Mar 1 2011

The Uses of September 11

To the right, terror attacks are theirs to exploit—or dismiss—as they like

Destruction of the World Trade Center

photo: 9/11 Photos

In August 2010 the story of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” as it was inaccurately labeled by big media, saturated the news. Driving the coverage were conservative pundits and politicians who denounced the proposal for an Islamic cultural center to be built on “hallowed ground”—within a few blocks of the former site of New York City’s World Trade Center (Extra!, 10/10).

Treated on Fox News and talk radio as a harbinger of an American caliphate (Beck, 8/23/10) and the imposition of sharia law (Hannity, 8/17/10), the “Ground Zero Mosque” was 2010’s Swift Boat story—a dishonest, demagogic campaign to gin up GOP support in the doldrums of late summer news cycles. It served its purpose well. Public opinion opposing the center soared. Stirring up Islamophobia in advance of a major election is always a plus for the right.

Since then, the center’s promoters continue to plan and raise money, and the small Muslim-bashing blogs that gave birth to the story continue to slug away at the project in the fever swamps of the right.

But the story has all but fallen off the corporate media map. As leading conservative pundits and politicians have stopped talking about it, the outrage has been dialed down. While “ground zero mosque” garnered more than 1,000 mentions in U.S. newspaper and wire stories in August 2010, according to a search of the Nexis news database, by January that number had fallen to 50. (And most of those were newsy updates, containing little of the outrage found in many of the August 2010 stories.)

Has the hallowed ground of the September 11 terror attacks become less sacred?

Since George W. Bush emerged from hiding to stand astride the smoldering World Trade Center ruins and assure Americans that the country would strike back at “the people who knocked these buildings down,” September 11 has become something of a holy charm, a talisman for conservatives to wave over policy debates to ensure victory.

They would use it to justify civil liberties-trashing policies like the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping at home, and unspeakable crimes abroad. By March 2003, Bush and his allies had leveraged the tragic attacks into a dubious war against Afghanistan (for harboring a small population of Al-Qaeda suspects) and an utterly unrelated war against Iraq.

Right-leaning pundits did their part by helping their political allies make policy hay of the tragedy, and by denouncing any deviation from their brand of reverence (Extra!, 5-6/03). Opponents of the one true interpretation of September 11, 2001, as the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol (Fox News Sunday, 11/24/02) put it early on, “don’t take seriously the fact that we’re at war…. They just don’t want to face up to the fact that 9/11 changed everything.”

That contention became something of a mantra for the right. “9/11 changed everything,” said Bill O’Reilly (O’Reilly Factor, 4/30/03). “We want to be protected now. We’re willing to give up a little civil rights, a little protection under the Constitution to protect our families from killers.”

September 11’s power and meaning was elastic; it could be invoked broadly in support of issues tangentially related—or unrelated—to the attacks. “OK, so 9/11 changed everything,” said O’Reilly (O’Reilly Factor, 4/30/03).

Right now, we cannot afford in this country to have 20 percent of aliens, what that they’re legal or illegal, running around unsupervised, OK, because of a quote, interpretation of the Constitution. Can’t have it. It’s a public safety thing.

And the rest of the corporate media seem willing to play along, following the right’s framing on everything from the “ground zero mosque” to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As FAIR’s studies of the wars in Iraq (Extra! Update, 4/03; Extra!, 5-6/03) and Afghanistan (Extra!, 12/09) show, pro-war voices have been routinely overrepresented and antiwar voices marginalized on nightly news shows and op-ed pages.

In perhaps the most bizarre manipulation of 9/11, Rudolph Giuliani erased the attacks from Bush’s watch when he explained to Good Morning America host George Stephanopoulos (1/8/10) that Bush’s record on terrorism was superior to Barack Obama’s because, “We had no domestic attacks under Bush. We’ve had one under Obama.” Giuliani’s little memory lapse, which was hardly noticed in other corporate media, went uncorrected on Good Morning America (though Stephanopoulos did mention the error on his comparatively obscure blog—1/8/10).

But the hallowed memory of September 11 is a conservative sham. While the attacks may be the gift that keeps on giving for GOP politics—when politically useful—the right frequently permits itself to diminish or deride the memory and symbols of the attacks for its own convenience.

In December, with talk of a “Ground Zero Mosque” on “hallowed ground” a fading memory, Republicans blocked passage of a bill providing aid to ailing 9/11 responders. O’Reilly, with GOP strategist and Fox News contributor Karl Rove (O’Reilly Factor, 12/21/10), defended the GOP’s obstructionism, accusing Democrats of “demagoguing” the issue. Republican opposition was overcome, ironically, when liberal comedian Jon Stewart campaigned for its passage on the Daily Show (New York Times, 12/20/10).

Attacking September 11 family members who failed to share the right-wing understanding of 9/11’s meaning became something of a sport for conservative pundits. O’Reilly (2/4/03) set aside the sacred memory of 9/11 to bully and menace apostate guest Jeremy Glick, whose father died in the World Trade Center attacks, for his opposition to the “War on Terror.” “You are mouthing a far-left position that is a marginal position in this society,” O’Reilly harangued Glick:

I don’t really care what you think…. I’ve done more for the 9/11 families by their own admission…than you will ever hope to do…. So you keep your mouth shut when you sit here exploiting those people.

Responding to complaints some 9/11 family members had about the government’s response, Glenn Beck declared on his national radio show (Glenn Beck Program, 9/9/05):

You know it took me about a year to start hating the 9/11 victims’ families? I don’t hate all of them. I hate probably about 10 of them. But when I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, “Oh, shut up!” I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining. And we did our best for them.

Ann Coulter crudely accused a group of September 11 widows, dubbed “the Jersey Girls,” of “enjoying their husbands’ deaths” after the women insisted on more transparency from the Bush administration about what went wrong on 9/11.

That these surly quotes received such light coverage suggests a corporate press that agrees that the right owns the September 11 tragedy and all of its meanings.