By Jack Staples-Butler
On September 11th 2016, the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, members of a social justice activist group organised on Facebook named Coalition Oxy for Diversity and Equity (CODE) destroyed a 9/11 memorial at Occidental College, Los Angeles, which was mainly made of small American flags to mark each victim of the attacks. The memorial had been planted by the Occidental College Republicans. Many flags had been snapped in two or pushed them into overflowing garbage cans. The group had left flyers ostensibly memorialising the “1,455,590 Innocent Iraqis Who Died During the U.S. Invasion for Something They Didn’t Do”, placed over an image of the Twin Towers. CODE, following the anti-imperialist moral tropes of Milosevic and Assad, denied their own organisational responsibility for the vandalism whilst supporting the actions of those who carried it out, claiming “this symbol of the American flag is particularly triggering for many different reasons“. The same ‘RIP’ image was previously known for being posted on September 11th 2015 by the Entourage lead star Adrian Grenier, who deleted it following an angry backlash, and subsequently enjoying uncritically positive coverage Al Jazeera’s AJ+ on Facebook.
The insincere and belittling ‘RIPs’ have been added to by other celebrities of left-wing imagination, including the official Twitter account for Ahmed Mohamed, the ‘clock boy’ erstwhile of Irving, Texas now living in the Qatar emirate. Mohamed’s official account received positive acclaim in likes and retweets after repeating the same fabricated statistic on September 11th 2016. Noticeably, the Mohamed account’s tweet copies the language of the original image almost word-for-word, but adds an additional 500,000+ deaths and changes ‘Iraqis’ to ‘Muslims’ without further explanation. Variations of the image give different numbers, asserted with the same certainty.
‘1,455,590’, the oddly-specific death toll of Iraqi civilians is a fabrication; a deliberately sensationalist ‘rough estimate’ which originated on the website of the left-wing pressure group Just Foreign Policy now presented in the ‘RIP’ image as received truth. The exact, minute death toll from the 2003-2011 war is unknown, partly because Saddam Hussein’s regime did not keep accurate census records. Most recent estimates place total casualties below the one-million mark. Iraq Body Counts puts the grand total from 2003-2016 at around 268,000. The majority of these casualties were not inflicted by U.S. forces or ‘during the U.S. Invasion’ in 2003. The purpose of the deliberately inflated Just Foreign Policy figure, in the ‘RIP’ image’s juxtaposition with the confirmed and familiar 9/11 death toll, was to belittle the commemoration and memory of the victims. The ‘RIP’ image’s recurrence each September utilises the 9/11 anniversary to promote manipulatively sentimental anti-Americanism, and distorts public understanding of Iraq and the Middle East. But in ‘social justice’ left-wing social spheres online, it is morally praiseworthy to circulate this intellectual detritus in September, and then some.
Mainstream leftism and even liberalism can accommodate junk statistics deployed in a similar invective of minimisation and whataboutery; the “more likely to be killed by right-wing terrorists“ and “more likely to be killed by a lawnmower than terrorism” tropes are among the most widely-circulated in social media discussions of terrorism on the left. The ‘lawnmower’ claim entered the maelstrom of mainstream popular culture as celebrities like Kim Kardashian shared an aesthetically authoritative image based on a selective study of terrorism after 9/11, from 2001-2014. Fawning clickbait headlines such as “This powerful image being shared across social media is a powerful reminder that religion isn’t the problem” are written in the passive voice to disguise the headlines’ own agency in constructing the terrorism-belittling narrative. This narrative around terrorism after 9/11 has remained one of minimisation, denial and wallowing in the comfort of junk explanations and misinformation. Instead of encouraging sober or unprejudicial reflection on the reality of security threats or the dangerous allure of totalitarian ideas, praise is given for the liberal burying of heads in the sand.
Whilst visiting the United States in September 2016, I observed something on social media which I had not thought possible in socially acceptable, real-name public discourse. An American friend (referred to here as ‘R.X.’) working in the universities sector, a proudly self-proclaimed ‘social justice warrior’ with teaching responsibilities, had posted the same image which belittled and sarcastically diminished the dead of September 11th 2001. The image was identical to one which would be left at the vandalised Occidental College memorial, and contained links to 9/11 ‘Truth’ websites and a crank journal deceptively named Euro Physics News which serviced the melting temperature-fixated paranoia of the far-left and far-right. With the aesthetics of a memorial graphic typical of those circulated around tragic anniversaries, the clickbait image signalled the virtues of anti-Americanism and diminishing of the importance of 9/11 and the lives of the dead, via the vehicle of a pseudo-tribute made with snarling insincerity. R.X. was certainly no liberal patriot (photos of American flag-burning by various radicals sometimes got generous sharing from them), but the 9/11’RIP’ image seemed to cross a new boundary of contempt for life, liberty and the existence of historical truth.
The tawdry piece of clickbait being shared by an educated person, to approval by other educated members of a wide social circle, managed to insult and instrumentally exploit the 9/11 victims, the civilian casualties of the Iraq war, and practically every veteran of the United States armed forces and the international coalition which served in Iraq. The piece is a vulgar distillation of a language around 9/11 which became familiar in left-wing politics from almost immediately after the attacks. The extreme border of this mindset was the Ward Churchill controversy and his description of the incinerated World Trade Centre staff as “little Eichmanns“. But others as morally sensible and empathetic as Mary Beard could be warped by the reflexive desire to blame the yankees and obliterate the moral agency of the murderers. As Beard infamously wrote in October 2001, as the bodies were still being pulled out of smouldering rubble:
“This wasn’t just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think. World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price.”
Beard has never apologised for these remarks, and has consistently defended the legitimacy of the substance and form of portraying the hijackers as delivering a rational and predictable response to “bullies”. The original ‘take’ she offered is shared by the malaise of reductive left-wing thought following 9/11 and more recent attacks by ISIS cells in Europe. Here is the wisdom of the socialist pop-historian historian Howard Zinn, author A People’s History of the United States, urging readers:
“We need to think about the resentment all over the world felt by people who have been the victims of American military action… We need to understand how some of those people will go beyond quiet anger to acts of terrorism”.
Consider what this beloved left-wing writer of “well, actually” history, name-checked with praise in the film Good Will Hunting, is really saying about the murderers and victims of 9/11. These words, published on September 14th 2001 (the same day the FBI first named the nineteen hijackers), portray Osama Bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the hijackers as men of “quiet anger” who were “victims” of American foreign policy. The beliefs, personalities, moral agency and all empirical evidence about the hijackers is pre-emptively obliterated from the equation, and would remain so throughout the default left understanding of the attacks.
The attacks were provoked, the true murderers and “bullies” were the hatred liberal capitalist nations of the West, and the attackers themselves possessed no real responsibility for their actions. The possibility that the attacks were not the desperate response of a downtrodden peasant army was not considered. As was self-evident from the group’s founding statements, concern for the poor and wretched of the Earth did not factor in Al-Qaeda’s calculations before 9/11, nor did they have any desire to see the end of ‘imperialism’ itself. Bin Laden’s own dream was for a global jihadist war on Afghan soil, a great struggle against the West in which he predicted and hoped that millions of Muslims would die in a protracted humiliation of the United States. Abu Al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State got further in seeing their nightmarish vision realised, albeit within limited geography. The perpetrators of 9/11 or since were not exploited peasants or workers dreaming of emancipation, but the builders of a theocratic empire with dreams of slavery, conquest and the extermination of Jews and Yazidis. In the narrative which Beard promoted and shared with many others, all of this was irrelevant to fact that the privileged yankees “had it coming”.
My friend R.X. had long-standing form for blaming their country of birth for the multitude of the world’s evils. However, I had presumed they would spare their friends and themselves the injustice of sharing such palpably manipulative numerology, particularly on the anniversary of the attacks. When I asked R.X. why they had decided to share the untrue numbers of dead with an unknowing audience, their answer was a revealing insight in the epistemological norms they inhabited:
R.X.: “I know the numbers might not be right, but the societal impact this graphic gets at is still relevant. To be honest though, I don’t care enough to look these up.”
For R.X., the moral parameters were simple. Fabricated statistics, the belittling of 9/11 victims, the obliteration by omission of most Iraqi civilians killed by terrorism and insurgencies supported by Iran and other regional actors, the absolution of convicted and self-proclaimed mass-killers with yet more fabricated evidence from the Truthers, were perfectly reasonable things to share and promote in the week of a 9/11 anniversary. ‘Societal impact’ of a narrative was the primary concern; facts and numbers contradicting the narrative were irrelevant. A neat distillation of postmodernist nihilism aside, the popularity of this attitude among R.X.’s social circle reveals something about contemporary society even apart from the ideology which produces it. In the 2010s, it is acceptable to lie, scoff and sneer about and at the victims and survivors of the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist atrocities without social consequence on the social justice left. If any public backlash that does arise from the obscenity of vandalising memorials or insulting victims and survivors on the date of memorial using junk statistics, you can be assured defences from social justice academia and viral media targeting a progressive audience.
The self-identified social justice left is not alone in its abuse of 9/11 victims and the memory of 9/11 itself. The partisan exploitation of the attacks during the Bush Administration was followed by the GOP-controlled House and Senate’s miserable failings in healthcare provision for 9/11 rescue workers. Even before Trump, the GOP had fallen badly at the measure which judges a society by how it treats its heroes and the most vulnerable; embodying both were the illness-stricken 9/11 rescue workers who were deprived of healthcare by Republican votes in successive Congresses. The 9/11 First Responders bills being politically championed by Jon Stewart and his army of Comedy Central-watching liberals in 2010, with the rescue workers losing health coverage again in 2015 due to a Republican-led Senate deadlock was a subject which ‘Blue Lives Matter‘ conservatives preferred to forget.
The most widespread vice drawn from 9/11 on the American Right was conservative embrace of authoritarian pornography like the ludicrous ‘Flight 93 Election’ essay comparing Trump supporters to the heroic cockpit-storming passengers of the doomed United 93. The essay gained wide popularity and acceptance among the Trump-supporting commentariat and even fence-sitting conservatives unsure about whether to back Trump, whom the essay directed its millenarian pontificating towards. The right-wing journalist Bret Stephens argued that the ‘Flight 93’ essay was a painful reflection on the state of conservative thought:
“To reread “The Flight 93 Election” today is to understand what has gone wrong not only with the Trump presidency, but also with so much of the conservative movement writ large... To imply, as Anton did, that Barack Obama, for all his shortcomings, was Ziad Jarrah, Flight 93’s lead hijacker, is vile…To suggest that Donald Trump, a man who has sacrificed nothing in his life for anyone or anything, is the worthy moral heir to the Flight 93 passengers is a travesty.”
In comparison to these ‘real-world’ assaults on the dignity of 9/11 victims from the conservative right, it is easy to dismiss observations of leftists belittling the victims of terrorism as ‘somebody’s wrong on the Internet’ syndrome. However, since 9/11, the coalescence of the online world and real life has made distinctions between the wrongness of a misinformed town hall meeting and a misinformed network of social media friends almost redundant. Circulating false information, whether aggressively promoting fake news sites protected with a ‘satire’ disclaimer, or just old-fashioned physics-warping conspiracy theories passed on in chain emails, is only half of the equation. Historical truth means nothing to the 9/11 Truther, or the fabricated death toll mourner, when these claims continue to be promoted after their falsehood is made unambiguous. The warped ethics and morality of circulating the ‘RIP’ image are downstream from this happy dissolution of historical fact.
At the extreme end of the social justice left’s abuse of the 9/11 victims is the mindset of what Jamie Palmer described as the ‘Theatre of Radical Cruelty’, which includes gleeful revelling in the death and suffering of those who share America’s collective guilt. American student Otto Warmbier’s show-trial, torture and murder by the North Korean gulag system brought smiles and sneers to bloggers on Salon and The Huffington Post that ‘white privilege’ was being revoked and punished by the DPRK. The vandalism of the Occidental College 9/11 memorial was similar in mindset to the Marxist-Leninist youths who in March 2017 ‘protested’ against the Victims of Communism memorial in Washington DC, gleefully tweeting a group photo of finger-flipping obscenity pointed at the hundred million dead. The January 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cache attacks prompted disturbing responses on the Anglo-American left ranging from tepid displays of non-sympathy for the victims; to Laurie Penny’s open contempt for the ‘racist trolling’ she attributed to the murdered cartoonists whilst their blood remained spattered on office walls. Similarly, the victims and survivors of the worst terror attack in U.S. history have more frequently found themselves on the receiving end of the social justice left’s blunt anti-imperialist moral calculation.
One of the great social media frenzies of 2016 was in reaction to the Stanford University rapist Brock Turner, who was given a sentence of only three months imprisonment after being found guilty of a serious sexual offence. The manifestly poor decision of a California judge was embedded in the social justice hemisphere as irrefutable validation that the United States was in the grip of a rape culture where victims were blamed and rapists were routinely tolerated. BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith declared an article on Brock Turner was BuzzFeed’s most-shared story since ‘The Dress’, a record-breaking pseudo-event created by Kim Kardashian. Social justice activists and intersectional feminist websites whose columnists publicly promoted a utopian fantasy of the Foucauldian far-left, the goal to “abolish prisons, police and the American settler-state” now demanded the harshest penal punishments for Turner. In the broad issue of ‘rape apologism’ and victim-blaming, leftists and liberals would be enraged at images claiming that Brock Turner was innocent, was framed or mocking his victim by comparison to fraudulently inflated sexual assault statistics drawn from other countries.
Yet this is what the ‘RIP’ image demands of readers. It is predicated on the essential anti-liberalism, anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism of social justice politics. Americans cannot really be victims of mass murder just as whites and Jews can never be victims of racism; thus, only America, Israel or other ‘colonialist’ powers can be guilty of committing mass murder, rape and ‘oppression’. Conversely, Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups cannot be morally responsible for mass murder; they are either reacting to oppressive American foreign policy, are being secretly controlled and funded by Israel, or they never carried out the attacks in the first place. The actual perpetrators of the mass murder of almost 3,000 Americans are absolved of their guilt. For people who share the ‘RIP’ image around September 11th, the moral culpability of Osama Bin Laden, the hijackers and the entire Al-Qaeda network responsible for the atrocities and thousands more since, is erased or diminished into irrelevance. Noticeably, the Arab and Muslim victims of Al-Qaeda and other Islamist movements are absorbed into the fabricated death toll attributed to solely U.S. military action.
When asked about the obscenity of declaring the terrorist killers of thousands of Muslims innocent by blaming other parties, R.X. sneeringly replied that to even name Al-Qaeda’s murder of Muslims was to speak of “black-on-black crime” – a cardinal sin of racism which social justice leftism treats a priori as both wrong and wrongthink. If hundreds of Shia pilgrims are slaughtered in an Al-Qaeda suicide bombing of a holy site, or Sunnis who refuse to accept the authority of Abu Al-Baghdadi as their Caliph are slit by the throat en masse, all responsibility lies with America. Far from genuinely commemorating or mourning Muslims who have died violently since 9/11, the ‘RIP’ image posters display only a willingness to instrumentalise their deaths, stripping the dead of dignity and their killers of any accountability.
This has likely been familiar territory for those familiar with the work of Norman Geras, though I notice a difference in the phenomena presented in the disturbed responses to 9/11 and terrorism exhibited on social media. Geras analysed and critiqued the response and group behaviours of the organised and cultural left, the intellectual circles who gathered around literary journals, book reviews and campus lectures. The kind of thinking which permeated through devotees of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, John Pilger, Edward Said and the who’s who of the ‘anti-imperialist’ left could hardly be called popular culture. The debasing argument over ‘root causes’ was a feud in ivory towers and broadsheets, among the politically-interested class who subscribed to wonkish magazines, the poets and novelists who conflated radicalism with style, and a few celebrity enthusiasts from the film and music business. As with those on the right and centre-left who criticised and exposed their intellectual abuses, they all existed in nerdish subcultures separate from the general public. Those who intently followed arguments between Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens and their toadies and critics were unlikely to overlap with the tens of millions who followed reality television and talent competitions.
Since Norman Geras’s death, the advance of social media into the realm of intractability has accelerated the mainstreaming of fringe ideas to lightning speed. The British Labour Party has been conquered by the former senior membership of the Stop the War Campaign and Venezuela Solidarity Campaign largely due to the organising capacity of Facebook and Twitter. The success of radical and illiberal parties and regimes are downstream from the cultural acceptability of their ideas. The circulation of tropes about terrorism once trafficked by cynical closet sympathisers of extremism now enjoy the casually-tweeted support of the most popular and influential figures of mainstream culture. Terror-apologising nihilism is now a display of public virtue. To adapt a phrase from Chomsky himself, this must involve the responsibility of intellectuals.
One statistic about 9/11 and the passage of time since can be more terrifying than many of the figures now synonymous with the atrocity. The statistic, based on an estimate by the Los Angeles Times journalist Terry McDermott is difficult to quantify and must be given appropriately cautious treatment. If true, it reveals something about the culture of Western democracies and the curiosities of their intellectual classes. Ten thousand books have been written about the 9/11. Only one was about the 9/11 hijackers themselves. Being generous, it is possible true number of books specifically focused on 9/11 itself, and not part of a larger tome on war and terrorism, is only around one thousand. The prognosis, however, is unavoidable. There has been a dearth and desolation of interest in the 9/11 hijackers themselves from the lettered classes. For the people responsible for culture and the written word in Western societies, preferred narratives about 9/11 are known before and apart from knowing anything about the men responsible for it.
McDermott himself, with his 2008 book Perfect Soldiers, was the first and only civilian writer to produce a close study of who, how and why the hijackings of the four aircraft actually took place. Most of the other ten thousand plus books were polemics, political tracts, academic metanarratives or literary works which instrumentalised the attacks with no consideration of who carried them out. Lost in the portentous screeds of civilisational struggle by reactionary bluster, the Chomskyan superstructures of imperialism and anti-imperialism, Said’s Orientalist theories spoon-fed through cultural studies reading lists, and all the memes and tropes blaming America for bringing the attack on itself, is who actually carried out the attacks and why.
The names of the hijackers remain unknown to most people in the United States, both the general public or the educated. Social sciences graduates who can confidently pronounce how 9/11 was ‘blowback’ for Western imperialism and reel off lists of activist-inflated death tolls from American foreign policy crimes, draw blanks when asked to name the men whose crimes redefined the course of history.
On any anniversary of September 11th, the great and impulsively reached-for narrative of ‘anti-imperialism’ must be held up against the evidence. The narratives built around the murder almost 3,000 people by eminent figures of academia and now parroted by the most popular celebrities are constructed with total disregard to the most basic facts of the event. What went on inside the skulls of Osama Bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the pilot hijackers Mohammed Atta, Ziad Jarrah, Marwan al-Shehi and Hani Hanjour barely, if ever, factors into the analysis offered by the moral certainties of “had it coming”, “beyond quiet anger” and “RIP”.
Whilst writing this article, the editor raised the term “symbolic point of abuse”, a description which eclipses any I had for the relationship between social justice leftism and 9/11. The memory of the attacks remains one of the most misinformed subjects in modern history, though arousing moral certainty from those who hold the victims of 9/11 in a haze of contempt, and the hijackers in a haze of ignorant, de-personalised sympathy. Both victims and perpetrators of the attacks are a source of irritation and cognitive discomfort for the people enthralled by the verbosity of social justice newspeak or the vulgar simplicity of the ‘RIP’ trope. On any anniversary of the mass murders committed by the Al-Qaeda cult, we would do well to honour the victims by learning why they were killed. They deserve as much, as equally the murderers are deserving of the accurate judgement of history.
You can read more by the author at his blog.