“I Am an American”: portraits of post-9/11 US citizens

Cynthia Weber
11 September 2007

"I Am an American"

Click here to view the original Advertisement

On 21 September 2001 - ten days after 9/11 - the Ad Council in the United States launched its "I am an American" advertising campaign. The campaign of the US's leading producer of public-service advertisements "sought to celebrate the ideals that keep this country strong by highlighting the nation's extraordinary diversity". It featured thirty- and sixty-second television spots in which a montage of individual US citizens of diverse ages, races and religions looked directly into the camera and declared, "I am an American", while the emotive Americana music of Edgar Meyer plays in the background. Each spot concluded with the longstanding US motto E Pluribus Unum ("Out of Many, One"), underscoring the idea that these living portraits of individual citizens combined to create a single, shared vision of the US nation. According to the Ad Council, "the ads helped the country to unite in the wake of the terrorist attacks".

Click here to view the first video in the series

The ads certainly fitted (and probably reinforced) the idealised image of post-9/11 America that was instantly conjured and recycled across the airwaves: as a unified nation founded upon the principle of the tolerance of difference. Yet while many Americans embrace this ideal, pre-and post-9/11 history shows that it is not so easily put into practice. The dream of US unity has long been fractured by sectarian and racial differences (settler vs. native, white vs. black among them), and new divisions appeared in the wake of 9/11 ("we" vs. Arabs/ Muslims/ "others"). The Bush administration's international and domestic responses to 11 September further polarised the nation in political ways. All this presents a sharp contrast to the portrait of national unity and single-minded patriotism conveyed in the Ad Council campaign.

The Ad Council campaign offered a glossy portrait of a post-9/11 US, but a grittier view is available to those who take the time to look more closely. I spent the past nine months in the US doing just that. I conducted on-camera interviews with a wide range of US Americans about their experiences, from patriotic soldiers who have served in the Iraq war to patriotic Muslims who found themselves detained as enemy combatants. I also observed the ways in which the rhetoric in the so-called war on terror is mobilised to combat other "threats" to the US, most notably undocumented immigrants and the US citizens who dare to care for them; and I had the opportunity to speak with US citizens who in strikingly different ways are caught up in the post-9/11 US security crossfire.

Out of one, many

Many of the individuals I spoke with and the stories they represent have become quite widely known in the US. But considered together, they provide a striking contrast to the idealised self-portrait of contemporary US American-ness as illustrated by the Ad Council campaign. These individuals, and my interviewees, are:

  • Iraq war veteran Guadalupe Denogean, who became a "fast-tracked" US citizen
  • Iraq war resisters Phil McDowell and Jamine Apointe, who are seeking political refugee status in Canada
  • peace activist Fernando Suarez del Solar, who refused posthumous US citizenship for his soldier son Jesus who was killed in Iraq
  • undocumented immigrant Elvira Arellano, who until July 2007 was in sanctuary in a US church fighting deportation so she could remain with her US citizen son Saul
  • the founder of the Minuteman Civil Defence Corps, Chris Simcox, who organises civilian patrols along US borders
  • human-rights activist with the No More Deaths group, Shanti Sellz, who with Daniel Strauss was arrested for transporting undocumented immigrants to a hospital
  • indigenous-rights activist Ofelia Rivas, who is fighting the construction of the US-Mexico border fence that will divide her nation
  • indigenous-rights activist Jose Matus, who heads the Indigenous Alliance Without Borders project
  • Hurricane Katrina evacuees Greg and Glenda Avery, who have at times been treated more like "refugees" than US citizens in their own country
  • US army Muslim chaplain James Yee, who was detained by the US government as an enemy combatant.

To make the contrast with the Ad Council explicit, I produced a critical remake of the original advertisement. Like the original, it features each subject looking directly into the camera and declaring "I am an American" as Edgar Meyer's music plays in the background. This time, however, my interview subjects go on to declare just what kind of US American they are - the son of an immigrant without papers, a political refugee from the US, a person wrongly accused of being a terrorist spy. These declarations of the specific lived experiences of US citizenship and US national identity in the post-9/11 US make it impossible for me to end my film with the US motto E Pluribus, Unum. Instead I end it with Ex Uno, Plures ("From One, Many") - a phrase that more accurately captures the always fractured US and the plurality of the citizens who compose it.

Living differences

I also wanted to give these US Americans the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words and reflect upon US citizenship and US identity in light of their experiences. So I produced a series of four-minute films that do what the "I am an American" adverts fail to do - tell us more about the true individuality and (collectively) the diversity of the subjects; about who these people are in a way that is suggested by far more than their nationality, race, religion, age, and ethnicity. What I hope my films express is how these US Americans live their differences in an often less-than-tolerant and increasingly disunited nation.

A selection of my films will run on openDemocracy - beginning today with Chris Simcox, founder and president of the Minuteman Civil Defence Corps, and ending on 11 September with the critical remake of the "I am an American" advert. The stories told here are in no way meant to speak for all US Americans and their lived experiences of citizenship and identity in the post-9/11 US. Rather, they are a sample, albeit an often troubling one. Yet as worrying as this sample may be, what I find more disturbing are the numerous stories not included here, told to me by ordinary US Americans caught up in extraordinary circumstances who are too afraid to tell their stories on-camera. There is no better evidence of the distorting focus of the American Ad Council's self-portrait of the US expressed in its post-9/11 advertising campaign than what has become increasingly evident in the ensuing six years: the fear of ordinary US Americans who cannot safely say "I am an American" with a difference.

[ I am an American - Chris Simcox video is subsequently removed from YouTube]


Undocumented immigrant Elvira Arellano and her son Saul


Guadalupe Denogean, retired US Marine Sergeant and "fast-tracked citizen"


Phil McDowell, Iraq war resister and political refugee


James Yee, US army Muslim chaplain


Greg & Glenda Avery, Hurricane Katrina evacuees


Click here to view again the alternative "I Am an American" advertisement

This research was supported by grants from the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, by a Visiting Scholar position at the University of Arizona, and by Lancaster University. The full series of films is available in English and in Spanish for gallery exhibition, screening, and broadcast.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData