9/11 and the paranoid style of American society

Understanding 9/11 means understanding the controversy surrounding the conspiracy-based 9/11 “truther” movement, a manifestation of something deeply embedded in what historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” of American politics. The classic film, Dr. Strangelove, depicts an unhinged officer, convinced that the communists are a threat to our precious “bodily fluids.”  The truther mentality is easily parodied, as in this Onion excerpt, which reveals the principle of Occam’s Razor, that the simplest explanation of an event is the most logically plausible.  In a more serious vein, the film Loose Change, a home-made documentary, struck a chord in the American public by promoting some of these conspiracy theories, a significant portion of the public believe.  The more extreme conspiracy ideas can be refuted and easily dismissed, but the social anxiety that gives rise to them and the serious political impulse they manifest must be taken seriously.  Are there forces beyond our view that shape world events? Yes.  Does the government have a tendency to lie and manipulate the facts?  The post-9/11 experience shows that it does and, historically, always has.  Dismissing the 9/11 truther movement as crackpots, although tempting and justified in one sense, fails to reflect these more serious issues–including the media role in failing to address larger structural issues while giving credibility to more conventional conspiracy advocates, whether regarding Pres. Obama “birthers” or climate change skeptics.

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legal perspectives on national security

cartoonTo speak to these issues, Prof. Robert Chesney from the UT Law School will join us.  His major policy blogsite Lawfare is a go-to site for experts working in the area of national security and international law.  He will address topics such as the ones touched on in David Cole’s essay in the New York Review of Books, in the post below, and in the recent book by Charles Savage, “Power Wars,” on the Obama administration’s approach to coping with international terrorism.  In some ways, this makes a good bookend volume to the “Bush at War” book read at the beginning of the semester.  Come prepared with questions.

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The Hunt for Bin Laden: Bring in the lawyers

00BINLADEN4-articleLargeBeyond the various narratives concerning the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, what questions arose from a legal perspective?  In an analysis of a pre-hunt legal research process within the White House, the New York Times reports that much thought went in ahead of time to establishing the legal rationale for getting and, if necessary killing, bin Laden.  The questions debated included:

  1. Was it acceptable to enter Pakistani territory to carry out the raid?  (Yes, they concluded, under an exception to international law)
  2. Did the president need congressional approval? (No, it had already granted authorization against 9/11 perpetrators)
  3. What if bin Laden tried to surrender?  (How would they conclude he was and what if others were nearby who weren’t?)
  4. Was it permissible to bury bin Laden at sea?  (Yes, reconciling the Geneva Convention rules with Islamic law).

Beyond the media, political and military perspectives regarding the hunt for bin Laden was significant legal apparatus preparing the framework for presidential action.

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The myth and reality of the hunt for Bin Laden

The recent New York Times magazine carries a long piece that makes a stunning claim, “It’s not that the truth about bin Laden’s death is unknowable;  it’s that we don’t know it” (p. 58).  In spite of the massive amount of reporting and information disseminated about the hunt for bin Laden, how can that be?  As the author Jonathan Mahler observes, “Reporters dont just find facts;  they look for narratives.  And an appealing narrative can exert a powerful gravitational pull” (p. 45).  When Hollywood joins in, the picture is reinforced even further, distracting the public from deeper truths available upon deeper analysis.

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The devil is in the details: The truth and Dan Rather

The new movie about Dan Rather’s reporting on Pres. Bush’s National Guard record for CBS demonstrates some important “truths” about journalism.  Even though a story’s basic message may be true, it can get lost and have its truth undermined by the details.  Those details are ever more checkable in an internet-based news eco-system, of which these events around 2004 were among the first to illustrate.

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CBS journalist Lara Logan

Guest Lara Logan’s experience reporting in Egypt exemplifies many of the difficulties in covering conflict zones. The influences on journalism can include, unfortunately, cases of physical violence and intimidation.  In her case it was a crowd out of control, but violence can also be used by the State more strategically.  

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the dissenting voice

9/11 thoroughly permeated all forms of American culture, not just news;  culture has boundaries that enforce what’s acceptable and what’s not (e.g., Toby Keith inside, Dixie Chicks out);  those boundaries contract following a time of national trauma;  in a more positive light these boundaries operate to forge consensus and common purpose in a society.  Now we look more specifically at U.S. journalism, which as a key component of the cultural apparatus is prone to these same dynamics. Howard Zinn may be classified as a “dissenting” journalist, even though he’s more likely thought of as an historian, and public intellectual.  The European tradition of journalism casts journalists more as intellectuals and literary writers, rather than objective chroniclers, so in that respect the role of public intellectual is a middle ground between U.S. style journalism and scholarly writers.

Journalism was a critical channel of communication in the days following 9/11, reassuring the public and seeking understanding of what had happened.  Later, of course, it became a powerful factor in the formulation of American policy response.  To find dissenting views, one has to go outside the mainstream media to find key public intellectuals like historian Howard Zinn and linguistics scholar/U.S. policy critic Noam Chomsky, neither of whom get much space in the news pages.  Within the media channels there are certain independent voices like journalist Robert Fisk.  Although much of the U.S. press might be characterized by the comments of CBS anchor Dan Rather to David Letterman supportive of President Bush, shortly after 9/11, even within the mainstream press there are critical perspectives from time to time, including the New York Times which had an investigation of the Pentagon/media complex.  But the media are also monitored and critiqued from the political right, with critics (including among the right-leaning outlets like Fox) advocating that the press avoid any stories that might be deemed “terrorist propaganda.”  All are relevant perspectives in answering the question, Did the American press fail or succeed in helping us understand 9/11?

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