by Quincy Saul
September 11th, 2011
The 10 year anniversary of 9/11 is being commemorated at Ground Zero today, but not everyone is invited. Excluded from the ceremonies are New York City firefighters, police and other emergency personnel who are universally acknowledged to be the heroes of that tragic day. According to spokespeople from Mayor Bloomberg's office, due to the lack of space to accommodate everyone, the ceremony will be restricted to families of the victims. Oh, and some politicians. In addition to the big names like President Obama, former president George W. Bush, and former NY mayor Rudolph Giuliani, House Speaker John Boehner said that the government will be paying for representatives from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to attend the ceremony.
Unsurprisingly, this has provoked outrage among the first responders and their families. "It's a painful insult for many of the approximately 3,000 men and women [who] risked their lives, limbs and lungs on that monumental day, puncturing another hole in a still searing wound," reported CNN. This searing wound is not only emotional. According to a recent study published in the medical journal The Lancet, firefighters who worked at Ground Zero have a 32% higher rate of cancer than those who didn’t work in lower Manhattan. As these victims struggle for their lives and for compensation from a public administration enamored with the logic of austerity, their exclusion from the 9/11 commemoration can only be interpreted as adding disdainful insult to already deadly injury.
For these reasons, today's ceremony is being observed by many with indignation as an insane paradox. How dare the organizers of this memorial put politicians (and their massive security escorts) before the heroes who were on the front lines ten years ago? How dare these politicians bask in the spotlight even while ignoring, politically and fiscally, the real heroes, who still suffer?
But for different reasons, today's ceremony can be observed by many others with no surprise at all, as nothing but rational continuity. For those who have been following the stories and organizing efforts of many firefighters, World Trade Center employees, and others who risked their lives ten years ago today, the exclusion of these groups is perfectly consistent with how they have been treated, both by the state and by the majority of civil society, for the last ten years. It is not that their stories have not been told. It is that we have not listened.
Can the subaltern speak?
Perhaps the most prominent example is the story of William Rodriguez. Prior to 9/11, Rodriguez was a maintenance worker in the World Trade Center for 20 years. On 9/11, Rodriguez was the only person with the master key to the stairwells in the North Tower. That fateful morning, he personally rescued 15 injured people, re-entering the building three different times after the attacks had begun. He rescued people trapped in elevators between floors by lowering ladders to them. He also helped firefighters get into the building, unlocking doors for them, thus helping to rescue hundreds more. After exiting the building a final time, just before its collapse, he was buried under rubble for two hours before being rescued. He is widely believed to be the last person to leave the North Tower alive.
For his heroism, Rodriguez was personally awarded a special commendation of valor by President George W. Bush. Charismatic, fluent in English and Spanish, and sympathetic to the Republican Party, many saw Rodriguez as a potential politician. The Republican Party even offered to train him for political office and to put millions of dollars towards financing an electoral campaign. The only problem was that Rodriguez started talking about what happened on 9/11.
In his testimony to the Official 9/11 Commission, Rodriguez talked about bombs inside the building. He explained in detail the injuries that he witnessed due to the repeated explosions going off in all parts of the building, before and after the plane hit. He provided the Commission with a list of eyewitnesses to these explosions who were willing to testify under oath. Rodriguez was not alone. His testimony was joined by a multitude of first responders, all of whom testified to multiple explosions going off in both Towers both prior to and after the planes hit the buildings.
The testimony of Rodriguez, and indeed all testimony of these explosions, did not appear in the Official 9/11 Commission Report. In January 2009, due to public pressure, the commission's records were finally made public -- mostly. The testimony of Rodriguez still remains "restricted" to the public. The same can be said of the majority of firefighter and first-responder testimony, all of which dramatically contradicts the Official 9/11 Commission Report.
In the last 10 years, the stories of many of the heroes of 9/11 have been systematically ignored. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that almost every sector of our country, from the government to the media to the whole spectrum of civil society institutions, is determined not to hear these stories. The fact that they are widely available online doesn't seem to make any difference.
Is it any surprise, then, that first responders have been excluded from the official commemoration of the 10 year anniversary? Their exclusion at Ground Zero today is entirely consistent with their exclusion over the last ten years. In this light, the outrage about the exclusion of their bodies from this ceremony, combined with the silence about the exclusion of their voices, is the only real paradox of today's spectacle.
A radical awakening
Like everyone, I have a story about where I was when I first heard the news. I remember a teacher interrupting my ninth grade class to say that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We crowded into a room with a TV for the next several hours. At that time in my life I had no particular political or historical awareness. I had been force-fed the standard liberal white-washed version of US history and current events for eight years of public and private schooling. I resisted it, but haphazardly. I was a case study of the rebel without a cause, suspicious of authority and its knowledge system, but without any idea of an alternative; without any way to understand my own insubordination. I remember watching the first allegation on live TV that Osama bin Laden was the primary suspect for the attacks, and I remember wondering how they could have found a suspect so quickly, before the dust had settled. I remember watching the live footage of the news being whispered in George W. Bush's ear, and his slow nod and absence of facial expression. I remember the words coming out of my mouth before I contemplated them: "It looks like he knew about it." I was quickly reprimanded by several of my peers and teachers. I didn't know anything about it, they said. And they were right.
9/11 was a wake up call for me. I suspected that the US government was generally antagonistic, just like other authority figures I was familiar with. But I was unable to hold up my end of a serious argument. My knowledge of history and politics had more blind spots than anything else. 9/11 silhouetted this for me in very stark light. I knew that there was a whole world of knowledge that would help me to understand what happened on 9/11 and what would happen in its aftermath. And moreover, I realized that I had to learn quickly, that there was no excuse anymore for not being informed. I had to grow up.
This germ of political and historical self-awareness that 9/11 sparked in me led me on a path of self-education that continues to this day. That search led me, two years after 9/11, to drop out of high school, and for the first time take responsibility for my own education. I devoted particular time and attention to US history and current events, and particularly to 9/11.
I spent several years of my life trying to figure out what happened on 9/11. I’ve read thousands of pages about it. I learned about William Rodriguez and his frustrated efforts to tell his story. I followed the stories of many other firefighters and first responders whose voices were similarly excluded from the Official 9/11 Commission Report, and their subsequent efforts to make their voices heard. I followed the story of the 3000 members of families of victims who made the Joint 9/11 Inquiry in September of 2002 before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, raising numerous questions about what exactly US government agencies like the NY/NJ Port Authority, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the Federal Aviation Administration were doing on that day.
I learned about the Project for a New American Century, a Washington DC-based think tank, almost all of whose members became part of George W. Bush's cabinet. I read about their unabashed plans for world domination, and their famous quote that "the process of transformation" towards their goal of US world supremacy, "is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor." I learned about the warnings received by US government agencies prior to 9/11, of an attack on that day, listing specific targets, from governments and reputable press agencies all over the world. I learned about the organizations of engineers and scientists who challenged the physics of how the Twin Towers could have collapsed the way they did. I learned about the most extensive War Games in the history of the US military, which were being conducted on 9/11. I watched over and over the free-fall collapse of WTC Building 7, which wasn't hit by any plane, and was amazed to find no mention at all of Building 7 in the Official 9/11 Commission Report.
While I continued to navigate through all this, I did my best to get others involved. I became something of a 9/11 truth evangelist. I never claimed, nor do I now, to know exactly what happened on that day. But I knew that the official story didn't hold water, that it wouldn’t hold up in any serious courtroom. Over a couple of years, I gradually built a base in my small community of friends and family who shared my concerns about 9/11. With this group, among other things, I organized a public event in the local town hall, raising questions about what happened on 9/11, which over a hundred community members attended.
Deeper than fear or denial
All my efforts met with mixed results. I encountered many people who, similar to myself, had embarked on a course of self-education in the aftermath of 9/11, and shared my concern both about the truth of what happened that day, and about the trajectory of US history and foreign policy in general. Just as frequently, however, I met with dismissal and ridicule, not only from the usual staunch defenders of the status quo, "right or wrong", but also from people I considered friends and allies. People who I admired, people who I had learned so much from over the years, who I had come to trust about almost everything, dismissed my research and organizing efforts as "conspiracy theories," and lamented what they interpreted as me "going off the deep end." People with radical politics who are generally not afraid to take a stand on controversial issues regardless of the consequences, (people like Noam Chomsky and Amy Goodman, everyone at The Nation and Counterpunch, etc, etc, etc.) nonetheless continue to believe the official story about 9/11. In so many words, they dismiss people who care about 9/11 truth as crazy, misguided, stupid, and even dangerous.
This behavior has bewildered and mystified me for a full decade now. For many years I operated under the assumption that if people took the time to look at the facts, they would change their minds. But years of working in the 9/11 truth movement persuaded that this is not the case. The Age of Reason has not yet arrived. People can read the testimony of firefighters and the families of victims, they can watch the collapse of Building 7, and still continue to dismiss anything but the official story as a conspiracy theory. Many are not moved by the extent of scholarship and emotional vulnerability that goes into questioning the official story.
I am now certain that the causes of this dismissal are not simple, but are deeply rooted in a psychological process that is deeper than just fear or denial. My friend John Wells has an insightful hypothesis, which he calls "the Santa Claus syndrome". I will quote at length from his thoughts in our correspondence on the subject:
"I think that psychologically, American culture has adopted what I think of as the "Santa Claus" syndrome. I think that as children they go through a period where they believe in Santa Claus, but there comes a time in their lives where they are faced with the overwhelming evidence that Santa Claus is not actually real. There is a period that follows where one has the choice of being angered by having been lied to, or to adapt to the symbolic order which embraces the Santa Claus mythology as a necessary and beneficial story. So in our society, over the years as evidence is revealed about how our governments engage in covert action, overall there is an initial shock, and then a psychological assimilation to a new world view that incorporates the lies as something normal and necessary. But also there is a factor of the time it takes to be clear about what really happened and the ability to hold anyone responsible, when so many years pass before the ability to do anything about it would ever occur (even the Iran Contra Affair was revealed in relatively short time to allow for a hearing, and the President admitted having been involved and explained that it was necessary, and nothing really could be done to him as enough people believed his idea). So American society will eventually accept that 9-11 was a covert action, but by that time they will be ready to accept it and forgive it, for what choice does a child have whose parents finally admit that Santa is not real? Well, there are many choices we have for we are not children, but these are not obvious to most people."
The Santa Claus syndrome relates to one of the insights of the leader of the Nazis. In relation to 9/11, Hitler's famous assertion rings true: "A definite factor in getting a lie believed is the size of the lie. The broad mass of the people, in the simplicity of their hearts, more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one." Most of us are ready to believe that we were lied to about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But we will still accept that 19 hijackers with abysmal flight skills were able to outsmart the most advanced military defense system in the world, and cause three steel skyscrapers designed to withstand the impact of a commercial airliner, one of which was not hit by anything, to collapse at free fall speed into their own footprint. That lie has proved simply too big to be disbelieved.
Since 9/11, the whole media spectrum from left to right has been saturated with "anti-conspiracy theory" tropes that do their best to ridicule those who question the official story, usually by falsely associating them with a variety of straw-man theories. In a 2002 essay, Gore Vidal, who was one of the first brave enough to speak clearly on this subject, wrote: "Post-9/11, the American media were filled with pre-emptory denunciations of unpatriotic 'conspiracy theorists' who not only are always with us but are usually easy for the media to discredit since it is an article of faith that there are no conspiracies in American life."
For these complex but very real and material reasons, I’ve found it impossible to mobilize a movement around 9/11 truth. I’m tired of asking the same questions and hearing the same dismissals. It’s excruciating when it’s from the people you respect. So as the years went by I moved on to other political organizing projects that seemed to have more of a future, and for the most part stopped talking about it. But 9/11 still haunts me. How is it possible that something of this magnitude fails to ignite mass public indignation? Is ten years not enough time to do your own research? How can so many continue to ignore the evidence, even when brought forward by those who lost and sacrificed most?
All of the victims
Today we acknowledge the people who lost their lives on 9/11, and open our hearts to their families and friends. But they are not the only ones we must remember. In addition to those who perished in the attacks ten years ago, we must also acknowledge the victims of the lies about 9/11. They are also victims of our failure to demand the truth. "A time comes when silence is betrayal," said Martin Luther King, Jr. In this case, our silence about 9/11 truth is complicit with the Global War on Terror, which uses the lies of 9/11 as a mandate to pursue its imperial objectives. Many have died for our collective, cumulative denial about what happened that day.
How many? Researcher, professor and author Gideon Polya calculates in an article titled "The Post-9-11 Decade by Numbers: The American Holocaust": "The (US-complicit) 9-11 atrocity killed about 3,000 people but the subsequent War on Terror has directly killed about 10 million people, the breakdown being 2.7 million (Iraq, 2003-2011), 5.0 million (Afghanistan, 2001-2011), 1 million (Somalia, 2000-2011) and 1 million (global opiate-related deaths due to US Alliance restoration of the Taliban-destroyed Afghan opium industry). In addition, about 7,340 US Alliance military personnel have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan." Before you dismiss these numbers as too high, please look at his statistical methodology.
In light of figures like these, many are hoping to get back to a pre-Bush Golden Age, before the War on Terror, before Afghanistan, before Iraq. Some think Obama can take us back and forward at the same time. But for many of us, the flash of 9/11 illuminated not only the present but the past. As a student of US history, is it cynical to ask what’s new about the War on Terror? It’s not about cynicism, it’s about imperialism. In a recent article in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, dedicated to today’s 10 year anniversary, Melvyn Leffler points out that while 9/11 was certainly a world-historic event, post-9/11 policy is old news:
"Many argue that U.S. foreign policy after 9/11 was distinguished by its unilateralism. But the instinct to act independently, and to lead the world while doing so, is consonant with the long history of U.S. diplomacy, dating back to President George Washington's Farewell Address and President Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural speech... The long-term significance of 9/11 for U.S. foreign policy, therefore, should not be overestimated... [9/11] did not change the world or transform the long-term trajectory of U.S. grand strategy. The United States' quest for primacy, its desire to lead the world, its preference for an open door and free markets, its concern with military supremacy, its readiness to act unilaterally when deemed necessary, its eclectic merger of interests and values, its sense of indispensability -- all these remained, and remain, unchanged."
In Leffler's surprisingly candid assessment, published in one of the central organs of mainstream political discourse, 9/11 was just another episode in the sitcom of empire as a way of life. One thing that did change on 9/11, Leffler points out, is that Muslims and Islam itself became the new targets abroad and the new scapegoats at home. They are being forced to suffer for all our imperial resentment and hubris. In retrospect that may be the most distinguishing feature of post-9/11 politics.
So in today’s moments of silence, we might take that time to consider what it might mean to have solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, abroad and at home, especially all those behind bars, in the US, Guantanamo, and beyond, for crimes they have not been, and may never be charged with. They too are victims of our collective silence about the truth of 9/11. Our sympathy is not enough. What is to be done? As Malcolm X forewarned, “a delayed solution is a non-solution.”
Emptiness and empire
What is being commemorated at Ground Zero today is not a tragedy but the disfiguration of a tragedy. We are commemorating the subordination of the victims of 9/11 to a spectacle which exploits a false version of what happened that day. We are commemorating the perversion of our memories, and the corralling of our emotions into a degenerate political system and its war machine. We are commemorating the desperate efforts of a country in decline to get it up one last time for empire.
In his moving reflections on today's anniversary, cultural worker and former WTC security guard John Pietaro has written that "[t]en years hence, the stench of charred memories are dissipated but the gaping hole remains. The space where the Towers once stood is not the only emptiness we've come to know."
To me, 9/11 has come to mean this emptiness, this lacuna in the hearts and minds of us all. I'm wondering if anything has changed over the last ten years. Have we had enough time to heal? Are people more, or less willing to accept the official story? More, or less willing to challenge a big lie? Has the truth about 9/11 become an academic question, to be debated in books and articles, simply because historical truth is important in the abstract? Or is it still a living question with living consequences, one for which people are willing to make sacrifices to get answers? The first decade of the 21st century has been framed by this seemingly unfathomable question. The meaning of 9/11 depends on our answer. Either we will accept emptiness in addition to empire as a way of life, or we will accept that we must struggle for an alternative to both.
What will we be doing ten years from today?
Perhaps on September 11th, 2021
You and me and everyone
Will commemorate this day
A different way.