One could approach the question of Donald Trump’s claim to have seen TV coverage of thousands of New Jersey Muslims celebrating on 9/11/2001 from multiple angles. While not a Donald Trump supporter, myself, the chords of my media cynicism have been hit: When a progressive Democrat (like President Obama) says something that isn’t wholly true, the story and the fact check become whether there’s any sense in which it is somewhat true. When a conservative or a Republican says something that isn’t wholly true, the story and the fact check concern themselves with whether the statement is true in every particular.
Far more important, though, is what has happened to our culture and our public discourse — not only the ideological polarization, but the sense of proof. On the first point, the sides pick a witness and suspect those with contrary statements. Do eye witnesses in Paterson, New Jersey, insist that they saw celebrating Muslims? Well, here’s a police officer who claims otherwise. One side notes that a high-ranking officer in a city’s police department might have ulterior motives (either political or because his officers must deal with the local population), while the other side insinuates that eye witnesses can’t be telling the truth.
The matter brings to mind G.K. Chesterton’s argument for why those who disbelieve in the reality of miracles are actually the ones adhering to dogma:
The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both.
Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story.
Generally speaking, dogmatists are on all sides, of course. There are some for whom evidence that a single Muslim in America managed to crack a smile on 9/11/01 would stand as evidence for Trump’s claim. There are others (more, I’d wager) who will deny the existence of any jihadi sympathizers within our nation’s Islamic communities unless there’s a mainstream news video showing massive hidden celebrations in mosques across the country. As Mark Steyn and Ed Driscoll suggest, the idea that some not-insignificant number of people in New Jersey joined Muslims in other countries in an anti-American celebration is far less mindlessly dogmatic than insisting that the Islamic State has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam.
This is a deeply intricate topic having to do with national security, culture, theology, and just about any broad category of human inquiry one might wish to consider. And I fear our society’s most profound loss in recent decades has been its ability to absorb and process such complex matters. That leaves us susceptible not only to grave error, but also to manipulation and subjugation.
We may find it difficult to believe, in our times, but there was an era not that long ago, historically speaking, in which, far from on-the-scene amateur videos posted instantly to a globally-available Internet, there was no way for anybody to record any incident at all. No video. No photograph. No audio. A record of an event meant that, after an incident, somebody went and wrote down what they had seen or described it to somebody who knew how to write.
Much subjectivity worked its way into accounts, no doubt, but so did much that was accurate, so accounts couldn’t be dismissed outright. I worry that we’re reaching a point at which people believe that anything that isn’t incontrovertibly proven on video can be dismissed by default, even without concrete reason to dismiss it — just because it doesn’t fit the dogma.
Two moments of the nonstop news coverage that rolled through 9/11/01 and the following days stuck in my memory. One was of a man jumping from the Twin Towers who held some kind of cloth over his head as if it would function as a parachute. Almost faster than one could conclude that was what he was doing, he lost his grip on one side and plummeted. I remember thinking how such a thing might be humorous in a movie, reflecting exactly the sort of thing I’d imagined trying as a boy looking out of NYC skyscraper windows.
The other was of a black woman looking up at the towers and sobbing. “They’s jumping!” she cried. And I thought how racial divisions would prove too petty to continue on in the post-9/11 world.
Well, in the final years of the Obama presidency, racial division is back in fashion. Because 9/11 came before instant, democratized online video, and because the old-guard keepers of records have let much of that day’s experience slip into memory, I haven’t been able to find either of those moments and others that I remember so vividly. If it were somehow to become convenient for an Ivy League cry-bully to deny they had ever existed, I would have nothing but my own testimony as evidence.
Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about our new social-media world and the upcoming generation that has never known anything else is the degree to which everything is conclusion first, evidence only as support. Maybe this is behind the sheer madness that has been astonishing many of us recently.
Before we can come together, uniting and compromising, to figure out how our society should address an expanding threat of terrorism, we have to be able to acknowledge, on one side, that there are people within our own country who will either engage in attacks or support them and, on the other side, that it’s possible that such people are insignificant in number. Somewhere in the middle is a reality that must then be integrated with our nation’s principles.
I’d humbly suggest that if we draw lines between each other based on the fact that a reality-TV presidential candidate is at the center of the argument, it won’t take very many enemies to harm us incalculably.