On the Changing of Narratives
My recollections of what I was doing on 9/11 are the recollections of someone in Colorado who was working evenings. Not terribly interesting.
There were, however, two things that caught my interest at the time and still stick out. These are two things that had one very distinct narrative when they started and 9/11 changed the narrative. One happened beforehand, one after. One narrative was clarified dramatically and one was muddied. If you were arguing policy on the internet 11 years ago they’ll come back to you pretty quickly.
The first is the Second Intifada. If you were one who listened to NPR in those days, you knew that your odds were 50/50 when it came to a story about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict when you turned the radio on during Morning Edition, Evening Edition, or All Things Considered. (One of the openers I remember most was “Israeli soldiers shot an unarmed Palestinian today, as he was ramming his car through a checkpoint”.) The arguments I got into at the time were arguments over such things as asymmetric warfare, human rights, cultural relativism, and so on. I’m sure that if you remember, you remember the arguments well.
Then 9/11 happened and, as they say, nothing changed. The arguments given in support of either the Israelis or the Palestinians fit when it came to arguments about 9/11. You only had to do some light word substitution and the arguments for why it may seem distasteful to bomb the Dolphinarium night club and kill seemingly innocent people, you had to understand… became an argument that, while very familiar, became alien. (There were a handful of news channels that showed Palestinians dancing on 9/11… even those who argued on behalf of the Palestinians argued that, no, that footage was from a different time. It was from the first Gulf War. It was about a soccer game. There were Israeli spies who were handing out candy in exchange for celebratory dancing.) The Second Intifada which, days before, had been something about which reasonable people could disagree became something that was perfectly analogous to the bombing of the World Trade Center… down to the arguments about the seemingly innocent people.
The second narrative was one that changed much slowly over much more time. This was the narrative associated with Abdullah al-Muhajir or Muhajir Abdullah or Jose Padilla. He was detained, but not arrested, because, according to the narrative, he was a material witness to the terrorism of 9/11. He had associated with those who had planned the attack and, most damningly, he was responsible for helping to plan a dirty bomb attack on US soil. This is why it was important that he be held, we were told. As time went on, the question about “well, why haven’t you charged him with anything?” loomed larger and larger and larger. It was relatively easy to argue a month after his detention that, well, there are national security concerns, there are intelligence concerns, and the specious “imagine what civil rights violations would happen had the dirty bomb gone off… the detention of one guy would be the least of your concerns”. After a year, these arguments began to ring hollow. After three, only people associated with the government were willing to still make them. In 2005, Padilla was officially charged. The charges contained no mention of a dirty bomb, planning or otherwise. Padilla was found guilty.
These two stories with their own little narratives are the two things that I’ve been thinking about in the last month. The narrative of the Israel/Palestinian conflict in the shadow of Arafat and the World Trade Center. The narrative of Jose Padilla and his dirty bomb. Stories that only make sense without 9/11 happening, stories that only make sense when 9/11 is fresh in your nose like the smell of ash and burning plastic.
Replaced by new narratives which then turned old and were then replaced yet again.