Imagination and the Post-September 11th State – by Brigid Callahan Harrison

When asked by The Creative Research Center to write about “the uses of the imagination in the post-September 11th world,” the first notion that struck me was in terms of my own research – though admittedly I had not conceptualized the changes to the political context that occurred after September 11th, 2001 as “imagination.”

But really, what is terrorism, if not the manipulation of the imagination – the terrorist’s power to force his or her prey to imagine the worst – to think of terrors that may not occur, and to then contextualize the prey’s realities based on that imagined terror?

It is said that September 11th changed everything. This event – along with the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — is the catalyst that inextricably altered the modern political realm. It changed how Americans imagine their idealized democracy – specifically the powers they imagine appropriate for the government to exercise. Because we can imagine the alternative, we consent to an unprecedented expansion in governmental power in the name of security. We kid ourselves into imagining that trial size liquids, dutifully removed loafers, and the pre-board pat-down protect us from the bogeymen. But at 3:10 a.m. under the quilts, we know that our enemies’ imaginations, and the infinite ways in which individuals can do harm in a post-modern world — no longer subject to the rules of warfare — probably exceed our ability to imagine ways to thwart attacks. The pat-down won’t protect us from a vial of smallpox in Times Square, and won’t keep our water supply or our soldiers safe.

And isn’t this the essence of terror?

Because we can now imagine terror, we also imagine terrorists. The tried-and-true tolerant are tested as were their similarly-inclined forebears in the wake of Pearl Harbor, of Tet, during the Cold War, and other wars. But the stereotypical villain of yore, whether Hitler, Khrushchev, Castro, or Ho Chi Minh, has morphed in our collective imaginations; he is swarthy and steely-eyed, turbaned, and ruthless. And more than 7 in 10 Americans support the practice of subjecting men who look like him — citizens or not —  to extra scrutiny before boarding a plane.[i] They imagine they know the enemy. That identification of an enemy is comforting. It facilitates the unity of “us” versus the otherness of “them.” It helps us organize our thinking, provides a concrete enemy in the face of a war without one. It brings order to the reality of our chaos.

But as with all politics, the Hobbesians do not have a monopoly on our political imagination. September 11th and its aftermath has changed (in a very Lockean way) how Americans, especially young Americans, imagine their own role as citizens in democracy quite different from previous manifestations. Through these events, we can see the power of imagination to alter political realities – to shape and define the context in which political and policy decisions are made.

Since the early 1970s—a decade blemished by the intense unpopularity of the Vietnam War and by scandals that ushered in the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974—Americans’ attitudes about government have been dismal.[ii] Numerous surveys, including an ongoing Gallup poll that has tracked Americans’ opinions, demonstrated low levels of trust in government and of confidence in government’s ability to solve problems. Young people’s views have mirrored those of the nation as a whole. One study of undergraduate college students, for example, showed that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) did not trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time, an attitude that reflected the views of the larger population.[iii] Distrust, lack of efficacy, and apathy among young people were reflected in the voter turnout for the 2000 presidential election, when only 36 percent of eligible college-age voters went to the polls. 

The events of September 11th jolted Americans’ ideation of their political context, and while 70 percent of Americans say that the attacks were the most memorable event of their lives,[iv] their impact would be felt most strongly by young people, the millennial generation born between 1980 and 1995. “The attacks of 9/11 . . . changed the way the Millennial Generation thinks about politics. Overnight, their attitudes were more like [those of] the Greatest Generation [the generation of Americans who lived through the Great Depression and World War II],” observed John Della Volpe, a pollster who helped Harvard University students construct a national poll of young people’s views.[v]         

In short, a different democracy was imagined: as patriotic spirit soared in the country at large, suddenly 60 percent of college students trusted the government to do the right thing. Ninety-two percent considered themselves patriotic. Some 77 percent thought that politics was relevant to their lives. [vi] In the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, President George W. Bush and Congress enjoyed record-high approval ratings. Roughly 80 percent of young people and nearly that same percentage of all Americans supported U.S. military action in Afghanistan. But beyond opinions, imagination informed actions:

         —  More than 70 percent of college students gave blood, donated money, or volunteered in relief efforts.

         —  Nearly 70 percent volunteered in their communities (up from 60 percent in 2000).

         —  Eighty-six percent believed their generation was ready to lead the United State into the future.[vii] 

And then the political context changed again; not overnight this time, but over months and then years. As the wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq wore on, as casualties mounted, and as military spending skyrocketed, the American people again grew cynical. Trust in government, particularly of the president, plummeted.

By all outward appearances, it appeared that the ideal citizen and government imagined in the wake of September 11th was a mirage – a short-term patriotic blip on the screen fuelled by the rally-round-the-flag syndrome. Then the 2008 election happened, and whether or not you agree with the outcome, you cannot deny the importance of what the election represented: high voter turnout, most importantly, nearly historic participation among the youngest voters (whose participation has been steadily increasing).  Among voters age 18–21, the largest increases in turnout occurred among 19-year-olds, whose turnout rivals that of voters in their 30s.

The negativity, cynicism and low-turnout of the 2010 mid-term elections offer evidence to those who say that the 2008 energy and the enthusiasm generated among both Democrats and Republicans that presidential election were mere blips akin to the post-September 11 phenomenon.   I disagree. Mid-term elections are parochial beasts; they do not offer the opportunity national elections do to tap into a common psyche, a resonant vision.

In the classroom and in the statehouse, I see evidence that the catalyst of September 11th provided fodder to the imagination of our youngest citizens – the watershed event that was September 11th spawned a generational event the impact of which will be seen for decades as Millennials imagine, develop, and perfect new means of political participation. I see them hopeful that their imagined vision of a new American democracy informed in tragedy and shaped by unity can become a reality through action. For many, the foundation of political participation, volunteerism, or community action has already provided them with a rationale for increasing their knowledge of, and participation in, their communities.  As their participation increases, so does their potential effectiveness, creating a positive spiral of imagination, action, and results. 

In the end, it is what we imagine – the terror and the hope –that defines our polity and defines us.

Brigid Callahan Harrison is Professor of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University, where she teaches courses on American politics. A frequent commentator in print and electronic media, her most recent book, the second edition of American Democracy Now was published this month by McGraw-Hill Publishers.



[iii] Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “Attitudes Towards Politics and Public Service: A National Survey of College Undergraduates.” April 11-20, 2000., accessed August 16, 2007.


[v] Carl M. Cannon. 2007. “Generation ‘We:’ The Awakened Giant,” National Journal. March 9.

[vi] Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “Attitudes Towards Politics and Public Service: A National Survey of College Undergraduates.” April 11-20, 2000., accessed August 16, 2007.

[vii] Ibid.

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  • Patricia Jillard says:

    “a positive spiral of imagination, action, and results” Excellent piece which brings clarity to how the Millennials will move forward in these times.

  • David says:

    I disagree about using dates to define the Millenial Generation. ANYONE can be gen y if he/she is tech – savvy, open – minded to diversity of all kinds, and is into the latest music and entertainment. I was born in 1979 and all these characteristics describe me, so that makes me a Millenial! I say to everyone, have an open mind and let people choose whichever generation they want to belong to – one that best fits their CHARACTERISTICS!


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