Irony: Still Kicking After All These Years

After the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair magazine, stated that he believed that, “The Age of Irony” was over. However, ten years and two wars after that statement was made, the fear of terrorist attack that has sprung up and taken over many facets of American life and policy brings up the question of whether irony died with the first attack on American soil in the 21st century – or whether its heart didn’t even skip a beat. The changes in American policy following the September 11th attacks, according to people such as Art Spiegelman and supported by the past decade’s tightened grip on freedom (in the name of freedom), display a type of irony that has not only subsisted since the destruction of the Twin Towers, but has grown to encompass many aspects of American life.

However, before the irony of America’s retraction into its shell in the name of safety and freedom can be fully explored, we first must examine what irony actually is. The three primary types of irony are verbal, situational, and dramatic irony. Verbal irony is defined as a situation in which a statement expresses a meaning opposite of what it literally conveys1. Situational irony refers to a situation in which the outcome of an action is the opposite of what was intended to happen1. The final type of irony is dramatic irony, which is defined as a situation in which the audience, or an outsider, knows or observes something that a person carrying out an action does not1. Between Carter’s quote and the actions of the United States after 9/11, all three types of irony can be observed.

So what exactly did Carter mean by his quote, “I think it’s the end of the Age of Irony”? Although interpretations of the saying continue to this day, I believe that the “irony” to which Carter is referring can be defined as “dishonesty” – saying one thing, but meaning another. This interpretation of irony is basically a definition of verbal irony, and it is understandable why people would be leery of such turns of phrase in the fear-filled months following the September 11th attacks. After 9/11, changes in policies such as heavily increased airport security2 and the imposition of wiretapping and other privacy invasions through the Patriot Act3 were institutionalized forms of the fear and paranoia felt throughout the American public toward any actions or words that could be interpreted as “terrorism”. With such a mistrust of words and actions that could be considered deceitful or possess a double meaning, it is easy to see how someone like Graydon Carter could claim that irony was dead. However, judging from the actions taken by the American government after 9/11, Carter did not take other forms of irony into account when he proclaimed the end of the age of irony.

Shortly after the Twin Towers fell, the extreme rules and sacrifices of privacy in the name of safety were not only logical to the American people, but were seen as necessary to protect the United States from another terrorist attack. However, some of the actions taken by the American government after 9/11 are much more controversial – and ironic. The most significant of these actions was the war declared in Iraq in 2003. Art Spiegelman points out in his comic In the Shadow of No Towers both the issues and irony of the Iraq war being declared during a time were America was focused on maintaining both its safety and its freedom. Spiegelman wonders why after 9/11, “those provincial American flags [sprouted] out of the ember of Ground Zero? Why not…a globe?”4 Spiegelman points out the irony in this situation by expressing how America did the opposite of what he feels it should have after 9/11 – instead of starting a controversial and questionably legal war against Iraq, the United States should have garnered for safety though international alliances. Spiegelman also points out how the war and invasions of privacy that occurred after 9/11 were ironically portrayed to the American people – as measures of safety, freedom, and liberty.

Although the legitimate fear and paranoia of the American people after the September 11th attacks invites people such as Graydon Carter to state the age of Irony – the age of trickery and double meanings – is over, an investigation of the actions taken by the United States government in the years following 9/11 tells otherwise. The declarations or war and invasions of citizen privacy enacted after 9/11 were portrayed to the American people in ways the reek of irony – throughout most of the 2000s, the war in Iraq was presented as a way for America to promote freedom and its own national security, as were measures such as wiretapping and invasive searches at airports. The period after September 11th was a time of fear and paranoia during which the scope of American freedom was shrunk in the name of safety and security, and wars and privacy invasions were ironically advertised as the protectorates of freedom and liberty. Although the idea of irony might have put some Americans such as Graydon Carter on the edge, irony itself in no way died after the September 11th attacks. Even today, as the wars in the Middle East continue and the influences of post 9/11 policies can still be felt, irony continues to live and grow in the chaotic political environment of the 21st century.

  1. “Three Types of Irony.” Web. 27 Jan 2012. < types of irony>.
  2. Bearden, Tom, dir. “Safe Skies.” PBS: Web. 27 Jan 2012. <;.
  3. . “What is the USA Patriot?.” Department of Justice. The Department of Justice, n.d. Web. 27 Jan 2012. <;.
  4. Spiegelman, Art. In the Shadow of No Towers. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004. Print.
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