How Was “The Wire” a Product of Post-9/11 Society, and How Has It Aged?

In his 2012 column for The Atlantic, Josh Hendel wrote about how The Wire (2002) had aged in a way that makes it feel dated, and how that’s a good thing. The Wire’s pilot aired in June of 2002, nine months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers, which ushered in a new age of modern American paranoia about international threats to its national security. The HBO series presents a gritty depiction of the run-down, broken city of Baltimore, Maryland that is feeling the effects of authoritative prioritization of national security over everyday crime prevention.

Chronologically, 2002 doesn’t feel that distant. But thirteen years ago, there was no social media. We were two years away from the invention of Facebook, and even farther from it becoming accessible to everyone. Instagram’s and Pinterest’s founders were barely out of high school. And cell phones were still just devices used for calling people, complete with green-lit screens and blocky numeric displays. Thirteen years isn’t a huge amount of time, but American culture and the technology that has transformed it has progressed massively within this time.

Such was the world of The Wire. In what has become regarded as one of the greatest television dramas ever (and which earned creator David Simon a Macarthur Genius Grant), extremely under-funded detectives type police reports on typewriters. It’s a blazing story of individuals vs. institution which humanizes each of its struggling characters in a way no urban crime drama had done before. And it was a series deeply rooted in the aftermath of 9/11.

Hendel pulls out a relevant quote in his article, from The Wire’s premiere: “We just don’t have the manpower to stay on anything big,” an FBI agent tells McNulty (Dominic West) in the 2002 premiere, regarding the agency’s shift from focusing on domestic crime and drugs to counterterrorism. “Not since those Towers fell.”

That simple sentence sets a big tone. Baltimore’s war on drugs should be a big deal, but it’s endlessly shuttered by departmental focus on counterterrorism and homeland security. This shift was real, and its obviousness was felt most intensely in poor cities that lacked resources in the first place.

“David Simon brings a historian’s sword in his analysis of urban decay, and the blade is very much one that befits the years 2002 to 2008. The era carried a specificity to its history that is worth noting and is memorialized in this iconic HBO show. The drama was a portrait of its time in the same way a show like AMC’s Mad Men strives to capture the 1960s. The only difference is Simon sought to tell his story in real time. These breakdowns of institutional order emanate from the history that surrounds them, history that already feels distant to those of us rewatching episodes in 2012. To see 2002 again is jarring. Recall the hoppers’ casual use of payphones? Characters’ confusion at the very idea of text messaging or an Internet search in season 2? Or the lack of social media in the disintegration of journalism Simon depicted in season 5?”

The series was adept at grasping and understanding the world it represented, with every detail of its minutiae representative of the time. That’s true both in setting and character, as well as geography.

In short, The Wire feels real, carrying an almost documentarian quality of truth. Watching the series is a means of understanding what America was going through post- 9/11. It talked about issues that we as a society weren’t yet talking about; things we still don’t often understand after 14 years of reflection: for instance, among many others, the current manifestations of racism, the ever growing disparity between the under-privileged and the upper class, a deteriorating educational sytem, insufficient resources to combat urban crime, poverty and decay. It was a scathing observation about institutional power and its impact on the lives of real people.

The show’s second season depicts a change in the workplace and the reinvention of various fields of labor. Consider the plethora of jobs that exist in 2015 that didn’t exist in 2002, and vice versa. Cell phone app development is now one of the highest-paying industries. In 2002, apps were still just the thing you ate before the main course dinner. The Wire’s following seasons convey the growing strains on the police force, discuss the effects of educational reform and budgetary limitations on the public school system, and continually describe the social and political tensions caused by 9/11. There’s a reason The Wire is used as teaching material in America’s college classrooms: there’s something to be learned from it. Further generations who were either too young or not yet alive to grasp the shift after 9/11 can watch the series and understand the period.

The drug war in The Wire, originally operated out of the Franklin Terrace Towers, a housing project in west Baltimore and the setting of most of the first season, become an analogy for the war on terror. When the towers get demolished in the series’ third season, their destruction evokes a very 9/11 response from the audience. “Indeed, both the war on drugs in The Wire and the war on terror in reality were brought to bear through the falling towers. The same smoke that descends from the Franklin Towers and engulfs the inhabitants of West Baltimore in The Wire had only just, a few years back, engulfed the residents of Manhattan, after the collapse of the World Trade Center. Though subtle, the allusions are nonetheless powerful.” - E-International Relations

The Wire articulated life in the mid-2000s in a way that retrospectively seems jarring. As we lived through the era’s altered landscape of law enforcement and society, we didn’t always feel it in the moment. Yet, there’s a timelessness to The Wire that conveys challenges brought to the forefront by a national disaster, but which have always existed in American society. It puts a magnifying lens on myriad social issues exposed by the devastating blast that destroyed the Twin Towers on 9/11 but that existed well before the attack, and which continue to exist.