‘Family Guy’s 9/11 Counterfactual

I haven’t watched Family Guy with any sort of regularity for years — the show’s sexism really became unbearable for me — but I did check in on last night’s 9/11-themed episode, and found it both charming and politically astute. The idea is that when Brian and Stewie travel back in time, they inadvertently prevent the September 11 terrorist attacks, but instead of creating a peaceful country, vastly worse things follow.

The thing that the episode gets, I think, is that even if thousands of Americans didn’t die on September 11 and the attack had been foiled mid-air, the chances are high that we would have done some bad things to ourselves and our country. In this case, George W. Bush loses a second presidential term, goes home, and refounds the Confederacy. “The new American Civil War you set into motion ended in a series of concentrated nuclear strikes along the eastern seaboard,” Stewie tells Brian in dismay. “They killed 17 million people. Including Cesar Millan!” That’s definitely worse than what we did to ourselves in the aftermath of the successful attacks: more people have died in the wars we started as a result than were killed by terrorists, and that doesn’t even begin to count the lost goodwill, moral authority, and monetary suck of our detention policies. I appreciate that Family Guy gets that the attacks may have been an initial victory for al Qaeda, but it’s a victory we consolidated ourselves.

Second, the scenes of Brian stopping the attacks are a pretty good parody of American revenge fantasies. “Ugh, you prepared catchphrases for yourself?” Stewie says, disgusted, as he watches footage of Brian whipping out a baseball bat and uttering platitudes like “Time to terrorize the terrorists!” and “Mohammed Atta stayed home.” What makes the people who foiled the attack on United 93 so heroic is not that stopping crime — whether it’s a mugging, or a vicious and unthinkably ambitious act of terrorism — is a chance to show off but because it’s absolutely terrifying.