Trump on 9/11: Truth, Lies, Modesty, and Vanity

Glenn Kessler has a column worth reading in The Washington Post on the various lies that Donald Trump has told over the years about 9/11. Kessler’s discussion of the 9/11 celebration rumors makes reference to me in all but name:

He watched thousands of Muslims cheer as the towers came down

I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.”

— Trump, at a campaign rally, Nov. 21, 2015

This is one of Trump’s most notorious claims. An extensive examination of news clips and video archives turned up next to nothing. A professor had conducted extensive research into rumors of such jubilation and said it was possible that maybe six to 12 teenagers had something akin to a celebration on the morning of 9/11 in Paterson, N.J., but they quickly dispersed.

An MTV clip eventually was unearthed — some Trump supporters said it was evidence of the cheering Muslims — and it turned out that a high school senior was quoted as saying she had seen a group of kids acting up in front of the Paterson courthouse, banging on trash cans and shouting. She does not say they were Middle Eastern or Arab.

Trump earned Four Pinocchios.

The last link goes to an earlier column of Kessler’s that does mention me by name.

I’m always happy to get press coverage, but real credit for the discovery that Kessler attributes to me ought to go to Curtis Sliwa of WABC talk radio. It was Sliwa who, on the basis of on-ground interviews conducted in Paterson a few days after 9/11, originally reported that a handful of teenagers had engaged in something quasi-celebratory somewhere in south Paterson (most likely in the 900 block of South Main Street, in front of the public library). I followed up on that suggestion after a conversation with Sliwa, did some on-ground interviews in Paterson at his suggestion, and came to essentially the same conclusion as he had. (My interviews took place well after 9/11.)

Since then, having co-authored a book chapter on the subject with Gary Alan Fine, an expert on the sociology of rumors, I’ve implicitly gotten credit for Sliwa’s discovery. But as I say, the credit really belongs to him. I suspect that mainstream journalists find me more credible than Sliwa because I’m a published academic, and he’s “just” a conservative talk-radio show host. But anyone who values truth is at least as indebted to his journalistic diligence as they are to my confirmation of his story.

Our version of events contradicted both the mainstream story to the effect that absolutely nothing celebratory had taken place, as well as the rumor-based version of the story to the effect that there was widespread jubilation in Paterson at the 9/11 attacks. As Kessler says, on our account, a few kids took to the streets of south Paterson within about an hour or so of 9/11, making noise of a kind that was interpreted as celebratory; they dispersed after being reprimanded for it by people from the neighborhood. And that was that.

Our story didn’t fit any pre-existing narrative, and still doesn’t, but having exhaustively canvassed just about every piece of evidence relevant to the north Jersey celebration rumors, I regard it as the most likely hypothesis. That said, while it’s the most likely hypothesis, I can’t claim certainty that it’s what happened. It’s possible that there was no celebration at all. What’s not possible is that “thousands and thousands” of north Jersey Muslims celebrated 9/11 and went unnoticed, whether in Jersey City, Paterson, or anywhere else. Nor is it possible that they celebrated but went noticed only by Donald Trump.

So there you have it: truth, lies, and modesty–all leavened with a bit of vanity.

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