Democracy & Elections

The Trump-Carson Blood Libel

Benjamin Wittes
Monday, November 23, 2015, 5:55 PM

Donald Trump and Ben Carson are playing a particularly nasty game in accusing Arab Americans of having celebrated the fall of the World Trade Center. They are fabulists in the malicious denigration of others. 

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What are we to make of the fact that the two leading Republican presidential candidates, frontrunner Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson, are both peddling what can only be described as a blood libel against Muslim Americans?

I don't use the term "blood libel" here lightly. For those who don't know the history of antisemitic violence in Europe, the blood libel was a medieval myth that Jews used the blood of Christian children for ritual purposes. It crops up again and again throughout history, utterly resistant to evidence, and has been used throughout the centuries to whip up the ignorant into murderous mobs. To this day—as a charming Facebook page entitled "Jewish Ritual Murder" reflects—it remains a staple of Jew hatred around the world.

Candidly, I don't think the analogy does either Trump or Carson an injustice, except perhaps in a very technical sense. They are, after all, not accusing thousands of Arab and Muslim Americans of actually conducting the 9/11 attacks—merely of celebrating them. So call it a blood-huzzah libel if you like. The point is that they are both accusing a great many residents of Jersey City, New Jersey of cheering at the deaths of thousands of people.

And along the way, they are both claiming to have seen things that did not happen.

Let's be blunt about this: They are either lying or they are delusional. And assuming they are not suffering both from the same hallucination, they are lying in a fashion calculated to instill anger and hatred against a minority population at a time when nerves are raw, fears are high, and tempers are short. There are a lot of names for this. None of them is nice.

I'm disinclined to rehash the tawdry history of this episode in any detail. To engage the substance of it feels a little to me like arguing with Holocaust deniers. But to offer the briefest of summaries for the unitiated, Trump declared last week that: "I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering." When George Stephanopolous on ABC's This Week offered him the chance to back off and pointed out that relevant police agencies say the incident didn't happen, he doubled down:

There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down. I know it might be not politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as that building came down—as those buildings came down. And that tells you something. It was well covered at the time, George. Now, I know they don’t like to talk about it, but it was well covered at the time. There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down. Not good.

The Washington Post did an extensive examination of the claim and found it had no merit whatsoever.

Trump this morning tweeted a Washington Post story from a week after the attack and, based on it, claimed vindication. The story offers nothing of kind. It reports that "In Jersey City, within hours of two jetliners' plowing into the World Trade Center, law enforcement authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river." Never mind that "a number" does not equal "thousands and thousands." And never mind either that "allegedly seen" by someone is not the same thing as "I watched." And never mind that television stations say they did not air any such footage. As the Post reports, there may have been a few people celebrating, but it certainly wasn't more than a few, wasn't televised, and probably didn't happen at all:

Irfan Khawaja, an assistant professor of philosophy at Felician College in New Jersey, extensively attempted to trace the rumors of celebrations by Muslims in New Jersey and after months of inquiry (in an article with Gary Fine) came up with only the possibility that “a few Arab-American adolescents briefly relieved their political frustration in front of a library in South Paterson, a way that might be defined as celebrating.”

In an interview, Khawaja said that after extensive research, it was possible that maybe six to 12 teenagers had something akin to a celebration on the morning of 9/11 in Paterson, but they quickly dispersed. But even that is doubtful. “The evidence is very, very sparse that anything took place,” he said. “The bottom line is that Donald Trump is lying, if you look at what he said.” 

Nonetheless, Trump tweets:

And while nobody is apologizing, at least one GOP contender is busily me-tooing. Reports the Washington Post:

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said Monday that he has seen highly disputed footage showing thousands of Muslims in Northern New Jersey celebrating the collapse of the Twin Towers following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

GOP front-runner Donald Trump has made the same claim, but no such video has emerged and fact-checkers and news anchors on assignment at the time have said such footage does not exist.

“I saw the film of it, yes,” the retired neurosurgeon told reporters Monday during a media availability at the Pahrump Nugget Casino and Hotel.

“There are going to be people who respond inappropriately to virtually everything. I think that was an inappropriate response,” Carson added. “I don’t know if on the basis of that you can say all Muslims are bad people — I really think that would be a stretch.”

"Highly disputed" here is a coy euphemism for "fabricated." And keep in mind that Carson claimed to have seen this film even after the Post concluded publicly that "This appears to be another case of Trump’s overactive imagination."

There are different kinds of fabulists in the world. There are those who make things up to spin a good yarn. Some do it to embellish their own exploits or aggrandize themselves. Some do it to defraud. 

Trump and Carson here are playing a particularly nasty game. They are fabulists of the worst kind—that is to say they are fabulists in the malicious denigration of others. They are making things up to stoke hatred and intolerance; they are little different in that regard from those who pedalled lies about black men raping white women in the old South or those those who made up and stuck by blood libels in old Europe. These type of lies have consequences.

They apparently don't have consequences for Trump—whose poll numbers are soaring—or for Carson. But we should not be inhibited in calling what they are doing by its proper name.

This site is devoted to "hard national security choices." Trump and Carson put before the public what I would have thought was an easy national security choice: Does it matter if our president is a malicious fabulist? And only somewhat less fatefully, does it matter if the Republican nominee for president is a malicious fabulist? And if one decides to be exceedingly charitable to Trump and Carson and imagine that they have both hallucinated this film—rather than simply making it up—does it matter if either of them is possessed by delusions that their countrymen are cheering for the enemy?

UPDATE: The Carson camp has apparently backed off the candidate's slander. His campaign, according to CNN, issued a statement retracting it:
"Dr. Carson does not stand behind the statement attributed to him early today regarding events surrounding 9/11," said Carson communications director Doug Watts.

"He does not believe Muslim Americans in New Jersey were celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers, rather he recalls the ample news footage of crowds in the Middle East celebrating the tragic events of 9/11," he said. "He found their jubilation inappropriate and disturbing, but did not and does not consider it representative of the Muslim American population or the Muslim population at-large."

Given the magnitude of his error, he should have decency to apologize personally.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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