Image via the National Archive
More than 20 years after the attacks on September 11, 2001, the event lives on in meme form among America’s youth. But Americans began to create and share memes as a way to work through the grief in the immediate aftermath too. Thanks to the keen eye of writer Matt Farwell, and the meticulous record keeping of the federal government and Bush White House, some of those early memes have been preserved in the National Archive and the Bush Library.
The first set of memes in the archive were seen on the internet, printed out, and passed around the White House. Some of them were placed into an official briefing file seen by George Bush. According to the filing, the President saw a briefing which contained the memes on January 28, 2002. Which illustrious internet illustrations did White House staffers decide to show the President? Let’s see.
They’re all basic photoshops that combine a movie poster with Bush and his staff. There’s Tombstone rendered as “Afghanistone” starring Cheney, Powell, Bush, and Rumsfeld. There’s Bush photoshopped as Arnold Schwarzennager on a Terminator poster. “In the Year of Darkness 2001 America devised the ultimate plan,” the meme says. “He would reshape the future by ridding the world of an evil that felt nothing but hate. He was…The Turbnanator.” Another meme depicts Osama Bin Laden as Darth Vader and Bush as Han Solo.In addition to the Bush meme collection there’s a trove of similar pieces of internet art in the National Archive. The National Archive is an independent piece of the Executive Branch tasked with archiving important documents. It holds the original Louisiana Purchase Treaty signed by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emancipation Proclamation, photographs taken during the Great Depression, and slave ship manifests dating back to 1775.The archive also contains a trove of 9/11 memes sent by a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employee in the days after the attack. In one, the main cast of The Sopranos stands in front of Satriale's. “Just tell us where bin-Laden is and fuhgedaboudit,” the meme says in a font that is noticeably not Impact.
Another picture shows a map of the Middle East with Afghanistan conspicuously missing. “Lake America,” the meme says. “Previously Afghanistan.” In another, a crying bald eagle is superimposed over a photograph of the smoking Twin Towers.These 9/11 memes are part of the National Archives’ collection of “Files Relating to the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks on the United States, 2001–2004.” There’s tens of thousands of files in the archive, and the Archive saved the memes because they were sent as email attachments by FAA employee Bob Whitworth.
Whitworth worked for the FAA for more than thirty years as an Air Traffic Control expert. He was a manager in charge of the skies above NYC during the attack. As part of the investigation into 9/11, the National Archive gathered a massive amount of records from the FAA offices, including Whitworth’s emails and their attachments.“Have you heard,” he said in an email sent at 9:34 AM the morning of the attack. “It’s unf****** believable. Horrible.”According to the email chains, Whitworth helped coordinate the response at the FAA. He helped people figure out their work schedule, helped people work through their grief, and sent memes mocking Bin Laden and the Taliban. Now a meme that shows a U.S. jet chasing a carpet-riding Bin Laden is preserved by the same institution charged with protecting the Bill of Rights.MySpace hadn’t gone live yet in 2001. Social media wasn’t around and there was no system by which people could disseminate all the memes they created and saw online. Back in the day, memes often traveled by email chain. A friend, family member, or co-worker would see something and send it along. Twenty years later, it seems bizarre that work emails would be the vector for highly-charged political memes. In 2001, it was just how things worked.UPDATE 9/11/23: This article has been updated to include the citation of Matthew Farwell, who took the photographs of the proto memes at the Bush Library.