Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Beyond Representation: Cultural Understandings of the September 11 Attacks

Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Beyond Representation: Cultural Understandings of the September 11 Attacks

Article excerpt

The September 11 attacks changed the world. This article explores this common assertion by analysing selected Australian and American media and political representations of the September 11 attacks. The aim is two-fold: to explore these representations and to analyse their functions and implications. Three themes that characterise Australian and American understandings of September 11 in the immediate aftermath of the attacks will be discussed. The first theme is that the impact of the attacks was represented differently in each country (but in a way that reaffirms the status quo in both nations). Second, the countries shared an interpretation of the attacks that reflects the characteristics of mainstream terrorism discourse. Third, the attacks were also understood in both countries as a challenge to existing structures of representation. It is argued that the September 11 attacks, therefore, expose and violate the limits of representation. By breaking the rules of representation, the September 11 attacks raise the possibility of alternative understandings and appropriate responses to them.


The impact of the September 11 attacks was massive. Thousands of people died, landmark buildings crumbled and communities across the world watched while the events unfolded live on television. The societal and political reactions to the attacks were similarly massive, promoting a "War Against Terrorism" marked by intensely symbolic rhetoric (Charlesworth, 2001/2002). Yet those visual and discursive images of the September 11 attacks raise as many questions as answers. How were they simultaneously understood to be overrepresented and fundamentally unrepresentable? How were they constructed to affect perceptions of national identity? How were they interpreted to change the world?

They occurred on September 11, 2001, when two American planes were hijacked and used in a suicide attack on the World Trade Center (WTC), New York. Another American plane was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon, Washington DC, and a fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. The terrorists, who died during the attacks, were later linked to the network of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, based in Afghanistan. The incidents claimed approximately 3000 lives and affected many more. They influenced everything from public opinion on Australian immigration policy to global tourism, and the date of the attacks--September 11--is often referred to as "the day that changed the world" (Campbell, 2002, p. 12; Phelan, 2002, p. 104).

In their wake, the American President declared his country's commitment to a "War Against Terrorism" and called on other leaders throughout the world to support America in this battle (Chomsky, 2001; Passavant & Dean, 2002). A "War Against Terrorism" did then ensue: Afghanistan was subjected to targeted military strikes and the ruling Taliban regime was overthrown. The September 11 attacks have also been linked to more recent military action instigated by the United States of America (USA). In May 2003, for example, Bush (2003) described the war in Iraq as "one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001".

In this article, I explore American and Australian representations of the September 11 attacks that emerged in the 72-hour period after they occurred. The discussion is based on my analysis of print media representations (from The Australian and The Washington Post newspapers) and political representations (the media releases from the Australian and American heads of state). I examine what the representations of the September 11 attacks are and then analyse the implications and functions of those representations. A guiding objective in my research has been to reappraise those representations as an interpretation, rather than the "reality", of the attacks. That is, I have analysed the media and political representations of the September 11 attacks on the basis that they actively produce the way the attacks are understood. …

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