The Events of 9/11 from a Sociological Standpoint

September 11 aroused not only national grief, pride, and rage, but also a prevalent feeling of frustration at the way things were since the fall of communism. In the Cold War era, the United States had operated via a containment policy in an attempt to prevent the propagation of communism, especially in Western Europe and North America – the free world. Following the fall of communism and the Soviet Union, the decade-long period leading to September 11, 2001, saw a United States – the world’s sole superpower – that operated with the rest of the world by consensus. The result of the latter operation model was the first successful terrorist attack on the United States’ mainland since the British torched Washington in 1812 (Lewis 623).

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The United States was unprepared – a show of recklessness regarding the nation’s ostensibly rocky relationship with the Muslim world. Herein is a description of the necessary background to the events of September 11, outlining the social conditions, the actors, the sociological theories, the politicians and media reaction, as well as the memorialization of 9/11 events.

Two commercial flights – American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 – crashed into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, and another American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. In a halting speech at Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, then-President George Bush termed the tragedy “an apparent terrorist attack” (Simko 880).

The attack was an act of violence that was the perpetrators’ show of defiance and dissatisfaction with the United States for the superpower’s actions and attitudes towards the Muslim world. The 9/11 bombings were an act of collective violence that was not only social and political but also economical. According to the World Health Organization, collective violence is a type of violence “inflicted by larger groups such as states, organized political groups, militia groups, and terrorist organizations” (6).

9/11 came approximately a decade after the fall of communism. The world’s sole superpower continued to exert its power on the rest of the world through an international community project. The international community project aimed to achieve harmony, prosperity, and liberty under the stewardship of the west (Lewis 622). This goal probably explains the United States’ consensus modus operandi as she interacted with the rest of the world. The growth of an international community and globalization spread throughout the world, fast, especially in the wake of the Internet and the proliferation of the World Wide Web. With the growing globalization came prosperity to many nations that had been previously poor. There was also an inspired resentment towards the west by the rest of the world.

Additionally, there were instances of post-communism and post-colonial conflicts before 9/11which either damped or died down in the long-run. However, these conflicts did not cease to be a continually renewed source of destructive energy. The Islamic fundamentalist challenge to a world order dominated by the Christian west was a central feature surrounding the 9/11 attacks. “Islamic fundamentalists wished to uphold traditional beliefs at all costs, in an updated form that is stricter and more combative than in the past” (Lewis 574). Repressive governments in the Muslim world held down the Islamic fundamentalists, but the fundamentalists did not go down without amassing popular support in Muslim states where fundamentalists were not in power.

Eventually, the Federal Bureau of Investigations – FBI – and the Central Intelligence Agency – CIA – following months on end of investigations, finally put a face to the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack. The Al Qaeda – an Islam terrorist group – under the stewardship of a wealthy Saudi fugitive Osama Bin Laden were the planners and executors of the attack. Taking a look back at the post-communism atmosphere between the United States and the Muslim world, Islamic terrorism was gaining in formidableness.

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Perhaps, the growth of Islamic terrorism and collective violence borrowed from Bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s success in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan. From this background, Islamic terrorist groups saw acts of violent terrorism as a resort to conduct violent attacks on organized states and weak states to harass the strong ones.

Religious extremism, coupled with Islamic fundamentalist teachings, only worsened the situation leading to the 9/11 attack. As Lewis (618) posits, antiterrorism efforts became less effective with the growing technology and the growth of suicide bombing. What fueled the already aggressive Islamic terrorism was the belief that the United States was the deadliest enemy to Islam and the Muslim world. In the Muslim world, as the Islamic fundamentalist militants and religious extremists put it, the United States was a source of cultural contamination.

They cited the United States’ support for Israel and the presence of United States’ unbelieving troops in Saudi Arabia as reasons why it was every ardent Muslim’s holy duty to kill Americans, civilians or military alike. Saudi Arabia is home to the holiest of mosques located at Mecca and Medina, and the presence of the infidels in the holy land was an insult to Allah.

The 9/11 attack was not the first Islamic terrorists’ attempt to attack the United States. In 1995 and 1996, Al Qaeda affiliated groups attacked United States installations in Saudi Arabia using truck bombings, and in 1998 they attacked the United States Embassy in Kenya by a car bomb (Lewis 618). According to a fatwa that Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri issued in February 1998 – which the named the World Islamic Front – killing an American was the “individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it” (9/11 Commission 47).

Terrorism by such groups as the Al Qaeda was global, inhumane, and a kind of private violence on an international scale. However, by 9/11, none of Al Qaeda’s attacks occurred within the United States’ soil, and none had involved suicide bombers – or martyrs as they preferred. As Lewis postulates, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s intention when they planned the 9/11 attacks was a way to unite the Muslim world and rally the Islamic nations behind the Al Qaeda.

The choice of the targets to bomb in the attack elicits the economic and politico-military dimension of the attack. The bombers targeted the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, which to the extremist fundamentalist bombers symbolized the United States’ wealth and power, all of which they resented. Targeting the Pentagon was a statement of political and military defiance towards the United States. The Pentagon was and still is the seat of the United States Department of Defense; attacking the very heart of the entire United States Department of Defense’s headquarters was a statement of military prowess against the infidel from the bombers’ perspective.

From an observer’s perspective, terrorist attacks like the 9/11 attack are physical and deprivation in nature. Additionally, as Silver posits, “the goals of terrorism are inherently psychological in nature” (427). The objective of the terrorists is to disrupt society, and they rely on instilling fear and anxiety to achieve this objective. A disrupted society suffers both long-term and short-term social, political, psychological, and economic consequences. The consequences that the victims suffer may make the targeted group or government give in to the terrorists’ demands.

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With all these underlying facts revolving around the events of 9/11, the terrorist attack demonstrates a real-life functionalist theory in sociology. According to Kendall (14), the functionalist theory assumes a stable, orderly society that operates on societal consensus where a majority of society members share common values, beliefs, as well as behavioral expectations and norms. In this society are interrelated parts, each performing varying functions that ideally contribute to the society’s orderliness and stability.

Acts of terrorism – like the 9/11 attack – are intermittent deviations from the equilibrium in a stable and orderly society, and they are equally functional in society (Cinoglu and Ozeren 49). For some time in the wake of the 9/11 attack, American society witnessed a temporary disruption in all spheres of life. For instance, the American and Canadian airspaces remained closed until September 13, while Wall Street closed until September 17.

From the functionalists’ perspective, the events of 9/11 performed various latent functions in line with Merton’s manifest and latent functions model of functionalism. 9/11 events strengthened American society’s in-group solidarity and cohesiveness. Out of the shock the American society suffered, they elicited a renewed religious commitment as church attendance rose by six percent on the weekend following 9/11 (Uecker 477) as Americans stood in solidarity with the victims of the attack. 9/11 events also helped to clarify social rules in America.

As Silver (427) posits, Americans now tolerate longs queues at the airports as they get scrutinized for security reasons. The events of 9/11 strengthened the rules for security screening in public places. Furthermore, the 9/11 events brought about the much-needed change in American society. As earlier mentioned, the Americans before 9/11 lived with a “false sense of security and perceptions of invulnerability” (Silver 427). The events of 9/11 shattered this falsehood and created the awareness and the need for intelligence gathering to counter future terrorist attacks. Lastly, the events of 9/11 made conformity seem more desirable than deviance.

As Lewis (623) puts it, all the nations considered as Axis of Evil, terrorist movements, and countries that aided them as well as Islamic fundamentalist states and movements were liable for a military attack by the US. Iraq was the first target of this new United States’ operational model. After much struggle, Iraq finally readmitted United Nations inspectors for WMDs – whom she had initially expelled – and eventually, Sadam Hussein was deposed from power in Iraq. Such developments resulting from the events of 9/11 elicit the desirability of conformity Vis a Vis defiance.

Despite the extensive attention from the entire world, the actors in 9/11 were two – the perpetrator and the victim. As mentioned earlier, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda finally owned up to being responsible for the attack. The victim was the nation of the United States and its citizens. The perpetrator and victim were socially polarized groups on religious, political, social, and economic bases. When Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda finally acknowledged their responsibility for the 9/11 attack, Bin Laden cited the United States’ support of Israel, the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, and sanctions against Iraq as reasons why he called for the attack on Americans.

Al Qaeda’s goal as an Islamic fundamentalist and religious extremist group is to clear the world of political and religious pluralism, the plebiscite, and equal women rights (9/11 Commission xvi). As the 9/11 commission adds, Bin Laden was a patient and ruthless planner who schemed his attacks well in advance and did not get frustrated by setbacks (189). On the receiving end of the attack was a nation and a government that was unwieldy and unprepared for the 9/11 events. In chapters six and seven of the 9/11 Commission Report, the commissioners reported that there were signs and reports of an imminent attack.

However, policymakers and the citizens for varying reasons did not foresee an attack of the magnitude witnessed on 9/11. 2977 Americans died, and 25,000 injured on 9/11. Others died later from the direct and indirect effects of the attack, while the American economy lost over $10 billion.

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Besides the perpetrator-victim social polarization, the atmosphere in America was a significant enabler for the attackers. First, Americans and their government did not feel threatened because the only successful attacks on the United States or any other sovereign states had been organized by other states, not small, underfunded, and loosely organized militant groups like the Al Qaeda – compared to the US government.

Bin Laden recruited, oversaw, and financed the training of the nineteen suicidal hijackers. Led by Mohamed Atta, the other three pilots – Manwar Al Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, and Ziad Jarra – steering the hijacked planes received pilot training in the United States. This fact implies that the hijackers had firsthand knowledge of American airspace operations, which they would exploit to their advantage. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, the Al Qaeda plan also received help from the Iranian state as well as the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Beirut (240). Though hotly contested, there were allegations that the Al Qaeda also received support from a faction within the Saudi Arabian government.

The media and the political class reacted variedly to the events of 9/11. Kellner (132) posits that the American media was passive in investigating the reports it aired because it relied heavily on the 9/11 Commission report instead of independent investigations. There was no harmony in the media reports about how the hijackers boarded and crashed the planes and in the details of President Bush’s initial reaction and immediate response following the attack. Nonetheless, the American media unanimously achieved four things:

it promoted fear after 9/11, bought into the assumptions of the Bush Administration’s “war on terror,” elevated Bush to the status of Supreme Leader, and then largely reproduced the Administration’s lies and propaganda that propelled the country into the Iraq quagmire (Kellner 132).

The politicians in the wake of the 9/11 attack became significantly partisan. In an address to the nation on the night of 9/11, President Bush told Americans, “Today our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist attacks” (Simko 886). The president then made a declaration of war on terror, telling the rest of the world they either supported the US or the terrorists. The media was entirely behind Bush and his conservative Republican regime. When Senator Tom Daschle – Senate minority leader – asked legitimate questions about the nature and scope of Bush’s war on terror, the media and right-wing politicians savaged him as unpatriotic.

To date, the entire United States continues to observe the grim events of 9/11. According to Brown, “It’s become a solemn and sacred ritual in the United States each September 11 — pausing for part of the day to remember the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks”. In addition to this ritualistic observance of the events of 9/11, to memorialize the events of 9/11, the US government constructed the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, Manhattan, NY, the Pentagon Memorial, Virginia, DC, and the Flight 93 National Memorial, Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Every year, the Tribute in Light memorial – an imitation of the twin towers of the World Trade Center – illuminates the sky of New York atop the 9/11 Memorial Plaza on the September 11-12 night as Americans commemorate the tragic events of 9/11.

Since 2014, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum has been documenting the events of 9/11 to the public besides hosting the annual commemoration ceremony, which is a private function for the families of those that perished in the attack. The Pentagon Memorial in Virginia has 184 empty benches all dedicated to the people who perished in the Pentagon attack. The Pentagon Memorial also hosts a private memorial service for survivors and the families of the deceased. The Flight 93 National Memorial has a visitor center and viewing platform where members of the public get an unobstructed view of the crash site for United Airlines Flight 93.

Additionally, every September 11, Flight 93 National Memorial hosts the Annual Remembrance, which is open to the public. From a personal perspective, such memorialization initiatives are sufficient in honoring those who perished on 9/11. The fact that the annual commemorations at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are private functions for survivors and family members of victims is a noble thing because it gives them the privacy, serenity, and space they need to remember their loved ones.

Works Cited

9/11 Commission. The 9/11 Commission Report. 2004. Web.

Brown, Forrest. “9/11 Memorials and Remembrances around the US.CNN. 2019. Web.

Cinoğlu, Hüseyin, and Süleyman Özeren. “Classical Schools of Sociology and Terrorism.” Eskişehir Osmangazi Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi, vol. 11, no. 2, 2010, pp. 43–59. Web.

Kellner, Douglas. “The Media In and After 9/11: Book Review.” International Journal of Communication, vol. 1, 2007, pp. 123–142. Web.

Kendall, Diana. Sociology in Our Times: The Essentials. Student ed., Cengage Learning, 2016. eBook.

Lewis, Gavin. WCIV Volume 2: Since 1300. Student ed., Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.

Silver, Roxane Cohen. “An Introduction to ‘9/11: Ten Years Later.’” American Psychologist, vol. 66, no. 6, 2011, pp. 427–428. Web.

Simko, Christina. “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy.” American Sociological Review, vol. 77, no. 6. 2012, pp. 880–902. Web.

Uecker, Jeremy E. “Religious and Spiritual Responses to 9/11: Evidence from the Add Health Study.” Sociological Spectrum, vol. 28, no. 5, 2008, pp. 477–509. Web.

World Health Organization. “Chapter 1: Violence – a Global Public Health Problem.” pp. 3–21. Web.

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