9/11 and America’s Culture of Exclusion

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Mark Putterman


The as-yet-unfinished Freedom Tower is an ever-present presence in the landscape of Lower Manhattan. It is a “North Star” for disoriented commuters exiting underground subway stations, an instant reminder of place, a deliberately placed symbol of identity and grandeur for New York City. In my four years living in New York, I have watched the tower climb ever higher as it has grown to its dominating stature as the city skyline’s definitive identifier.

And yet, first and foremost, the Freedom Tower is a reminder of the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001. I can only imagine that for those New Yorkers who witnessed first-hand the destruction of the Twin Towers, it would be hard to see this shiny new replacement and not instinctively replay the terrible events of that day.

It’s just a coincidence that we inaugurate the DREAM Team at NYU’s blog on the twelve year anniversary of 9/11. And yet, it’s impossible to think about the struggle for undocumented immigrant rights on this day and not discuss the ways that 9/11 has shaped how our society thinks about itself, its place in the world, and its treatment of those without legal status living within its borders.

What is the legacy of 9/11? Beyond mourning the dead and honoring the acts of heroism, beyond stoicism and patriotism and nationalism that this date’s memory invokes… The path of post-9/11 America appears increasingly dark: the lost wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of mass surveillance, the criminalization of entire communities and nationalities and immigrants, and the creation of this false dichotomy between freedom and security. More to the point, how has the surveillance state that emerged in the wake of 9/11 shaped this country’s attitudes towards immigrants, its enforcement of the border, and its treatment of communities and individuals it considers “alien?”

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The magnification of xenophobia that followed 9/11 has had a profound impact on the lives of both documented and undocumented immigrants. From the militarization of the Mexican-US border, to the NYPD’s extralegal surveillance of Muslim American communities and its despicable categorization of entire mosques as “terrorist enterprises,” to the NSA’s clandestine systems of mass surveillance, for many immigrant communities the legacy of 9/11 is not one of patriotism, but of exclusion and criminalization, an era of rampant hate crimes and separated families.

We should not conflate xenophobia with patriotism, surveillance with safety, or militarization with security. Our national identity should not be defined in terms of “us” and “them”. The same ideology that informs the idea that “they” did this to “us” lies behind the policies that keep children from their parents and that prevent productive American undocumented residents from attaining equal protection under the law.


There are over 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and our political representatives are ill-equipped and ill-informed to serve their needs. They are our neighbors, our students, our coworkers, family members, and friends. And yet they continue to live under the constant threat of discovery, detention, and detainment, criminalized by notions that “we” deserve more than “them” because of something as arbitrary as our country of birth. And now, federal legislation ostensibly designed to create a realistic path to citizenship is now threatened to be put on the legislative back burner due the on-going crisis in Syria and varying political agendas.

How can we make sense of this country’s restriction of rights, the criminalization of the innocent, and the detainment and deportation of our friends and families? It is beyond comprehension. What is clear, however, is that if these are the values we have taken away from the events of 9/11, too many of us have missed the point entirely.

The opinions expressed in this blog post belong to the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the DREAM Team at NYU as an organization.

1173845_2089836325543_784453663_nMark Putterman is a student activist, musician, and ally. He is a Core member of the DREAM Team at NYU and a student at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study concentrating in postcolonial studies.

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