Who are the 'unmeltable' in the great melting pot of America? 9/11 ten years on.

As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Cynthia Weber, professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, author 'I am an American' Filming the Fear of Difference' and creator of the 'I am an American' project, looks at how the intervening years have led to a crisis of identity for many US citizens and how, in the great 'melting pot' of America, some are seen as 'unmeltable'.


What does it mean to be an American post 9/11?

The answer very much depends upon who you ask.  Even among US citizens, answers vary.  So it's best to begin with what US Americans are taught it ought to mean to be a US American.  We are taught that all US citizens enjoy the inalienable rights claimed for US Americans in the Declaration of Independence - the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We are taught that all US citizens enjoy freedom and equality under the law.  And we are taught that we get to live our lives in the context of the American Melting Pot, where our individual differences like those of race, religion, and national origin 'melt away' because we all identify as US citizens.

It is this melting pot ideal and a national ethnic of tolerance that the 'I am an American' Public Service Announcement, which was made soon after 9/11 and which was the inspiration for my 'I am an American' project, was celebrating.

Has the War on Terror led to a backlash of intolerance?

At times of national crisis - not just in the US but in all countries - citizens are hailed to be patriots, to defend national ideals, and to rally against an enemy.  One of the things that makes this rallying effective is the use of fear.  We certainly saw this during the War on Terror, where in the post-9/11 US and in many other Western nations fear and patriotism were aligned in such a way as to make citizens fearful not only of actual terrorists but of anyone these governments or media suggested might also be a terrorist.

In the US, this fear-based patriotism led  to a backlash against not only Muslim-Americans, Arab-Americans, and other US citizens who were taken to be Muslims or Arabs. It also led to a backlash against a wide range of US citizens who, through no fault of their own, found themselves on the wrong side of the 'with us or with the terrorists' War on Terror.  For example, you saw US soldiers and their families who opposed the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq become targets of intolerance, you saw civilians fighting in the US domestic War on Immigration find themselves labeled as terrorists, you saw the undocumented immigrants they were assisting labeled as terrorists, and you found US citizens who took no public side in either US foreign wars or US domestic wars - artists, academics, environmentalists - be brought up on charges like bioterrorism because they used benign bacteria in their part practice or be threatened with being put on the domestic terrorist watchlist because they were distributing environmentalist leaflets.

So, yes, there was a backlash against US citizens who were deemed to be different from 'true patriots'.  And, of course, there is no such thing as 'true patriots' either.  The category of 'patriotic Americans' only makes sense when you can oppose  it to 'unpatriotic Americans'.  These 'unpatriotic Americans' were very useful to the US state and to US media.   Indeed, they were so useful that they had to be invented.  For example, even people who we wouldn't usually think of as occupying a category of 'difference' could - because of the culture of suspicion created by the post-9/11 politics of fear and of securitization - be produced as new types of 'suspicious characters'. 

This actually happened to me, both in the US and in the UK, when I was making my films.  In the US, I was deemed to be suspicious when I was filming the construction of the US-Mexico Border fence and ended up being detained by US Border Patrol, even though the US National Guardsmen who were building the fence gave me permission to film them.  And I was stopped and searched under the UK Terrorism Act when I spent about 10 minutes looking at the US Embassy building in London for a potential scene in my film and then stopped in Grosvenor's Square Park to make notes.  Two Metropolitan Police on Embassy Duty came out of the bushes on their motorcycles - lights flashing, sirens blaring - and detained me because I had shown an 'unusual interest in the building'. 

Both instances were very useful to the respective governments - the US incident functioned to scare off people from legally documenting US security practices, and the UK incident (which was much more public) served to scare all the onlookers in the park into behaving better than I apparently did and to toe the imaginary line of behaving like a good citizen so they wouldn't be stopped, searched, and possibly arrested themselves.

All these types of practices produced citizens - in this case, US citizens -  into 'unmeltable Americans', because these practices mark these US Americans with a 'difference 'that  is deemed to be too great, too threatening, for them to un-problematically melt into the idealized American Melting Pot.  And that gives presumably 'patriotic Americans' license not to tolerate them. 

Despite the drive to reinstate a national identity, do you think that identity is now more splintered according to race, religion and ethnic group?

Identity is always fragmented, whether we are talking about racial identities or religious identities or ethnic identities or national identities.  In different places and in different times, the same person might well identify more with their race than with their religion or with their religion than their nation or with their nation than their race.  So there is nothing natural about anyone identifying as US or British or a national of some other country.

But during a national crisis, citizens of a country are called upon to actively think of themselves as patriotic citizens.  In those contexts - whether we are talking about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US or the 7/7 bombings in London or the 11-M bombings in Madrid - identities are still splintered, but the strong national identifications that are encouraged by governments and  media can make these splintered identities appear to be unified national identities.

One of the interesting things that happened immediately after September 11, 2001 - just after the terrorist attacks and before President Bush launched his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - was that citizens from other countries identified as 'Americans'.  I would hear people in Europe say, 'We are all Americans now' or 'We are all New Yorkers'.  We saw something similar after 7/7 in the UK - people saying 'We are all British' or 'We are all Londoners'.  Part of what this testifies to is the unanchored nature of national identifications, as well as to how some local identities like New Yorker or Londoner are 'international'.  You don't have to be a citizen of a nation or a city to identify with it.  So when we speak of national identifications, we should remember that they are as much felt identifications - as much affective identifications - as they are legal identification.

What effect has Obama's presidency had on notions of identity?

President Obama is a great example of the fluidity of US national identity, how it is perceived both within and outside of the US, and how some differences are seen to be 'unmeltable' - even if you are the President of the United States.  So, on the one hand, many US citizens see President Obama as epitomizing the US melting pot because he is the product of a family of many races, religions, and national origins.  Yet others in the US - whether because of racism or Islamaphobia - make the argument that President Obama is not 'American enough' to be President.  This, I think, is what was at the root of the very silly US Birther Movement, whose followers tried to argue that President Obama was not born a US citizen but was naturalized as a US citizen after his birth.  That's an important distinction because only people who are born as US citizens can become President.  I have never heard of anything like this in the history of the US, and I cannot imagine there would have been a Birther Movement opposing President Obama had he been white with the middle name 'W' rather than 'Hussain'.

Things played themselves out very differently outside the US.  I was living in the UK when Obama was elected President, and I have to say that overnight it became a lot easier for me to be a US citizen living abroad.  While George W. Bush was President - and especially when he was re-elected President - being US in Europe (not to mention in many other parts of the world) was not a very popular thing to be.  With Obama's election, it was like the US had been redeemed in the eyes of Europeans. 

Of course, it is silly to treat someone well or badly based on who is elected to run their country.   This response to me betrays how it is often the case that citizens of a country - regardless of their personal political views and regardless of their political influence - are equated with the leader and/or foreign policies of their country.  But it was striking how much more tolerated US citizens were in Europe after the election of Barack Obama than they were after the re-election of George W. Bush.

What effect has Osama Bin Laden's killing had on the American psyche?

It's a little early to tell what the lasting effects of the killing of Osama Bin Laden will have on US Americans.  As we all saw on television, there were nationalist celebrations with chants of 'USA, USA' outside the White House and in New York when the news of Bin Laden's death was first released.  And President Obama visited Ground Zero in New York as a gesture of bringing closure to the events of 9/11. 

But, of course, bringing an end to the War on Terror will require more than just dropping this language (which the Obama administration did early on) or killing Osama Bin Laden.  It will take years to reposition the US internationally and domestically - in terms of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with their political and financial  legacies, in terms of its on-going indefinite detention of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in terms of its balancing of homeland security and civil liberties.  And, unfortunately, the Obama administration has not made as much progress in these directions as many of his supporters hoped he would.

 And what of the future for America?

President Obama's re-election is anything but a sure thing given the severe economic difficulties the US finds itself in.  And even if he were re-elected, real questions hover around his ability to lead a country that is so politically divided that his bipartisan policies have been made a mockery of by far right Republicans in the Tea Party Movement.  None of this bodes well for US governance or for creating a more congenial civil society.  Without that, the US may well be its own worst enemy.






By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Thursday, 25 August 2011