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Historicizing 9/11

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May 1, 2012 marks the one-year anniversary of the United States' government murder of Osama bin Laden. A day earlier, April 30, 2012 marked the erection of One World Trade Center as the largest building in New York City. And on May 8, 2012, a group of undergraduates at Connecticut College will sidestep these anniversary celebrations and do what few have: they will release the first-ever documentary that traces the origins of 9/11 from the late-nineteenth century to the present.

Despite the deluge of articles, books, and television commentaries on 9/11, few have actually examined the broader historical context in which 9/11 unfolded. So much of the media coverage focuses on recent events without interrogating the history of American foreign relations and untangling the connections among the Cold War, Vietnam, and Iraq. While scholars from Rashid Khalidi to Douglass Little have astutely made such claims about the war on terror's connections to past epochs, the overwhelming representation of 9/11, even a decade later in the midst of these anniversary celebrations, continues to view 9/11 as a singular snapshot in U.S. foreign policy, far removed from the turbulent past of American policy in the Middle East. Melanie Thibeault, the Editor in Chief of the documentary, remarked, "The attacks of 9/11 are often looked at as one singular event -- one day that will stand out in American, and probably world, history forever. But few have attempted to explain 9/11 in relation to a larger historical background of America's foreign policy, especially with the Middle East. Our goal with this project is to try and explain why 9/11 happened by examining history, culture, and our legislative policies from the 1800s to present day."

In the course, aptly titled, Historicizing 9/11, students at Connecticut College, a small liberal arts college in New London, have put forth their own history of 9/11 by making a documentary based on oral histories that they conducted of New London residents. The film explores how Americans far removed from New York and Washington D.C. were affected by the terrorist attacks. The documentary includes a range of personal experiences from police officers to teachers to storeowners. As Andrew Nathanson, one of the leading interviewers of in the film, explained, "When we left the classroom and entered the community, I became very aware of how difficult it is for the general public to consider foreign relations without considering the events of 2001."

The students then placed these interviews in a larger historical context that traces America's earliest conceptions of the Middle East. Building on their readings of a range of books from Edward Said's classic tome, Orientalism to Matthew Frye Jacobson's Barbarian Virtues, the students examined how ordinary Americans conceptualize the Middle East and how these representations shaped their reactions to 9/11. As Megan Reback, who served as both an interviewer and part of the public relations teams, explains, "The events that occurred on 9/11 are intrinsically linked to a history rooted in Orientalism and foreign policy initiatives, which have constructed an idea of the other; and altered the way that many Americans react to tragedy, war, and terrorism." Drawing such connections between the past and present delivers a sharp blow to the sound bytes that reduce 9/11 to a simple explanation.

The documentary also serves as an important archival record to document the experiences and reactions of a community, who would have otherwise been eclipsed by mainstream news and media outlets. Put another way, ordinary people's experiences tend not to enter the archive, unless they have experienced something extraordinary. The students that have created this documentary reject this idea and have found value and importance in recording the experiences of everyday people -- which will make this documentary an important resource for future historians.

Finally, it should be noted that the students that made this documentary -- which involved conducting interviews, editing hours of raw footage, and producing the film, are not media studies majors nor are they aspiring journalists, instead they are students in my history course -- who have been emboldened to make history.