Each of us has a unique experience of September 11th. I was in my last few days of summer vacation before heading back to college in Scotland. For me, the cultural response to 9/11 experienced was British.
I arrived back in Scotland on September 18th to sympathetic friends who were horrified at what our country had suffered, and this was echoed in cultural references. However, this went hand in hand with sympathy for us having such a stupid president. It was taken for granted that this is how everyone felt, and this was echoed in entertainment culture.
For their first issue post 9/11, The cover of Private Eye Magazine featured the now-famous photo of President Bush being told of the attacks. However, the magazine added speech bubbles. The aide is saying to Bush “It’s Armageddon out there, Sir.” to which Bush replies “Armageddon outta here.” The headline? “Bush Takes Charge.” Private Eye was famous for it’s controversial covers, so there was little scandal among the general public, although the magazine did suffer some cancellations.
A great way to illustrate how British sentiment was reflected through entertainment is in the television show 2DTV. This was a weekly satirical sketch comedy cartoon that dealt with the news. In the early episodes (it premiered in October 2011), there were sketches showing that they desired to attack America, but were made to look like fools. As the show progressed there were even sketches on Saddam Hussein’s poorly concealed weapons of mass destruction (which still fooled UN weapons inspectors), although Bush as an idiot was a constant.
Things changed when it became clear that the United States and Britain would be going to war with Iraq. Bush went from a bumbling idiot to a really dangerous bumbling idiot who simply enjoyed blowing things up. He thinks Spider-Man can beat Al-Qaeda and will only take advice from a sock puppet named Professor Liebstrom.
Sketches depicted Tony Blair acting as Bush’s (literal) lapdog and playing trans-Atlantic games of “George Says.” Blair is awarded with a George Bush Loyalty Card using his points to buy gifts. There was a Christmas sketch of Bush and Blair singing that their wish was to “Kill the World.” In 2004, a sketch showed Bush greeting a group of supporters and joining of “four more years.” Only Bush chants “four more wars.” As time went on, the sketches got much more pointed and there was little of the sense of the earlier gentle ridicule. The evolution of 2DTV is a good parallel for British culture’s reaction in general.
After the attacks on Britain in July 2005, one might have expected this to change. A strike closer to home could make people see things in a different light, but that’s not what happened. In 2006, the docudrama The Road to Guantanamo was released. This was about three innocent British detainees at Guantanamo Bay, who had been arrested due to an accident. The movie depicts harsh interrogation techniques and torture at Guantanamo Bay, and the original artwork for the film was banned for the American version for depicting torture.
In 2006, a law was passed in Britain making it illegal to glorify terrorism. In response, an anthology of short stories was published in 2007 titled, you guessed it, Glorifying Terrorism. Each story in the anthology was specifically designed to be illegal. This book was touted as risking arrest for freedom of speech and featured, as cover art, a superhero with bombs strapped to his chest.
Last year saw the release of the “comedy” Four Lions. This film follows a group of homegrown terrorists from Northern England as they attempt to pull off a suicide bombing. While the movie did well critically, in terms of box office, it bombed (if you’ll excuse the pun).
All, however, was not negative. Several television shows debuted in 2002 that could have been in response to the attacks of 9/11. Foyle’s War, set during World War II, followed a police detective in Britain. Due to the setting, there is a clear mentality of good vs. evil. Americans are seen as a little brash, but harmless and, in the end, necessary to end the war. The most direct response to 9/11 (and to the American show “24”), was Spooks. Spooks followed MI5 agents as they fought to keep Britain safe. Although it frequently dealt with terrorism as a real threat, Americans were portrayed as bullying cowboys who were, at best, tolerated. Still, despite the portrayal of Americans, there was good and evil, and evil had to be dealt with.
First responders and victims were consistently treated with respect. A new art exhibition in London entitled Supermen: An Exhibition of Heroes will showcase a series of collages inspired by the heroes who risked (and lost) their lives on 9/11.
This is how I found a lot of British culture post-9/11, a vast difference in the treatment of the victims, first responders, and their families (who were treated with sympathy and respect) and our leaders (who were treated as dangerous, stupid, or dangerously stupid). For an American abroad, it put events into sharp focus, and made me look at the world differently.
For me, it was the catalyst that changed me from an American to a patriot.