MTV has finally released the notorious video that constitutes the only videographic “basis” for the 9/11 celebration rumor about Paterson, New Jersey. I’ve had “eyewitnesses” of this video swear to me over the years that they not only watched the video, but that the video itself depicted a celebration taking place in front of the public library in the 900 block of South Main Street in Paterson. It’s the video that I describe in my Jewish Standard interview as the one that I went “crazy” looking for. Incidentally, my own repeated inquiries to MTV in 2001 and 2002 went unacknowledged.
Ladies and gentlemen, behold Exhibit A in Donald Trump’s supposed case for “thousands and thousands” of Arab-Muslim celebrants of 9/11 in the streets of Jersey City, New Jersey:
I never spoke with Emily Acevedo during my research, but the story she tells is identical to the most credible story I’ve heard over the years. It’s also identical to the story that Curtis Sliwa told me in a long phone conversation I had with him back in 2001 or 2002.
Note that Acevedo points out that the disturbance was celebration-like, but that it was not clearly a celebration of 9/11. It could well have been a case of a bunch of high school kids making a disturbance simply because they’d been let out of school early.
As far as Paterson is concerned, I would essentially call this “case closed.” But I certainly have more to say, and though I have hundreds of pages of grading to do over Thanksgiving break, I’ll try to find time to offer a coda (or two) to the controversy.
HT: Glenn Kessler.
Postscript, 6:30 pm: As you may have heard, Trump is now under fire for seeming to mock Serge Kovaleski, the reporter whose September 18, 2001 Washington Post story (written with Frederick Kunkle) is the only (pathetic) basis for Trump’s claim about “thousands and thousands” of post-9/11 celebrants in Jersey City. I’ve addressed the Kovaleski-Kunkle article–and my inadvertent role in facilitating Trump’s exploitation of a sentence in it–in the comments section of a previous post. (Here’s a CNN article where Kovaleski elaborates a bit on the story.)
As a substantive matter, a single obvious fact is worth making, or really, re-iterating for the nth time: as stated, the Kovaleski-Kunkle article doesn’t give credence to Trump’s claims as he originally stated them. The Kovaleski-Kunkle article refers to alleged celebrations (the phrase used is “allegedly seen”), but as I’ve said in the comments I just mentioned, the alleged celebrations were never verified (reports of the celebrations were verified, not the celebrations themselves); Trump mentioned thousands of celebrants, but no such number is mentioned in the article; Trump claims to have seen the celebration on video, but no “video” is mentioned, and none has surfaced. Further: no location is mentioned for the alleged celebrations, no time is mentioned, no detainees are mentioned by name, and as far as I know, no members of the Jersey City Police Department who were involved in the detention have discussed the matter for the record.
At a minimum, if we’re going to take any claims about Jersey City celebrations seriously, we need to see documentation of who was detained, for what reason, what questions were asked of these people, and what was said in the questioning. Precisely none of that has surfaced, despite the fact that the 2001 report definitely asserts that detentions were made and questioning took place, but only asserts that celebrations were allegedly seen. So far, no publicly available evidence has emerged regarding detention, questioning, or celebrations. And though only an idiot would assume that an otherwise unconfirmed allegation of a celebration was by itself evidence of a celebration, evidently plenty of such idiots exist and insist that any allegation of a celebration is proof that one happened.
The current controversy concerns Trump’s apparently mocking Kovaleski’s physical condition (see the first link in this postscript for details). Apparently, Kovaleski has a medical condition called arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that attacks the joints. Here’s a juxtaposition of images of Kovaleski and of Trump making his speech. (Be sure to watch the video embedded in the very first link of this postscript.)
If anyone but Trump were involved, I might be inclined to accept Trump’s defense as deserving of the benefit of the doubt (the link goes to a statement Trump has released on the matter, tweeted at the site of CBS reporter David Goodman). Ordinarily, we might think that the apparent similarity between Kovaleski’s condition and Trump’s mimicking a flustered reporter was a coincidence. But given Trump’s proven history of mendacity, and his history of making fun of people’s appearance (e.g., Carly Fiorina), I think he’s forfeited the right to be believed. I’m inclined to believe that he’s dishonest enough, and malicious enough, to be lying even about something like this.
Though Trump claims not to remember Kovaleski, and therefore claims not to know what Kovaleski looks like, Kovaleski disputes that claim. Kovaleski claims, plausibly enough, to have met Trump on several occasions while covering his (Trump’s) exploits for The Daily News. Though we all know that Trump’s claims to have “the world’s greatest memory” (now demoted to “one of the all-time great memories”) was practically intended to be bullshit, it’s also an indication that Donald Trump is the sort of person who will spout any rubbish that occurs to him without regard for truth or consequences, and it’s entirely plausible to think that such a person would stoop to mocking a person with a physical disability. Hard to believe that political discourse in the United States has descended to this level, and that the person leading the charge is the Republican front-runner for the presidency.
Here’s an editorial from the New York Times calling for journalists to play a harder form of hard ball with Trump. (I actually think the Trump-Wallace comparison is somewhat unfair to George Wallace, who, to his credit dramatically changed his views late in life, and asked his victims for forgiveness.)
Trump represents one face of today’s racism (though not by any means the only face). It simultaneously insists that Muslims can be good Americans, and accuses them of hating America and says their places of worship ought to be kept under government surveillance. It says that some Mexican-Americans are good people, and says most of them are rapists and drug dealers. It says “I think I’ll win the African-American vote” and then tries to convince voters that black people are murdering white people everywhere. In every case, Trump proclaims that he’s no racist while tapping into longstanding racist stereotypes and narratives of the alleged threat posed by minorities to white people.
Since I can’t read minds, I don’t know whether Donald Trump is a racist deep in his heart. But he is without question making himself into the racist’s candidate for president. And that’s a subject the media needs to explore in more depth.
Critics will no doubt claim that there’s an inconsistency between the requirements of journalistic objectivity on the one hand, and the ascription to a public figure of a normatively charged term like “racism” on the other. The moral realist philosophers among us ought to be quick to see the false dichotomy there. And we shouldn’t hesitate to descend back into the Cave to say so.
Postscript, November 27, 2015: This New York Times piece adds some useful information on the Trump-Kovaleski controversy, including Kovaleski’s recollections of having met Trump in person:
In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Kovaleski said that he met with Mr. Trump repeatedly when he was a reporter for The Daily News covering the developer’s business career in the late 1980s, before joining The Post. “Donald and I were on a first-name basis for years,” Mr. Kovaleski said. “I’ve interviewed him in his office,” he added. “I’ve talked to him at press conferences. All in all, I would say around a dozen times, I’ve interacted with him as a reporter while I was at The Daily News.”
In other words, Trump expects us to believe that despite his world-class memory, he doesn’t remember the appearance of a person with a distinctive physical handicap who interacted with him a dozen times over several years, including in his office–but he definitely remembers seeing thousands and thousands of celebrants of the 9/11 attacks in a video clip that no one has been able to recover in fourteen years. He also doesn’t seem to be able to remember that the article he keeps referencing asserts that people were detained and questioned for allegedly celebrating the attack while not offering a particle of confirmation that anyone was in fact detained or questioned, much less found to be celebrating.
In some of his remarks, Trump seems to be implying that he saw the celebrations with his own eyes, not on video. So far, no one has been able to ask him where he was, what he saw, and where exactly the event he saw was taking place. He claims on 9/11 to have been in an apartment with a view of the World Trade Center, which allowed him to see people jumping from the towers. Does the same apartment provide a view of Jersey City that allows the viewer with the naked eye to discriminate a celebration there? If he’s serious, he should show us.
If he was in Trump Towers, we’re being asked to believe that he saw people jumping out of the WTC towers from four miles’ distance and saw a celebration in Jersey City from an apartment on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. If that’s not so, either he was elsewhere (where?), or his whole story turns on the phantom video tape. Since he insists so heavily on the Kovaleski-Kunkle article, he should be able to request the police reports of the detention and questioning, find the exact location of the alleged celebration, as well as the names of the people detained and questioned, and take it from there. I realize it’s an exercise in futility to expect people indifferent to truth to go through the motions of making a serious inquiry to discover it, but that’s what a serious inquiry would require.
It’s not clear to me that Trump “intended” to mock Kovaleski in the sense of self-consciously hatching a plan to do so and then enacting it. He might have done that (I wouldn’t close the door on the possibility), but I think it’s more likely that since mockery is second-nature to him, he reflexively mocked Kovaleski in the speech without thinking about it, then defaulted (without thinking about that) to the cheapest and easiest form of mockery, mockery of someone’s appearance. So it’s immaterial whether he “intended” to mock Kovaleski or not. More likely than not, what we saw was the ultimate Freudian slip–habituated mockery aimed at what Trump regards as another’s weakness. A bizarre irony: having defamed the people of Jersey City with his reckless disregard for truth, Trump is now insisting that his critics adhere to the truth when it comes to claims adverse to his reputation.
Sad but true: The Republicans are now desperately trying to dislodge Trump, but as Josh Marshall correctly points out at Talking Points Memo, the Trump phenomenon has been a long time in the making, and will be a long time in the undoing. Meanwhile, the spectacle involved manages simultaneously to be addictive and unbearable to watch.