterment of their nation.

In order to better understand the rise of nationalism, Anderson identifies both the micro and macro causes that led to this historically unique trend. First of all, he sites the "erosion of religious certainties" which, he argues, did not "produce" nationalism, but can be used to help explain its rise. Following the Enlightenment, and the subsequent development in scientific thought, people became increasingly skeptical of, alleged, religious truths. In addition, during the 18th century, various populations questioned the intrinsic legitimacy of monarch rule and the "dynastic realm." It became increasingly clear that the established hierarchy (which gave infinite power to the church and the king) only served to oppress the multitude. Once these outmoded systems lost their influence and authority, something novel and uncorrupted was needed to replace it. Thus, with attrition of these archaic systems of inequality came the triumphant, often revolutionary, rise of the nation-state (and the creation of an imagined community).

In addition, Anderson stressed the importance of changes in perception which "made it possible to ‘think’ the nation." First of all, Anderson notes the "visual representations of the sacred communities." Each of these developing nations, or populations, began to express themselves physically through architecture, art and dress. Thus, members of the same public could visually recognize each other and collectively identify with a common, and tangible, cultural. Furthermore, individuals in a nation began to think of themselves as, fundamentally, living in the same world. As Anderson argues:

"The idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through
homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of the
nation, which also is conceived as a solid community moving steadily
down (or up) history. An American will never meet, or even know the
names of more than a handful of his 240,000-odd fellow-Americans.
He has no idea what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete
confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity."
Indeed, whether or not there exists a personal relationship between individuals, one can observe an assumed, collective connection, one which is based on the perceived likeness among a population.Finally, Anderson notes the importance of print-capitalism, which served to fix a language among a population. This innovation created a new form of nationalism, and transformed the way in which people imagined the nation. It was soon possible for knowledge to be spread across the land, producing an increasingly robust collective identity. This spread of information gave each individual the opportunity to feel personally connected to the collective. With the development of print-capitalism, groups of people were able to create a national narrative. This narrative only served to re-enforce the strength and solidarity of the imagined community.

Another social theorist, with somewhat similar views, is Eric Hobsbawm. Hobsbawm also believes that the nation is not a real phenomenon, but one that has been created over time. In his essay, "Inventing Traditions", Hobsbawm argues that, although national traditions seem ancient, they are, in fact, relatively recent and completely invented. He defines an invented tradition as a set of principles, "normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past." Through repetition and routine, those with power in any given population, essentially, invent tradition and infuse that tradition with value and meaning.

Since the industrial revolution, invented traditions have consisted of three, over-lapping types. The first type, which is most significant to this study of nationalism, consists of those traditions which are invented to "establish or symbolize social cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities." The other types of invented traditions, according to Hobsbawm are, first, those "establishing or legitimizing institutions, status or relations of authority" and, second, those "whose main purpose is socialization, the inculcation of beliefs, value systems, and conventions of behavior." Each category of invented traditions serves to identify individuals with their community and the institutions that define that particular community as a nation.

Hobsbawm argues that, unlike pre-industrialization traditions, modern invented traditions are not as strongly binding and strict. In fact, post-industrial traditions tend to be "quite unspecific and vague as to the nature of the values, rights and obligations of the group membership they inculcate: ‘patriotism’, ‘loyalty’, ‘duty’, ‘playing the game’, ‘the school spirit’ and the like." These traditions, like that of standing for the national anthem at a baseball game, are universal, but not well explained and ambiguously defined. The important thing about these traditions is not why they are followed, but the fact that they are followed and infused with national meaning. Because of their universal recognition and observance, these nationally specific, invented traditions are respected and cherished by the given population.

According to Hobsbawm, populations experience solidarity and unity because they feel that they share a collective history, or national narrative. Through repetition and routine of invented traditions, populations perceive themselves as being connected to their histories and are, essentially, substantiated as a nation by their collective past. As Hobsbawm writes, "Inventing traditions…is essentially a process of formalization and ritualization, characterized by reference to the past, if only by imposing repetition." Populations face new, unique challenges by referring to the past and these, seemingly, ancient traditions. In fact, however, traditions are created and discarded quite often and are used only until they no longer function for any given community. As Hobsbawm writes:

"we should expect it [the invention of tradition] to occur more frequently
when a rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social
patterns for which ‘old’ traditions had been designed, producing new
ones to which they were not applicable, or when such old traditions and
their institutional carriers and promulgators no longer prove sufficiently
adaptable and flexible, or are otherwise eliminated: in short, when there
are sufficiently large and rapid changes on the demand or supply side."

Often times, ‘old’ traditions are simply recycled to meet the challenges of a new situation. Other times, "new traditions could be grafted on old ones, sometimes they could be devised by borrowing from well-supplied warehouses of official ritual, symbolism and moral exhortation."

Regardless of their origins, invented traditions get into the blood stream of a population, assuring the group of historical continuity and a collective, and noteworthy, past. Ironically, Hobsbawm notes, "modern nations and all their impedimenta generally claim to be the opposite of novel, namely rooted in the remotest antiquity, and the opposite of constructed, namely human communities so ‘natural’ as to require no definition other than self-assertion." In truth, the very substantiation of a population’s nationalist claims comes from its recognition of a significant, collective past and a history of meaningful, shared traditions, both of which are based upon falsehoods and manipulation. The types of feelings these notions produce, however unwarranted and groundless, can often snowball into a nationalist fervor – one which seems historically justified and is universally influential.

A final social theorist who offers an explanation for solidarity among populations is Emile Durkheim. Durkheim, although specifically addressing the existence of religious collectives, questions what motivates man to be a part of a community and cooperate with the needs of his group. In his work, The Elementary forms of Religious Life, Durkheim is particularly interested in solidarity, and the way in which man is motivated to come together to form collectives. Durkheim argues that there are two motivating forces acting upon human beings. This duality consists of the force of God (or the force society) and the force of the individual. The force of God, Durkheim claims, is identical to the force of society. Because man does not feel in control of his own life, he believes there is a force acting upon him, one outside of himself. This force, Durkheim notes, is that of social reality, which is often believed to be God. In fact, this force is that of his community, his collective. The overpowering force of society, and community solidarity, motivate man to cooperate with the needs of his particular group.

The defining, and distinguishing, task of all societies (and religions), Durkheim argues, is to define and distinguish the sacred and the profane. The sacred comes directly from social experience. Out of this social experience, a duality is created. Human beings have a natural duality within themselves and thus, when they experience this social duality, they experience something very real and very personally relevant. Durkheim argues that this duality comes from an altered state of consciousness, which is a result of collective living. One encounters this altered state through "collective effervescence."

When a group of people gathers together in order to celebrate or experience their national, collective consciousness (or religion), the members of that group are, individually, transformed by external forces. Numerous individuals come together, rally around each other, and express their feeling for their community and their religion. These types of collective gatherings emotionally arouse people, allowing them to experience new sentiments and sensations. These new feelings make the members of the community feel as if they are, collectively, being transported to another world, Durkheim argues. This altered state is represented by an emblem (often times a national flag), which is, then on, associated with the enthusiasm and exaltation of the collective transformation. Everyone in this collective, thus, can rally around this symbol, relating to it as a population. This symbol of "collective effervescence", then, becomes the sacred.

Durkheim argues that this collective experience generates man’s internal sense of self. One simply cannot imagine himself outside of this experience – his identity is intimately linked with his collective. These collective manifestations, in fact, are the source of man’s meaning and morality and define how he acts. Once the collective is established, lines of inclusion and exclusion are fixed. Those inside of the collective implicitly belong – they are considered to be moral and are given value as members of the group. Those outside of the collection become "the other" and are, thus, immoral, atypical and, often times, become the collective’s common enemy.

Although societal demands and conventions are, to a certain extent, outside of the individual, there is also an internal impetus towards the collective’s specific philosophy. Man, as a social being, must depend on his collective. In fact, Durkheim argues that man is merely a product of his specific society. Indeed, the meaning attributed to man’s personality, identity, actions, purpose, motivations and reason only exist as they have been molded by his collective, his "nation". There is an internal sentiment that one’s particular collective is worthy, meaningful and justified. This type of "civic religion", wherein the nation, or collection, is given a great deal of moral authority, can surely be used to explain the rise of sentiments and ideologies akin to modern nationalism.
A Case Study: September 11th and The American ReactionOn September 11th, 2001, The United States was brutally attacked by a foreign terrorist organization. Four planes, in total, were hijacked and crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center, The Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania; thousands of civilians and rescue workers were killed. Immediately following this attack, Americans across the nation seemed to unify. As the news was dispersed across the country, through the media and word-of-mouth, it became clear how drastically the attack affected, nearly, the entire American multitude.

The vast majority of Americans knew no one who was killed on September 11th. In fact, the vast majority of Americans did not even know someone who lost a loved one. Regardless of these realities, Americans across the nation, and across the world, felt as if they were personally assaulted – their grief for the dead and missing was extraordinary. This phenomenon was especially unexpected considering the nature of recent American nationalism. After a cutthroat and muddled presidential election in 2000, the American public seemed as disjointed as ever. The country was deeply divided politically and, it seemed, nothing could bring the multitude together, let alone in admiration and respect for its nation. Indeed, on September 10th, 2001, no one would have guessed that a surge of nationalism and American pride was in the cards.

The tragic nature of the September 11th attacks, specifically the victimization of innocent American civilians, produced, in Americans, a desire for collective response and a national expression of grief. Citizens instantly rallied around the survivors and those who lost friends and family members. By the afternoon of the 11th, there were block-long lines at blood banks. From New York to California, individuals willingly waited for hours to give all they could. In the weeks following the attacks, Americans donated extraordinary amounts of money, clothes and food to assist the victims. Moreover, Americans in all fifty states, for the first time in years, adopted the ritual of exhibiting the nation’s flag. For months after the attacks, American flags were proudly displayed in home windows, on porches, in businesses and on car bumpers. Television shows, commercials, music videos and movies all made symbolic use of American flag. Everywhere one looked, someone was either referring to, symbolizing or attempting to define the events of September 11th in national terms.

Indeed, as far as the American public was concerned, the terrorist attack was not merely an assault on the World Trade Center, The Pentagon, New York City, Washington D.C or the east coast. The bombings were an attack on America, itself, and all the values the nation is perceived to stand for – liberty, justice, equality and freedom. Once again, the question must be asked: Under what circumstances does a Mexican-American in Southern California feel a deep, and fundamental, relationship with a white, middle-class family from Manhattan who lost its father in the attacks? By investigating the works of Anderson, Hobsbawm and Durkheim one can begin to envision how each author might explain this post-September 11th American nationalism.

Anderson, likely, would suggest that this explosion of American unity is nothing more than the result of an "imagined community". How then, was this community re-constructed after September 11th? This present-day construction can be seen by studying President Bush’s speeches in the days and weeks directly after the attacks. His words, essentially, externally created a sense of community among Americans which, subsequently, became an internal feeling of unity among citizens. On the afternoon of September 11, President Bush, in a very short, but precise, speech, told Americans to, "join me in saying thanks for all the folks who have been fighting hard to rescue our fellow-citizens…." Immediately, Americans across the nation were instructed to think of the victims as comrades, people identical to themselves. Bush added, "The resolve of our great nation is being tested. But make no mistake: We will show the world that we will pass this test." Once again, Anderson would claim, Bush was creating a national response to the attack – America was attacked as a nation and, as a nation, America would recover.

Later that evening, on September 11th, Bush again addressed the nation, this time from the Oval Office with a gigantic American flag behind him. These intrinsically American symbols were used to both settle Americans, who, throughout the day, worried about the state of their nation, and, also, to rally Americans together, as a population, poised to fight for the stated ideals of their national community. In this speech, Bush noted that, "Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation." Throughout the speech, America was equated with ideals of freedom and opportunity, pressuring formally un-patriotic Americans to fight terrorism by accepting the forthcoming nationalism. In fact, the imagined community was further constructed as Bush stated, "This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time." Clearly, from observing Bush’s speeches, one can see an unambiguous call for greater community cohesion. Americans, after September 11th, Anderson would argue, began to increasingly see themselves as members of the same community – people whose lives were affected by the same set of circumstances.

In addition, Anderson might note the similarity between the importance of print-capitalism and the role of the American media after September 11th. Indeed, just as the expansion of the printed word extended knowledge across the nation, the television coverage of the terrorist attacks was, immediately, seen in living rooms all over the country. The news of the attacks spread like wildfire, the images of burring buildings and chaos on the streets of New York impacted countless individuals, regardless of their proximity to the actual target. American citizens all over the world instantly saw these victims in their clothes, speaking their language, and evacuating a building that looked very much like their workplace. Suddenly, Americans felt a deep connection with these victims whose suffering, unlike that of starvation victims in equatorial Africa or tortured monks in Tibet, was, seemingly, uniquely American. Clearly, Anderson would argue, Americans from Florida to Washington imagined themselves as being a part of these victims’ community and, thus, felt a need to respond to the attack and help comfort their fellow-Americans.

Hobsbawm, on the other hand, would likely be interested in the use of collective history throughout the September 11th aftermath. First of all, the terrorist attacks were, immediately, equated with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Although the circumstances leading to the two attacks (and the attacks themselves) were completely different, Americans and their leaders instantly referred back to the past to interpret the present. In his speech to congress on September 20, 2001, Bush noted another historical comparison, which also does not quite fit. In reference to the terrorist organization, Al Qaeda, he said: "We have seen their kind before. They’re the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies."

In referring to the Nazis, possibly America’s greatest enemy, President Bush was able to simplify the situation with a reference to the past. In other words, Bush, by getting Americans to perceive this unique event as a replication of an historical episode, framed the way in which Americans interpreted the events of September 11th. In American culture, the mid-20th century fascist practices of the Nazis and the Japanese are seen as illustrations of pure evil. Thus, by making historical associations with these fascist enemies, Americans are forced to see the terrorists along the same, black and white, lines. The enemy is pure evil; the nation and its population are pure good.

This use of history was, as Hobsbawm would likely argue, highly manipulative. First of all, history was being wrongly interpreted in order to serve a specific purpose – the congregating of all Americans with the sole objective of supporting their nation in its fight against a single enemy. In other words, national fervor was manufactured by those in power (specifically, the American government). Bush, in his speeches, argued that, essentially, if one would have been a nationalist in 1941, he, logically, should be one in 2001. After all, Bush implicitly maintained that, because the two national challenges were virtually analogous, the subsequent American support should also be identical. This comparison, upon which many Americans based their newfound nationalism, is fundamentally incorrect. Hobsbawm would argue, in fact, that Americans’ justification for their surge of patriotism is, in fact, based upon deceptiveness and inaccuracy.

Finally, Durkheim would likely employ his theory of "collective effervescence" in order to explain the post-September 11th American nationalism. After the terrorist attacks, Americans across the nation (who saw the tragic images on their television screens) were overcome with various emotions including fear, sorrow, frustration and grief. Durkheim would argue that, America, as a nation, felt these emotions collectively. In fact, he would argue that Americans, in mourning as a nation, were taken into an altered state, which was unlike anything many citizens had ever experienced. After the attacks, Americans crossing each other on street corners knew that they shared a common experience and, many, common emotions.

This reaction to the September 11th attacks, Durkheim would argue, was a form "collective effervescence". While America was experiencing this collective, emotional peak, various symbols were introduced to the population (and these symbols became immediately sacred to the collective). The most obvious of these symbols, of course, was the American flag. Hours after The Pentagon was attacked, an American flag was draped over one of the shattered walls. The same practice was implemented at the remains of the World Trade Center. In addition, in the majority of President Bush’s post-September 11th speeches, his backdrop consisted of an over-sized American flag. Soon, emotional Americans seized on to this practice, adorning their homes and workplaces with stars and stripes. The presentation of this national symbol, during extremely emotional and trying times, re-defined the American flag as nationally sacred. Once this association was made, Americans across the county illustrated their national pride and support by flying the flag. Although this patriotism was, originally, externally imposed upon the population, soon, individuals felt a personal connection to their nation, and its symbol. Thus, as Durkheim explains in his work on religion, there emerged both external and internal impetuses to assert one’s membership in the national collective.
Nationalism: A Force for Good or Evil?Nationalism, as it has been described, is a powerful force. There are a variety of arguments, however, about the true nature of nationalism. Is it, as many would argue, a necessarily exclusive, antagonistic and destructive force – one which is manipulated by those in power to serve their, specific objectives? Or, on the other hand, does it provide mankind with a sense of belonging, solidarity and meaning in an, otherwise, chaotic and isolating world? When dealing, initially, with the question of nationalism, one must first define what it means to be a member of the said collective. One must, indeed, ask: "What does it mean to be a part of this community?"

This type of reaction can be seen in the surge of American nationalism following September 11th. In his New York Times article, "Identify Yourself", Gregory Rodriguez comments on the peculiarities of this American case. As he explains, "Because America is a nation of immigrants, its history was a constant struggle by outsiders seeking to become insiders. Yet America’s very diversity made it particularly uncomfortable with the idea of the ‘other’." Following the attacks on the east coast, citizens questioned what it meant to be "an American". In fact, as Rodriguez points out, "External threats to any country tend to crystallize the collective identity and encourage citizens to distinguish themselves from the enemy." Unfortunately, for many Americans, this task is difficult if not impossible.

After the terrorist attacks, various Arab-Americans and American Muslims were attacked for being too much like the enemy. Seemingly, this type of aggressive nationalism produces a great deal of collective exclusivity, often resulting in those who are "in" assaulting and repressing those who are "out". As Rodriguez eloquently points out, "In some crude way, the reforging of American identity under fire produces winners and losers. " In rallying around one’s nation (and its supposed ideals) a population’s national pride and fervor can, often, lash outward, becoming destructive and polluting those ideals for which they claim to fight: freedom, peace, equality and justice.

In fact, many historical examples of nationalism are, basically, equated with wickedness and immorality. German nationalism under the Nazis, for example, illustrates the way in which a community, overcome with "collective effervescence", can be convinced of the most horrid and malicious ideas. In addition, the Ku Klux Klan prided themselves on their strong community ties and collective consciousness. Their violent and sadistic rallies served to strengthen the collective against, what they saw as, community threats. Indeed, when one considers the destructive capability of these populations (and their collective pride), nationalism seems extremely dangerous and too easily misused. After all, it is quite alarming and frightening how quickly and naturally human beings will commit acts of evil when they are supported by their community.

Nationalism, though, is not all bad. In fact, many, including Durkheim himself, would argue that a sense of nationhood and collectivity is necessary for human populations who are, intrinsically, social. Without community support, individuals would be lost in the world. The concept of a shared community, imagined or not, is the most immediate modern-day source of responsibility, mutual identity, and a sense of meaning in one’s life. Without a certain degree of national pride, individuals would be forever alone – with no sense of belonging. Although nationalism is often used to justify aggression or violence, the ideology must be understood a fundamental tool with which human beings come to understand themselves. If one is asked, "what are you" or "who are you", likely, one’s nationality would quickly come to mind. Indeed, human beings, since the 18th century, have come to define themselves in national terms. When one answers the above questions, "I am an American", he, in doing so, implies a deep and personal connection to the nation and its citizens. Whether the individual is aware of this connection or not, he clearly imagines himself to be a part of this national collective, this diverse, but intrinsically connected, community of individuals.


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