ISIS wants to create enmity between Muslims and non-Muslims. That’s their game. Donald Trump’s game turns out to be pretty damned similar. While it pains me to draw a comparison between the frontrunner of a major American party and a bunch of homicidal thugs, it is Mr. Trump himself who keeps forcing the issue. It is not enough that he proposes surveillance of mosques; now, he’s determined to resurrect a vicious Islamophobic urban legend that I though we’d put to bed fourteen years ago. He’d like you to believe that he saw thousands of Muslims dancing and cheering in the streets of Jersey City on 9/11. Again, this baseless, unsupported accusation comes from the putative leader of a major American political party.
If you were actually in Hudson County on 9/11, there is almost no chance you heard Mr. Trump’s story as anything other than the divisive, exploitative bullshit that it is. I’ll bet your memory of that day is painfully clear. But Jersey City has seen a spike in new residents since September 11, 2001. Some of them might have taken the word of a politician who is, for some inexplicable reason, treated by the mainstream press as an amusing comedian-provocateur rather than a blowhard who is constantly talking out of his ass.
Cheering was the very last thing you were likely to encounter in Jersey City on 9/11. Everybody in town was frightened and confused. Nobody was pointing fingers or thinking too hard about geopolitics — instead we were all trying to find out if our friends were alive. If they were alive, we were preoccupied with the sticky task of getting them home across the Hudson. We were worried that more attacks were coming, and we wondered in horror whether there was any fissile material in the explosives. Even the official timeline presented to us by the news didn’t seem to correspond to what we were witnessing. We couldn’t make heads or tails of anything. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Jersey City residents — including our many Muslim residents — first heard of al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden from George W. Bush’s address to the joint session of Congress.
The dust soon settled. Once it did, the finger-pointing and scapegoating and enemy-finding began in earnest. One of the nastiest rumors that began to circulate was the one about the wicked Arabs dancing in the street. I have a cousin who has a friend who was driving by a mosque overflowing with joyous Arabs. My son in law is a policeman and his off-duty partner saw evil Muslims popping champagne bottles on 1 and 9. Etcetera. In retrospect, it was natural for survivors to visualize a boogeyman behind every bush. It was also possible to imagine that disaffected jerks who felt they’d been given a raw deal by American society might welcome a firm blow against the empire.
But in order for Trump’s cheering Muslims story to be true, the following would also have to be true:
- Thousands of Muslim Americans would have had to have extensive prior knowledge of the coming strike — extensive enough to be able to recognize, through the smoke and confusion and contradictory reports of the day, the attacks for exactly what they were,
- Everybody in these groups of Muslim Americans would have had to have been comfortable enough with carnage to keep their lips sealed,
- They would have had to have accepted al-Qaeda’s ridiculous perversion of Islam — one in which it is somehow spiritually permissible to be a mass-murderous bastard,
- They would have had to have gathered together on the day of the attacks as if they were going to watch the Super Bowl,
- They would have had to have been willing to make horse’s asses of themselves in public, right in front of a grieving city.
Do you know anybody like this? Of course you don’t. People like this exist in bad television programs and in the daydreams of demagogues.
Should you need further persuasion, consider that September 2001 wasn’t quite as far back in the Stone Age as we sometimes think it was. Nobody had an iPhone then, but amateur digital photographers and videographers were general throughout the city. If thousands of Muslims had been partying in the streets of Jersey City on 9/11, don’t you think some shocked bystander would have taken a shot of it? Wouldn’t you have? Since no footage of partying 9/11 Arabs exists anywhere, we must conclude that the story of the thousands of cheering Muslims is akin to Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness monster, or your date with Jennifer Lopez. To revive a meme that’s almost as old as the urban legend: pix or it didn’t happen.
As for Governor Christie’s mealy-mouthed reply to Trump’s calumny, it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from this phony tough guy. Apparently his present constituents are Islamophobic caucusgoers in Iowa, not the defamed residents of the state he’s supposed to be representing. When Mr. Trump makes believe that thousands of Jersey Muslims were celebrating 9/11 — that a lethal fifth column was operating out of Ibby’s Falafel — he insults all of us. I wish we had a governor proud enough of New Jersey to respond, forcefully, to those insults.
Nobody knows for sure what Donald Trump’s damage is. He may actually be a delusional person. His headspace could be haunted by specters from the dark side of the American collective consciousness — crazed blacks on the loose and bomb-throwing Arabs and angry feminists out to Bobbitize him. We’ve all met people like this, although usually they’re drunks in a bar, not billionaires. Conversely, this may all be some form of street theatre — a exercise in public credulity orchestrated by a confirmed huckster who may be seeing how far he can push his abject nonsense.
In either case it’s worth our while to sort this out before he starts winning primaries. In the meantime, I expect everybody in town who has a pulpit or a platform to say something. If you’ve got a congregation that listens to you, you have a responsibility to take this personally, and to do what you can to repudiate this smear campaign against other Jersey City worship communities. It is incumbent on you to demonstrate that we won’t be divided by an out-of-town oligarch determined to use our town as a backdrop for his Islamophobic fantasies. The holidays are coming; what we ought to be organizing is an interfaith celebration in which we can pray together for the peace, humility, and reconciliation that all genuinely religious people seek. Wouldn’t that be a nice counterpoint to the scaremongering of the past two weeks? Churches, synagogues, mosques: I call on you.