Patriotism and partisanship, pride and paranoia: The 9/11 legacy on the Web

In the aftermath of 9/11, the Web has amplified efforts to unite and divide, to inform and misinform, to commemorate and distract.

There is so much excellent thinking out there about how the 9/11 attacks have changed American lives, from how we travel, our views on separation of church and state, to our sense of security. By September 11, 2001, the United States was on its way to pursuing its status as — in the words of candidate George W. Bush — a more “humble nation,” focusing more on its immediate borders than developing its global powers. (More words on his pre-presidential perspective about nation-building can be found here.) Our relationship with Russia had (somewhat) improved, Cuba had diminished in importance, and the government’s greatest concern was China, which had shot down a U.S. spy plane in April 2001. Five months later, the attacks of 9/11 — even as they destroyed American families and a symbol of our wealth — united us as a people and changed our global presence, for better and worse.

During this same time period, the Web has become a default in our lives. In 2001, only 513 million people — less than 10% of the population — were privileged enough to have online access. At that time, Yahoo! Served, on average, 218 million visitors each month. Ten years later, Yahoo! has around 630 million users. Overall, 2.1 billion people are online — that’s still only 30% of the population, so there’s plenty of room to grow.

How we plan our trips, how we communicate with friends and family, how we divide the public and the private, how we redefine what’s considered news —  the Web and 9/11 are intertwined, and among the biggest influencers in the past decade.  So, what insight can we find in looking over the stream of searches? Some things are not a surprise: the need to pay tribute, the impulse towards patriotism. Other developments have a less obvious connection, yet one might discern how the atmosphere of skepticism, distrust, and conspiracy theories lie on the same spectrum.

An earlier post showcased a Wordle of searches from the day of 9/11. Below, a very broad sweep of what people have been seeking out in the days approaching the 10th anniversary.

Immediately after 9/11, finding heroes in the face of villainy was so important. At the first anniversary, specific people were called out —flight passengers Mark Bingham and Jeremy Glick, bond trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 658 of 960 employees, anti-terrorism expert John Patrick O’Neill, who had left the FBI to become WTC’s head of security. Gratifyingly, many heroes are still with us, be it the 9/11 responders, firefighters, or the Canadian town of Gander, which housed and fed marooned passengers after all flights were halted.

In later years, the tributes have become more general. Every year, people have paid homage to the victims, and a search for “victim’s list” has surfaced again. Some Web queries seek out videos and images from that day, as painful as they may be, such as footage of those who jumped. Teachers and parents for some time looked online for lesson plans to try to explain to a new generation what 9/11 meant, and how it created the life they now know. Others looked up quotes about the attack.

People have never forgotten the 224 who died in the Pentagon attack and the hijacked United Airlines plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, missing its intended Washington target. Still, the World Trade Center site — aka Ground Zero — however remains the most potent image of that day.

Reviving old glory
Patriotism surged in the first years — everything from flag screensavers to American music standards like “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Star Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful,” and “God Bless America.” People looked to new music, be it Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” (originally released in 1984) or Darryl Wade Worley (“Have You Forgotten” (2003). Musicians who opposed America’s military response overseas, from the Dixie Chicks to Bruce Springsteen, also got attention. In fashion, the ’60s peace sign (and that era’s “hippie” symbol of the smiley face) became a standard design theme among a younger generation. Today, the American flag still holds its symbolic power.

Rise of conspiracy theories
Conspiracists have always been among us, but the Internet allows an unprecedented forum with a massive potential audience for these views. To those on the fringe, a notion that persists long enough must, after all, have something to it. On the five-year anniversary, for instance — the same year the commission report came out — people were looking into “9/11 conspiracies,” “9/11 conspiracy theory.” Some were in the pursuit of  “9/11 truth” (and “truth” can mean many things). With something as horrific as those attacks, some people turned to past predictions that may have foretold such terrible days rather than untangle more complex politics. Nostradamus has become quite the Web regular.

In a related note, End-of-world Biblical language, words like “antichrist,” “apocalypse,” “Armageddon,” “bible code,” “book of revelations,” has also persisted, popping up notably after the 2008 presidential election (searches for Nostradamus hit a new high).  Also worth noting during this period is the influence of works like Dan Brown’s — “The Da Vinci Code” dominated bestseller lists. His works are one of many factors that has evoked crusader metaphors.

Shrinking space between politics and religion
Regardless of one’s perspective on different religions, awareness is certainly broader these days. Searches on Ramadan grow ever year, and of course there has been no end of attention to what’s happening in the Middle East. With the approach of the anniversary date, some searches have focused on how Muslim Americans have coped in the past years.

No doubt, the tea party movement is an outgrowth of our 9/11 culture, as much as it is an outgrowth of our economic crisis. Interestingly, a recent spate of academic studies and opinion pieces has come up with ways to define the tea party, and these words — “authoritarian,” “dominionism” — have been studied more online.

As for our country’s current negative mood, it is a contrast from the culture of hope that the 2008 elections engendered. Given our war-weary frailty, disappointments have been amplified. After all, America went through years of trying to protect ourselves from outsiders, and many feel betrayed that so much damage has come from within, from our own. Still, the impulse to find “stories of hope” run strong — and they’re not hard to find.

—This article also appeared in Shine’s Fast Talking Dame.