The Arab World Geographer
Forum on 11 September 2001 Events

Initial Thoughts towards Political Geographies in the Wake of 11 September 2001: An Introduction

Colin Flint
Department of Geography, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802

Shock. Anger. Fear. I experienced the common series of emotions in response to the horrific, illegal, and terrifying 11 September attacks on the American people, government, territory, and icons of power of the United States, attacks that left about 7 000 people from a host of countries dead; and that had a dreadful impact on many more. All the contributors to this collection voice their disgust at such actions. Yet, more than others, we have a social responsibility to ask critical questions, unencumbered by loyalty to a particular government, questions that address the issues of what motivated these acts of violence; also, we must provide a critique of government responses. We have had to move beyond the normal human emotions and get back to thinking critically, even while raw emotions remain. But that is a process and, though the timeline will vary from individual to individual, I am sure that nearly all of us are in some stage of transition. This collection of short essays is intended both to recognize and to utilize that transition, to show that our world views are a product of reason as well as of experience; that shock and fear are potentially useful emotions; and that a more sophisticated world-view is both necessary to understand the meaning of the attacks and essential in offering long-term and just solutions. I will not use this introduction to summarize common themes within the essays, as they are too personal. While McColl writes with an obvious sense of national identity, others take a more internationalist stance. Instead, I will offer my own thoughts and try to connect them to broader themes.

The essays in this collection were written between 12 September and 7 October, and so some will reflect the partial knowledge and competing interpretations through which we had to define our thoughts. Most were written just before the launch of the American-led military response and before Osama bin Laden’s defiant video statement, which praised the attacks, threatened more, but did not claim responsibility for them. The contributors were asked to offer their personal feelings and the perspectives that have catalyzed more theoretical thoughts. A number of the contributors told me that the process of writing was both therapeutic and frustrating: therapeutic in that it provided an outlet for sorting through personal confusions and fears, and frustrating as it illuminated the limits of individual agency. The need for an outlet was part of my motivation in organizing the collection and writing this essay. Simply put, such an academic exercise required thinking rather than staring at the television screen with a sense of bewilderment and a sense that events were increasingly beyond one’s control. The dominance of CNN not only in providing information but also in setting the ensuing agenda was maddening. For instance, the backdrop to the “crisis” broadcasts declared “America’s New War” without acknowledging that no formal declaration of war had been made.

When was I able to start thinking? Or, which event pulled me from the shell I had retreated into on 11 September. It was the charity Telethon for the victims broadcast on pretty much every American TV channel on Friday 21 September. The message was as incomplete and confused as the speech by President Bush the night before. Immediately after Will Smith and Muhammed Ali (and New York Muslim children) told us of the peaceful nature of Islam, Tom Petty sang Won’t Back Down with a particularly steely glint in his eye. Shortly after, Neil Young sang John Lennon’s Imagine. Imagine no nations, a brotherhood of Man? It seemed that the Telethon was all about the re-imagination of the U.S. as a unique, special, blessed and united nation in combat against others. Black reggae artist Wycliff Jean sang Redemption Song, while literally, wrapped in the Stars and Stripes. The song degenerated into a chant praising the United States of America. Redemption Song as a celebration of American hegemony?Bob Marley must have wept in his grave.

The catchphrase to help us remember the phone number was To-Unite, just hours after the airline industry announced thousands of layoffs and the government, a planned  financial bailout for airline companies. What a bizarre form of unity: sacking of workers, taxpayer support for the owners, and further pressure on the people to aid the victims. Class quashed by the nation. The evening also offered citizens the opportunity to contact the great?not the “heroes” of the hour, but the true emblems of America’s greatness? celebrities. Jack Nicholson, Whoopi Goldberg, Al Pacino, and many others were just a phone call away as long as you stumped up some cash. I thought I was being funny when I wondered where Jerry Lewis was, a charity Telethon regular. But then I realized that the Telethon was treating a terrorist reaction to hegemony as a form of disease, a blight on modern society that could, with the right technical expertise and public commitment, be cured and assigned to a bad past. We could feel good by chipping in a few bucks to help the cause and, if lucky, get a great story for parties about how we actually got to talk to Meg Ryan!

The images and rhetoric offered by the Telethon were emotional and focussed on the victims. But the discourse seemed out of date. First, the celebrities were from a medium that now seems outdated?Hollywood rather than the Internet, a modernity of the past rather than of the future (Taylor 1999). Second, the celebration of the American nation-state had to be constantly mediated with messages telling the American public that non-whites and adherents to faiths other than the Judeo-Christian actually belonged as part of “the people.” The goal was to display patriotism without stimulating racist and extreme nationalist responses like those that resulted in the murder of a Sikh in Arizona. There was a tension between, a civic religion and a state nationalism that has celebrated white, Judeo-Christian values, on the one hand, and a population that is increasingly diverse in both religion and race, on the other; a population that is struggling to be included in the dominant definition of “the people.” The positive side was that from the outset the official message preached tolerance towards Muslims, especially American Muslims. But what is the dominant vision of American national identity that required this public service announcement, and who is excluded from it?

The following day I was playing with my two young sons?building a zoo from plastic cages and animals. My oldest, aged five, called the kangaroo enclosure “Freedomland.” The word freedom had become so pervasive in the days since the attacks that it had been seared into the mind of a kindergartner. (Of course, the irony of a zoo’s being called “Freedomland” in this context could be the springboard for volumes.) The power of banal nationalism is overwhelming (Billig 1995). Although they haven’t a clue as to what it actually means, or as to the domestic and international realities that call claims to freedom into question, freedom has become an important mind-jogger for five-year-olds. They can be excused by their age. For the rest of the country the excuse is the opposite: They have been exposed to the banal tropes of American hegemonic discourse for a lot longer. Their naiveté is created and maintained by popular discourse. The freedom to sack workers exists along with the freedom to talk to Jack Nicholson, but the promise of the one carries greater ideological weight than the disuniting fear of the other.

But over 6 000 people are dead?the victims of the calculating, astonishingly cool, and simultaneously, passionate actions of human beings who had spent several months interacting with people similar to those they were about to murder. The mindset on both sides of the line that is being drawn deeper in the sand is the same: we are not they and we are special, chosen saviours, who have the duty to use might when we can for the service of a greater whole. Collective identities smother individual reflection and choice. Calls to God, the same one, motivate and justify acts one would have hoped were banished to the time of the Old Testament.

But I can’t get too high on my moral horse. I am worried for the future of my two young boys. I have to admit, at times, I would like to see bin Laden “taken out of commission,” a euphemism I use in my own mind to avoid the word “killed,” though most of the time I wish for procedural justice. I also know that the latter course is the one most likely to engender long-term peace and security.

A close relative was inducted to the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) a few days after the attacks. The parents were duly proud of their son’s decision and courage. I, however, was astonished by the naiveté of relatives who encouraged their son to join the U.S. military but are now fretful that he might be in danger. Their view of the U.S. forces as a benign, mind-broadening career ladder is quite a different view of military might than that seen in Khartoum, Kabul, or Baghdad. The perception that the U.S. military is a benevolent, welcomed, even-handed aid- worker is maintained within a voided space in the American mind where hegemony is branded for people in other parts of the globe. American hegemony is a display of force experienced by many across the globe, but largely absent from the world- view of the American people.

The audience of BBC’s “Question Time” the Thursday after the attacks was so persistent in its reminders of the powerful global role played by the U.S. and hence of the hateful reactions towards it that the former U.S. ambassador on the panel was, apparently, reduced to tears. What would have happened if he had pointed out that Mafeking, or Gordon’s folly (Khartoum again), or other military embarrassments were similar hegemonic comeuppances! The powerful nation is blind to hegemony, but for others it is a curse. Yet Britain eagerly rallied to the U.S. cause, once again. The American national anthem was played at Buckingham Palace: How about that for the extra-territoriality of hegemonic powers? Part of this is, undoubtedly, genuine human compassion and sympathy. But there is also fear of a Muslim other, with the added twist that unleashing the SAS and the RAF alongside U.S. forces may revive British imperial glories, and exact revenge for imperial humiliations on Afghan soil. As any Brit worth their salt will tell you, “our” blokes are going to do a better job than the Yanks. Even while acting as lieutenant to hegemonic might, competitive nationalism is an emotional driving force.

Imagine there’s no countries, nothing to kill and die for, a brotherhood of man? Hardly.

These were my reactions about 12 days after the attacks. They represent my own transition from shock and anger into more academic and critical thought. What do they, and the thoughts of the other contributors, have to offer a reasoned academic and geographic response to the attacks. First, they reflect that we are a combination of multiple roles that enable and constrain our thoughts. We are spouses, parents, siblings, relatives, and professional academics, but always within the other and given role of national citizen. As we examine and critique political geographies we are also partially products of them?sometimes fighting their prevalence and injustice, sometimes ignorant of their power, and at other times grateful for their utility.

The shocks and fears created by the attacks of 11 September force us to reflect upon the multiplicity of our roles–whether worrying over the future of our children or wondering how to respond in conversation when friends spout reactionary nonsense. In so doing, we reflect upon the analytical and pedagogical utility of geographic scales. Individual tragedy and heroism are best understood by placing them within the structure of global hegemony, and within each and every scale between the individual and the global constructed by academics and by society. Geographers have the skills and responsibility to make the interaction of multiple scales dominant in the movement towards explanation and response.

The role of the nation in our multiple roles highlights another contribution made by these essays. The future, especially if it is to be more just and humane, requires a new meta-geography, a new spatial organization of society (Agnew 1999; Taylor 2000). Mainstream and establishment reaction has been a hardening of the established meta-geography, nation-states that define our identity, provide security, and are the springboards of military power. But Neil Young’s interpretation of John Lennon shows that a new meta-geography has been dreamed of or imagined for a long time. A meta-geography of humanity linked by networks rather than fragmented into territorial containers exists in the realms of our imagination. Furthermore, progress towards its development has, ironically, been provided by the globalization symbolized by the towers of the World Trade Center. The free movement of commodities, capital, and, to a much lesser extent, people has been promoted under the rubric of American-led globalization. Along with this process have come an increasing polarization of wealth and opportunity, an onslaught of American culture, and the increasing dominance of American military power. If globalization can be equated with empire (Hardt and Negri 2000), then the attacks of 11 September were an event in an (probably) intensifying process of “decolonization.” But these processes have also relied upon the images and realities of cultural diversity and hybridization. The media-constructed image of the global person is that either of someone who can interact with many cultures or of someone who is of no clear creed or nationality, a positive and powerful combination of ethnicities.

The future, and with it our task as academics and human beings, is to take the baton from the needs and imperatives of capital, and use the foundation of global networks to create a reality and understanding based upon a single humanity that has a lot in common, a lot to learn from one another, and a need thus to learn in order to survive. Denis Cosgrove (1994) argues that the images of planet Earth from space mobilized global environmental thinking. Perhaps the images of the twin towers ablaze can act as the same catalyst for a peaceful global political movement. The alternative is a reaction by the war machines of the various nation-states, machines which have no time for negotiation and must show their continued worth by their violent actions. Time is indeed running out (the cry of the moment from the Bush Administration who do not wish to talk to the Taliban) but for whom or what? There may be a realization that the impotence of nation-states was made clear to many on 11 September and that networks could be the spatiality of the future. Let us create a dialogue that moves towards making these networks humane rather than allowing them to become mechanisms for further inequities in wealth and power. Peace.


Agnew, J. 1999. Mapping political power beyond state boundaries: Territory, identity, and movement in world politics. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 28:499–521.

Billig, M. 1995. Banal nationalism. London: Sage Publications.

Cosgrove, D. 1994. Contested global visions: One-World, Whole-Earth, and the Apollo space photographs. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 84:270–94.

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, P.J. 1999. Modernities: A Geohistorical Interpretation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Taylor, P. J. 2000. A metageographical argument on modernities and social science. Papers in Social Theory. University of Warwick, UK.

(Submitted 11 October 2001)
© The Arab World Geographer

Flint (Intro) / Smith / Agnew / Abu-Nimer / McColl / Nijman / Marston & RouhaniFlint (conclusion)

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