9/11


The New York City Firefighters Memorial, one of the most peaceful locations in the city, two blocks from my apartment. I sat there often to reflect in the days after 9/11.

Hard to believe it’s been nine years since I emerged from the N/R station at 8th Street at about 9:20 a.m., to see a huge cloud of dark smoke high in the sky — actually not an unthinkable sight in New York, so I wasn’t particularly alarmed until I reached my office on Lafayette near East 4th. There, from the roof, I watched the buildings burn, standing near a co-worker who was essentially watching her brother die.

I’m very sorry to see the memory of this event turned into a circus by some shrunken, ignorant and self-seeking politicians and pundits, among others, but very grateful that we have a president with the integrity and presence of mind to say this.

From Godspell. Watch to the end. Positively creepy.

We already knew that there’s a place of honor in the contemporary Catholic Church for serial child molesters. Now, by reinstating Richard Williamson as a bishop, Pope Benedict XVI has made clear that Holocaust denial is also welcome.

According to the NY Times, Williamson just last week “said he did not believe that six million Jews died in the Nazi gas chambers.” That’s interesting, because no one believes six million died by gas. There were many, many other methods. On Hitler’s Eastern Front, in Poland and the Baltics [farther east as well – DA], hundreds of thousands were herded into forests, mowed down by gunfire and dumped into mass graves, for instance, greatly contributing to the total.
As others have pointed out, Holocaust deniers don’t deny that Jews died during World War II. They just deny that this was part of Hitler’s elaborately engineered final solution (which it was).  Therefore they can say, as Mel Gibson did in defense of his Holocaust-denying father, “Yes, of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. […]” But six million people is not “some” people. It is a vastly disproportionate number from one single ethnic-religious group, and there’s something obscene in even having to say so.
Anyhow, the Pope can tell us all he wants that he doesn’t share Williamson’s view. The thing is, he’s not particularly bothered by it.
Incidentally, I’ve noted on occasion that contrary to what many assume, the “9/11 Truth” movement is largely a phenomenon of the extreme right, not so much the extreme left. So it’s little surprise that Richard Williamson, a believer in the hoax of Holocaust denial, is also an ardent “Truther,” a promoter of the nonsense that the Bush administration — yes, the utterly inept Bush administration — engineered one of the most complex and diabolical schemes ever unleashed on a domestic civilian population. “A pretext to invade Afghanistan,” Williamson calls it. Please. Bush made it abundantly clear that to invade a country — say, Iraq — under a pretext, you just go ahead and do it.

Bill Maher raised the subject of 9/11 on last night’s show, and countered Sarah Palin’s regurgitation of “they hate us for our freedom” with his own “they hate us for our airstrikes.” And there the debate remains frozen, still, seven years later.

Although “they hate us for our freedom” is cartoonish and misleading, Islamist militants are in fact declared foes of the secular state. (And be assured, by the way, that every loyal al-Qaedist is an ardent creationist.)
Yet U.S. foreign policy does play a role in the fomenting of extremism. Any worthwhile analysis of 9/11’s “root causes” must take both elements, and more, into account. Salman Rushdie knows this — he’s brighter than Maher and all his other panelists combined — and yet he spoke the least. That’s the way the wind blows on TV.
While it contains a kernel of truth, “they hate us for our airstrikes” also fails to account for the horribly prolific slaughter of Muslims carried out by al-Qaeda and Taliban forces and their allies. The militants claim to represent Muslims; they’d like us to believe they are aggrieved by Muslim deaths. They are in fact brutal beyond belief toward Muslim populations. This still has yet to penetrate left-wing discourse about terrorism in any meaningful way.

It is September 11 and the McCain campaign has us all ranting about lipstick on a pig. Think about that.

Last year, to mark this anniversary, I posted a passage from Amitav Ghosh’s 1988 novel The Shadow Lines. I’d like to do so again.
The Shadow Lines is a semifictional account of anti-Muslim communal violence in Calcutta in 1964. Parallel anti-Hindu riots erupted in Dhaka, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) around the same time; Ghosh witnessed it personally.
In this scene, the narrator recounts a bus ride home from school with his friends. The bus driver, surveying the growing menace in the streets, realizes he cannot drive the children home. Taking evasive action, he departs from the usual route and picks up speed. The children begin to panic.

None of us looked at each other. We could not recognise the streets we were careering through. We did not know whether we were going home or not.

The streets had turned themselves inside out: our city had turned against us.

Tublu began to cry. One by one the rest of us gathered around him. At any other time we would have laughed, but now, we listened to him in silence, appalled. He was really crying; we could tell — not for attention, nor because he was hurt. There was an ocean of desolation in his sobs.

He cried like that all the way home, for all of us.

It would not be enough to say we were afraid: we were stupefied with fear.

That particular fear has a texture you can neither forget nor describe. It is like the fear of the victims of an earthquake, of people who have lost faith in the stillness of the earth. And yet it is not the same. It is without analogy, for it is not comparable to the fear of nature, which is the most universal of human fears, nor to the fear of the violence of the state, which is the commonest of modern fears. It is a fear that comes of the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent, that the spaces that surround one, the streets that one inhabits, can become, suddenly and without warning, as hostile as a desert in a flash flood. It is this that sets apart the thousand million people who inhabit the subcontinent from the rest of the world — not language, not food, not music — it is the special quality of loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one’s image in the mirror.

The following book review appears in the Winter 2008 issue of Jazz Notes, the quarterly journal of the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA), edited by yours truly.

Music in the Post-9/11 World
Jonathan Ritter and J. Martin Daughtry, eds.
Routledge, New York/London, 2007; 328 pp.; $24.95 paperback

Review by David R. Adler

In the liner notes to Up For It, written about a month before the start of the Iraq war, Keith Jarrett asked: “Why play music at all? What difference could it make?” Many involved in the arts expressed similar sentiments in the aftermath of 9/11. Lost lives, a marred Manhattan skyline, political disquiet and the prospect of ongoing war made art, and certainly the pleasure of entertainment, seem insignificant, even disrespectful. And yet the feeling gradually subsided, and the music never stopped.

This new essay collection, Music in the Post-9/11 World, meticulously reconstructs a period of time that can now seem like a blur. The foreword, by ethnomusicologist Gage Averill, sets out the mission: to explore “how music is implicated in conflict, justice, intercultural understanding, and peace” — or, more broadly, “to assess the richness of sound and music in the emotional life of humankind.” The contributors represent a range of academic disciplines: ethnomusicology, music theory, folklore, communications, American studies. None of the essays deal specifically with jazz, although one jazz journalist, the JJA’s Larry Blumenfeld, weighs in with “Exploding Myths in Morocco and Senegal: Sufis Making Music After 9/11,” an insightful account of the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music and the musical-political activity of Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, who has done much to combat anti-Muslim stereotypes in the West.

Blumenfeld’s essay is found in part two of the book, which focuses on the climate outside the United States. Elsewhere in this section, co-editor Jonathan Ritter examines commemorative 9/11 songs in the pumpin style indigenous to Peru’s Fajardo region; John Holmes McDowell offers close readings of corridos, or Mexican ballads, relating to 9/11; James R. Grippo investigates the sha‘bi music of urban working-class Egypt; and Veronica Doubleday gives a fascinating report on the state of musical culture in Afghanistan. On the musicological level, every one of these essays is illuminating. On the political level, two of them have major weaknesses, typifying an uncritical indulgence of “the Other” often found on the academic left.

Part one, dealing with the music and mass media landscape in the U.S., includes James Deaville’s innovative analysis of TV news music — an inscrutable world of “stingers,” “bumpers” and “promo beds,” starkly reminding us that “music is unsurpassed in its ability to tap into the personal narratives of individual viewers” and promote government-sanctioned viewpoints. We also find Martin Scherzinger’s especially nuanced “Double Voices of Musical Censorship after 9/11”; Reebee Garofalo’s synoptic “Pop Goes to War, 2001-2004”; Kip Pegley and Susan Fast’s analysis of the 9/11 memorial concert “America: A Tribute to Heroes”; reflections on the politics of Bruce Springsteen and Darryl Worley, by Bryan Garman and Peter J. Schmelz, respectively; and thoughts on “Classical Music and Remembrance after 9/11” by Peter Tregear. What emerges is a picture of music in its various and overlapping social functions: salve for a wounded community, vehicle of inclusion and exclusion, protest against national policy, or belligerent defense of that policy.

Somehow, each of these essays has to contend with the aggressively unenlightened reign of George W. Bush, and there is much well-deserved criticism of pro-war country music jingoists such as Worley, Toby Keith and Lee Greenwood. But elsewhere, the forgiving treatment of Egyptian sha‘bi singer Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim and Mexican corridista Andrés Contreras makes for a striking contrast, and seems to indicate a broader political bias.

Grippo, in his discussion of al-Rahim, is willing to censure “Israel’s apartheid-like domination over the Palestinian people.” But when it comes to al-Rahim’s video-clip depicting a cartoon George W. Bush scrawling a large Star of David over a world map, or his lyric “O People, O Mankind, it wasn’t but a tower/and certainly its owners are the ones that made it fall,” Grippo is studiously neutral. “Controversial” and “brazen” is as far as he’ll go. Al-Rahim is a self-professed ignoramus on world affairs, but Grippo, in the end, lauds him as part of “a long line of sha‘bi singers who have used their craft to enlarge sociopolitical criticism….” The idea that anti-Semitism and 9/11 conspiracy theories are in fact stultifying sociopolitical criticism in countries like Egypt doesn’t enter the discussion.

Similarly, McDowell can’t summon an unkind word about corrido singer Andrés Contreras, who praises Osama bin Laden as “a valiant man” and regards the 9/11 attacks as just. To be fair, McDowell seeks to establish that Contreras’s “El Corrido de Osama bin Laden” fits comfortably within the corrido tradition, in which respect for the cunning Mexican outlaw trumps other moral considerations. But the Contreras song is one of five 9/11 corridos explored in McDowell’s essay. Three of them are, in McDowell’s estimation, “conformist,” in that they endorse “the official story” of 9/11. McDowell repeats the phrase “the official story” five times in his final two paragraphs. He defines it as “a world of black and white, of terrorists and victims — the Twin Towers are portrayed as beautiful (though fragile), the victims are innocents, the attackers cowardly, and the quest for vengeance is a natural and legitimate response by the injured party.”

Oddly, McDowell seems to prefer not only the inverted black-and-white Contreras narrative, with its “damned gringos” and heroic bin Laden, but also the “neutral” stance toward bin Laden expressed by another corridista, Rigoberto Cárdenas Chávez: “I am not God to judge you/but you must have your reasons.” While McDowell never praises the pro-bin Laden sentiments outright — like Grippo, he affects scholarly objectivity in describing them — he is enthused about the “counterhegemonic potential” of the corrido genre, its ability to “challenge the official story and propose a different understanding of our collective history.” Why a “counterhegemonic” understanding like Contreras’s is superior to the putative conformism of “the official story,” McDowell does not say. It’s supposed to be self-evident. In an intellectual environment where the easy appeal of the counterhegemonic is itself hegemonic, this makes perfect sense.

Larry Blumenfeld, in his essay on Sufism, rightly calls for “intelligent, open, and complex discussion of the issues at hand,” and there is much of it to be found in Music and the Post-9/11 World. However, the Grippo and McDowell entries raise questions about some of the tacit assumptions guiding the project. Gage Averill, in the foreword, throws the problem into relief with a refreshingly candid passage about his Vietnam-era “dalliance with the violent wing of the antiwar movement.” For a time, Averill “allowed [himself] to justify violence in the pursuit of political aims,” a habit of mind that struck him as “frighteningly current” during the 9/11 crisis:

The perpetrators of 9/11 and their sympathizers justified the violence because it ‘brought the war home’ to America, and they have argued that no one living in America is innocent — arguments that were familiar to me. I had once been complicit in a way of thinking that excused or rationalized the loss of innocent lives in the exercise of terror for political ends…. As I coped with my grief and shock following 9/11, I also had to deal with an unsettling sense of complicity and guilt, a failure of my humanism.

Introspection of this sort isn’t terribly common on the anti-imperialist left, and it doesn’t surface again in the book. Averill reminds us that critical thinking involves more than a dissection of “the comfortable capitalist matrix of U.S. hegemony,” in the words of co-editor J. Martin Daughtry. At some point the critique must turn inward, toward the comfortable matrix of the left’s own design.

Lively turn of events last night on Bill Maher’s show, as a handful of so-called 9/11 Truth activists attempted to disrupt the live broadcast and impose their agenda. It’s been a while since I’ve bothered to comment on the 9/11 conspiracy phenomenon, but I must applaud Maher for hammering away at this sinister bullying cult. I’d also like to recommend a site I recently happened upon called 9/11 Cult Watch. I don’t subscribe to its leftist position in every particular, but I think the analysis here is important. Be sure to check out their companion blog as well.

A number of prominent non-cultists, including Michael Moore, Robert Fisk, Howard Zinn and even the admirable human rights advocate Peter Tatchell, have made remarkably credulous statements on this “issue” of late.

George Monbiot of the Guardian had two excellent columns back in February, well worth reading in light of the Maher incident.

For a forceful rebuttal of the pseudoscience behind 9/11 “Truth” see here. And also this, from the editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics — an important follow-up to that magazine’s authoritative debunking.

I’ve taken strong exception to the op-ed writings of prof. Stanley Fish before. But he gets much right in this piece about the controversy surrounding Kevin Barrett, a university lecturer in Wisconsin who is under fire for his view that 9/11 was “an inside job.”

Fish argues that Barrett’s critics and supporters are both wrong — the critics for arguing, in effect, that certain topics should be forbidden; the supporters for arguing, in effect, that anything goes in the classroom or lecture hall. The line is crossed, Fish holds, when a professor begins to proselytize for a particular viewpoint. As Fish notes, Barrett is a member of the group Scholars for 9/11 Truth.

Fish is agnostic on Barrett’s fitness as a teacher. If Barrett checks his personal convictions at the door, Fish maintains, then OK. If he uses the classroom as a megaphone to sell the “9/11 Truth” viewpoint, then not OK.

What Fish misses, and what I’ve tried to explain here, is that the pretense of objectivity is the “9/11 Truth” movement’s stock-in-trade. (Holocaust deniers operate in much the same way.) For Barrett to import the movement’s phony “we report, you decide” rhetorical tricks in a classroom setting does not resolve the issue. Of course, universities must tread extremely carefully when it comes to academic freedom. But they must tread equally carefully when it comes to lecturers who are mouthpieces for disreputable political causes.

Fish notes, only in passing, that Barrett is not teaching about 9/11 per se. He is teaching a course on “Islam: Religion and Culture.” The quality of Barrett’s work on that subject, thefore, is the relevant issue. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has decided to retain Barrett, citing “the free exchange of ideas.” But if Barrett is hawking flim-flam about Islam in the context of 9/11 — and there’s ample to reason to wonder about that — then the school should reconsider. There is such a thing as pedagogical malpractice.

Since I took issue with the “9/11 Truth” movement in these two recent posts, I can’t let this pass without comment. Yvonne Ridley, the British former journalist, was taken hostage by the Taliban in 2001; she is now a Muslim fundamentalist and Al Qaeda apologist. Oh yes, and a member of George Galloway’s antiwar RESPECT party. Now Ridley has traveled to Malaysia to make common cause with antisemitic cranks who believe 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy. One of her colleagues in this endeavor is Michael Collins Piper of the American Free Press, a publication with ties to neo-Nazi organizations.

A couple of years ago I had a letters exchange in Jazz Times with a defender of Amiri Baraka, who has given credence to the noxious “the Jews knew” theory (a version of which seems to surface after every terrorist attack on the planet). Subsequent to this exchange, a reader wrote in to tell me that I really must consult the American Free Press and educate myself on the issue. There were some “serious-ass questions” still left unresolved about 9/11, he wrote. The “serious-ass” question, really, is this: How is it that a defender of Baraka, a radical black poet, can consume and recommend white supremacist propaganda?

By chance, I recently found myself on the PATH train to the World Trade Center, which takes a semi-circular route straight through the open-air pit of Ground Zero. It was the first time I’d laid eyes on the place since October 2001. Suffice it to say that I have not moved on and I never will. And everywhere I go in this city, I see stickers that read “9/11 Is A Lie!”

No. “9/11 Is A Lie” is a lie.

A friend writes in about my dismissal of the 9/11 conspiracy film “Loose Change 9/11.” His comments deserve a reply:

…the fact that your piece begins with “I haven’t seen either edition but…” takes some of the sting out of the argument that follows. Check out the video first and then let us know where you think the filmakers went wrong.

Here’s the thing: These theories about the U.S. gov’t plotting 9/11 have been circulating for years. I am well acquainted with those theories, as well as the rebuttals from Popular Mechanics and elsewhere. In short, one doesn’t need to see this propaganda film to know that the “9/11 Truth” movement is full of people with political axes to grind, despite all their talk of objectivity, critical thinking and the rest. And no, I’m not attacking the left here — the fact is that lots of the 9/11 conspiracist stuff emanates from the far right.

I have no idea what the truth is about 9/11 but one thing’s for sure — the government’s official explanation of the events is chock full of holes. I think it’s all worth picking apart and discussing to the fullest extent possible, don’t you?

I don’t. There are holes in the govt’s explanation, but these concern intelligence, communications and security failure. This epic and historic failure has already been picked apart, extensively. The Bush administration has shown us many times over that it is not competent to plan lunch, much less an elaborate mass murder/media hoax.

The conspiracists have seized upon proven gov’t failure in order to concoct an “alternative” explanation — one that happens to shore up their already existing view that Bush is a terrorist, that the U.S. is demonically evil, and that no one else in the world could do something so horrible. As much as conspiracists tell us not to take anything at face value, they’ve clearly made up their minds and they seek to convert us.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the art of public persuasion, of course, but we shouldn’t ignore that this film is the work of a lobby, in essence, and that the film’s “evidence” has been ginned up over time by self-interested parties. They’re not dispassionate, objective and critical, as they claim. They’re invested in a cause—and one that simply isn’t credible, I would argue.

Again, what’s the logic here? The administration staged a terrorist crisis to justify foreign wars? It’s absurd on its face. The 9/11 attacks revealed America to be weak and extremely vulnerable — what strategic purpose does that serve? What gov’t would willingly create such an image of itself? And right before going to war? Here’s where common sense proves a more reliable guide than the supposed expertise of the physicists and engineers who’ve lent their energies to the 9/11 Truth campaign.

Conspiracy theories are a cottage industry, and also part of an unseemly history. Serb nationalists used to claim that the Bosnian Muslims were shelling their own towns. It was politically expedient for them to say this, and I’m sure many convinced themselves it was true.

On a practical political level, this matters because the Democrats have a realistic chance of regaining control of the House and Senate this November. I think there’s an excellent case for the impeachment of President Bush, although the Democrats should probably take the high road and not risk such a major disruption. (They don’t have the guts anyway — they just rolled over on the confirmation of Michael Hayden as DCI.) If the Dems do retake Congress, they should start handing out subpoenas and investigating this White House for all manner of wrongdoing. They should make this a long campaign for 2008, drumming the “culture of corruption” theme into the national consciousness. Any talk of investigating supposed 9/11 coverups (from, say, Cynthia McKinney) will help to discredit the Democrats at a time when they could actually succeed, and maybe even do some good.

In short, conspiracy theories masquerade as politics but are in fact a distraction from politics.

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