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How 9/11 memes became an internet phenomenon

You'll never forget... these memes.

 

Jack Alban

Tech

Posted on Nov 24, 2023   Updated on Nov 27, 2023, 10:12 am CST

Sometimes, humor can be the only way to process unmistakable tragedy and profound loss.

Jews historically employed comedy as a means of dealing with the Holocaust, and there are studies that delve into the humor of African-Americans who developed specific jokes to reconcile the brutality of slavery.

Comedy, like any art form, can splinter off into a variety of different genres and sub-genres that are then molded to serve specific communities. When it comes to the community that is the internet, there is one form of comedy that reigns supreme: memes.

And one such tragic event in recent history that has seen its fair share of memes that have people shaking their heads and saying to themselves, “I probably shouldn’t be laughing at this,” are memes that deal with the collapse of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentago on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Bush White House had 9/11 memes before 9/11 memes were a thing.

When someone thinks of memes, they think of flipping through various social media feeds and seeing certain humorous images, at a glance, causing them to crack a smile before doom-scrolling on down to the next instant dopamine reaction.

However in the wake of 9/11, there were a number of memes that were making the rounds in the White House during President George W. Bush’s tenure, predating even the internet parlance.

They were printed on paper and presumably disseminated throughout the White House offices. These memes capture a particular sentiment in post-9/11 America, representing a “go get them” attitude against the terrorist group who launched the attack. And they “have been preserved in the National Archive and the Bush Library” according to VICE.

One of the memes depicts a play on the poster for the classic western film Tombstone, starring Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell, but the cast of characters have been photoshopped to instead depict several key members of the Bush administration. Another movie poster, “Tali Wars” is a spoof on The Empire Strikes Back, showing Osama Bin Laden as Darth Vader and Dick Cheney as Yoda.

The third image is a photoshop that makes Bush look like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character—instead GWB is called “The Turbanator.”

The image is superimposed on an American flag and the tagline for the spoof film reads: “In the Year of Darkness 2001, America devised the ultimate plan. He would reshape the future by ridding the world of an evil that felt nothing but hate. He was…The Turbanator.”

9/11 memes

While the Bush administration’s 9/11 memes centered on the actions the United States government, and military, were going to take against the Taliban, once the internet sprung up, memes that made light of the tragedy itself made the rounds online.

A number spoof the destruction of the buildings, placing blame on figures both logical and nonsensical.

And people had their clear favorites, like this one for all the Hulkamaniacs out there.

One of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air contributing to the destruction made a few people chuckle.

A popular meme using Mike Myers’ psychotic Cat in the Hat character from the 2003 film as a stand-in for a destructive force naturally became a canvas for 9/11.

Of course, a variety of recurring meme formats make an appearance in any search for Sept. 11 memes, including the vascular dude driving a car with one hand.

But as distance from the tragedy increased, memes became more absurd.

Artificial intelligence got in on 9/11 meme-making, with people creating a series of images where Nintendo’s cute, plushy pink mascot, Kirby piloted one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the greatest Twitter thread for AI discourse
byu/sporkyuncle inaiwars

In fact, several AI-generated 9/11 memes circulated this year. Unlike the previous memes joking about cats and wrestlers doing 9/11, these put beloved characters right in the cockpit in a photorealistic fashion.

Some of the most celebrated memes, though, came from brands that made unintentionally humorous tributes, like this Veggie Tales one.

Or DraftKings.

Or White Castle.

Another subset of memes is celebrities who swore they could have stopped the attacks and how they responded.

Rapper Ice Spice’s response to how she would’ve responded to the World Trade Center attacks also became a meme in of itself, as she was only a year old when it happened.

And people always love to joke about Mark Wahlberg’s claim he could have stopped 9/11.

https://twitter.com/benwassertweet/status/1568943745474641922

Numerous people shared this fake Tyra Banks quote about the importance of having a strong work ethic, under any circumstances.

Then there are politicians accidentally creating their own form of humor.

Former President Donald Trump in 2013 penned what many consider to be an iconic tweet on Sept. 11.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) commemorated 9/11 in his own way: by publicly like an adult film on his social media profile.

For one woman, her miserable marriage was tantamount to a national tragedy. And for that, we were all gifted with an incredible meme.

Some of the best memes were funny because they highlighted just how vastly different regional priorities in the United States are.

For some Americans, Sept. 11, 2001 was truly a bittersweet day, like this championship-level bowler whose wonderful accomplishment will forever be overshadowed by the attacks.

The ‘Barbenheimer’ effect

The summer of 2023 saw two breakout films benefit from a bipolar cross-pollination that somehow translated to box office success: Barbie and Oppenheimer. The two movies couldn’t be more wildly different in tone and subject matter, however, the idea of watching the flicks back to back as a double feature for a jarring, five-hour cinematic experience somehow became a part of the collective consciousness, thus creating Barbenheimer and a series of memes to go along with it.

However, some Japanese social media users on X weren’t too enthused about seeing images of Margot Robbie canoodling with Cillian Murphy, who portrayed the man who created the atomic bomb, which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing almost a quarter-million.

In response to what some thought were heartless images making light of the bombings, Japanese X users made a series of 9/11 memes to demonstrate how tone-deaf the Barbenheimer branding was.

However, Americans embraced these 9/11 memes, seeing them as consummate works of comedic, web-centric art.

Some say humor changed forever following 9/11

The Atlantic published a piece highlighting how the prevailing form of comedy in the United States became political satire: programs like The Daily Show gained massive traction, as did entire sitcoms and cartoons based off the Bush family. Heck, Will Ferrell did a traveling road show as the former president, which even inspired a movie.

There’s no end to the psycho-speculative reasoning behind why so many people have created humor off of 9/11—we just know that it’s such a widespread phenomena that there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the sheer amount of comedy that has sprung forth from the national tragedy.

Maybe it’s just an irrevocable truth of life, something that famed Danish physicist Niels Bohr seems to have intrinsically understood when he said: “There are some things so serious you have to laugh.”

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*First Published: Nov 24, 2023, 8:00 am CST