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Never Forget the Propaganda: New 9/11 Documentaries Reinforce Old Narratives

by | Nov 2, 2021

Never Forget the Propaganda: New 9/11 Documentaries Reinforce Old Narratives

by | Nov 2, 2021

There’s a moment in the documentary 9/11: Inside The President’s War Room in which former FBI agent James Kallstrom says, “It’s a day that 50 years from now our children will be taught about.”

One can certainly imagine a future historian at the School of Interplanetary Communications giving a lecture about the al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001. The most efficient and intellectually honest pedagogical strategy would be to assign the class Scott Horton’s books Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan and Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism, and then lecture extensively on these books.

The easy way would be to show the class some well-funded documentaries.

Three such documentaries were released this year, and they may very well form the foundation of future generations’ 9/11 knowledge. This, as the leftists say, is problematic. These documentaries are filled with glaring omissions, misleading narratives, and outright state propaganda.

Before we critique them, let’s acknowledge some basic facts:

  • 19 members of al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks

  • 9/11 was not the first time al Qaeda had attacked American targets

  • The Taliban are not al Qaeda

  • The Taliban did not participate in the attacks

  • Iraq did not participate in the attacks

  • Iran did not participate in the attacks

  • The United States started the conflict that became known as the Global War on Terrorism

Keep the above in mind as we offer the following correctives.

None Dare Speak The Name “Osama”

9/11: One Day in America is a six-part miniseries that premiered on the National Geographic Networdk on August 29. It was directed by Daniel Bogado and produced by Caroline Marsden, in official collaboration with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

This is high-end filmmaking that masterfully mixes archival footage with new interviews with survivors. It is often extremely difficult to watch. The terror and chaos of that pivotal day in Manhattan are palpable in every scene. 

Each episode emphasizes the violent loss of life, the overwhelming trauma of living through the attacks, and the feelings of loss and hopelessness. But it also highlights the strength and resiliency of the human spirit.

In episode four, FDNY firefighter John Morabito recalls the moments after both towers had collapsed. “As I’m looking around there’s cars that are destroyed. There was an ambulance on fire. I really thought this was it. This was the end. This was the end of the world. This was the armageddon.”

Morabito’s response was to pick up a dropped fire hose and put out the ambulance fire. This act is sublimely representative of the heroism of the day. And the documentary is filled with such moments.

What it isn’t filled with is historical context. At no point during the almost five hours of this miniseries does anyone mention Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, or any of the 19 hijackers. Not once. The archival footage doesn’t mention them. The interviewees don’t mention them. The filmmakers don’t mention them.

To be charitable, the documentary is clearly committed to evoking that one day of horror;  focusing on the direct experiences of those who survived the attacks.

“Rather than focusing on the politics, the buildup or the aftermath of the attacks, this series concentrates exclusively on the detailed testimony of witnesses and survivors on that day,” says David Schweitzer, the composer who scored the documentary with haunting, beautiful music. “It’s sometimes a harrowing watch, but a compelling and ultimately a very humane one.”

The documentary revolves around the conceit that, “It is now possible to tell the story of that day in full.” This, of course, is impossible, but the documentary does one hell of a job in its attempt. And it is difficult to imagine a survivor, hurrying down a stairwell in one of the doomed towers, saying something like “This is blowback for decades of American foreign policy.”

As Chalmers Johnson said, “‘Blowback’ is a CIA term first used in March 1954 in a recently declassified report on the 1953 operation to overthrow the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. It is a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the U.S. government’s international activities that have been kept secret from the American people.”

Horton points out that these consequences, “catch the population off guard and leave them open to false interpretations about the nature of the conflict.”

Most, if not all, of the victims of the 9/11 attacks had no idea what was going on. They were caught off guard for sure. And the documentary does not offer us (or them) an explanation.

Again, keeping with our charitable reading, we must keep in mind that millions of Americans have succumbed to “false interpretations” about 9/11.

According to the American Enterprise Institute, 17 percent of Americans believe it is “mostly or completely accurate” that the Bush administration allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur so as to justify invading Iraq. Meanwhile, 32 percent of Americans are “uncertain” about this claim. That’s almost half the population unwilling to believe there’s no way the Bush administration intentionally allowed the towers to get knocked down! That is a serious credibility gap.

Given this political and cultural milieu, any attempt by the filmmakers to state basic facts about the perpetrators of the attacks could have undermined the documentary’s noble focus. 9/11: One Day in America is a documentary for all of us, from those who believe in the infallibility of the 9/11 Commission to those who believe in the “controlled demolition” theory.

Still, it is strange to sit through these six episodes and never hear the name Osama bin Laden or Mohammed Atta or even al Qaeda. One is reminded of the philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek’s Guardian piece about the films World Trade Center and United 93, neither of which explained the attacks.

“All we see are the disastrous effects, with their cause so abstract that, in the case of WTC, one can easily imagine exactly the same film in which the twin towers would have collapsed as the result of an earthquake,” wrote Zizek.

In 9/11: One Day in America, the towers might as well have been knocked down by Godzilla, King Kong, or Yog Sothoth. The closest the series comes to an explanation occurs in episode five. In archival footage from the day of the attacks, an unseen and unnamed Fox news reporter questions Daphne Carlisle, a survivor from the North Tower.

“Can you even begin to fathom the people who may have done this?” The reporter asks, adding that this had been a deliberate attack carried out by “terrorists.”

“Jesus,” Daphne responded. “In America? I don’t know what to say.”

A review of 9/11: One Day in America by Melanie McFarland at Salon also refers to “terrorists” as the perpetrators of the attacks. In a nice touch, near the end of the article McFarland references the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. She tells us that “other terrorists” were responsible for the suicide attack at the Kabul Airport.

It is deeply unsettling how impossible it is for this documentary (and even one of its reviewers) to invoke Osama bin Laden. Can one imagine a documentary or Hollywood film about the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor that never mentioned the Imperial Japanese?

To add to the surrealism, aspects of historical context have a bizarre way of slipping into the narrative. In episode one, NYPD Officer Bill Kennedy describes riding to the towers in a rescue helicopter. “In 1993 we were able to rescue people off the roof. So having experienced this somewhat before we kind of thought that was gonna be the same game plan.”

Kennedy is referencing the basement truck bombing of the World Trade Center’s North Tower on February 26, 1993. As Horton tells us, “The bombers fell short in their attempt to topple one tower over into the other, which, at midday, could have instantly killed tens of thousands of people.”

The ‘93 bombing was carried out by acolytes of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the so-called “blind sheik” of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. 9/11 was carried out by acolytes of Osama bin Laden, who viewed Abdel as a spiritual mentor and often invoked him. The documentary tells us none of this.

In episode three, Kennedy reacts to the collapse of the South Tower. “Holy goddamn. They did it. It’s down. The second tower’s down.” Who is “they” our future students will wonder. They might be forgiven if they think there was a late twentieth century terrorist organization that simply hated skyscrapers.

In episode three, the filmmakers interview Alice Hoagland. Her son, Mark Bingham, was one of the heroic passengers on United 93. He helped force the plane to crash in rural Pennsylvania before “the terrorists” could crash it into their intended target (most likely the U.S. Capitol).

Mark called his mother from the plane to tell her it had been hijacked by men who claimed they had a bomb. “You believe me, don’t you, mom?” Alice recalls her son asking. “Yes, Mark, I believe you. Who are those guys?”

Who indeed? If the future students of our School of Interplanetary Communications only have this documentary to go by, they’ll never know.

A Most Charitable Reading

The Netflix five-part documentary series Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, releaed on September 1, does attempt to historically situate the attacks of September 11, 2001. In fact, director Brian Knappenberger and his fellow producers, Eve Marson and Lowell Bergman, are engaged in a project similar to that of Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism. They seek to give us a narrative through-line that explains, 1) how and why the attacks happened and 2) how U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics changed in the decades following the attacks..

The series succeeds in presenting a coherent and informative narrative. It demonstrates that 9/11 didn’t come out of the metaphorical clear, blue sky. It details government abuses, such as torture and mass surveillance, that officials exploited 9/11 to justify. Our future students will finally learn who Osama bin Laden is, what al Qaeda is, and where Afghanistan is.

Unfortunately, this is no Scott Horton production. Crucial events are omitted, necessary context is skewed, and false premises are implicitly accepted. The bottom line is that our future students will not understand that the United States started the so-called Global War on Terrorism. To understand how the documentary’s narrative works, we can read it against the Horton narrative.

The Horton narrative starts by explaing blowback terrorism and showing that the attacks of 9/11 fit within this category. As Horton says, “The truth is U.S. intervention in the Middle East long precedes al Qaeda’s war against America and is the primary cause of our terrorism problem.”

The Horton narrative then contextualizes the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan on Dec. 24, 1979. This was exactly what U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s national security team wanted them to do, so that they could give the Soviets their own Vietnam. On July 3, 1979, Carter had authorized the CIA to begin backing the Afghan mujahideen in their resistance to the Soviet-backed communist government of their country.

Next, Horton introduces the Iranian revolution, which broke out in 1978 and culminated with the Iranian dictator, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, fleeing the country on Jan. 16, 1979. It is impossible to understand America’s endless wars without understanding this crisis. Turning Point: 911 and the War on Terror never mentions it. In fact, Iran itself is mentioned only in passing.

The documentary invokes the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as the start of our troubles. Yet it never mentions the Carter administration’s previous intervention. Our future students will walk away thinking the U.S. began funding the mujahideen after the Soviets invaded, when the opposite is true.

Former CIA Officer Milton Bearden tells the filmmakers the position the Soviet invasion put America in. “We cared, at least in Washington, because the Soviet Union—the other side of the equation of a Cold War that had been running for decades…had moved outside its borders in a very flagrant way,” Bearden says. “And so the choice was for any American president, any American administration, you have to do something. You have to respond.”

The result is to portray the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan as a noble obligation. This in turn portrays the rise of al Qaeda as an unintended consequence of our righteous benevolence. Osama, and other Arab-Afghan fighters, fought on the same side as the U.S.-backed mujahideen.

The documentary interviews Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Terrorism, I think, can best be defined as violence or the threat of violence designed to achieve fundamental political change,” Hoffman tells us. Horton would have pointed out that this definition encapsulates U.S. Middle East policy for the past 100 years. Hoffman does not.

To hear Hoffman and Bearden tell it, once the Soviets were driven from Afghanistan in 1989, the United States embraced a dream of spreading democracy (and our decadent capitalist culture) and didn’t do the appropriate “aftercare” in the newly liberated nation. We failed to recognize the dangerous “fusion between politics and religion” taking place in the Islamic world while we had been confronting the Soviets.

The documentary does zero in on Osama bin Laden’s number one reason for declaring war on the United States, which he did in 1996 and again in 1998. This reason was U.S. combat forces being stationed in Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm, a war to drive the Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait in 1991. Hoffman points out that al Qaeda’s August 7, 1998 truck bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairbobi, Kenya, was eight years to the day of  U.S. combat forces being deployed to Saudi Arabia.

What the documentary leaves out, but what Horton explains, is that those forces were supposed to leave once Saddam had been driven out of Kuwait. Instead, they stayed and continued to bomb Iraq during the 1990s in what Horton refers to as Iraq War 1½. This bombing, along with the blockading of Iraq, was another motivator of Osama bin Laden. The documentary also neglects to tell us that U.S. support for Israel’s wars against Lebanon and Palestine further motivated bin Laden and his followers.

The documentary does a good job explaining the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. And it references the bombing of the U.S. Navy Destroyer USS Cole in Aden, Yemen in 2000, which killed 17 sailors. However, it completely omits the bombing of the Khobar Towers, near Dahahran, Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. airmen in their barracks. These airmen were part of the bombing campaigns being carried out against Iraq. It was al Qaeda’s work but the U.S. government blamed the attack on Iranian-backed Saudi Hezbollah (this is still what Wikipedia says). Of course, Iran is barely mentioned in the documentary to begin with, so it’s not surprising that even the false narrative of the Khobar Towers bombing is left out.

The documentary criticizes torture, mass surveillance, and both the Iraq War and the U.S. war in Afghanistan. This is commendable. It just doesn’t hit its points hard enough. It doesn’t emphasize the right themes. It’s a worthwhile documentary for our future students to watch, but without reading Enough Already alongside it, they won’t realize the truly diabolical nature of the American Empire.

Failure to Communicate

This Apple TV documentary, 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room, released on September 1, is the most propagandistic. One feels that this wasn’t the intention of director Adam Wishart or producer Neil Grant. It’s just that since the 90-minute documentary focuses on President George W. Bush and his inner circle on 9/11, it’s hard for it not to “catapult the propaganda” as Bush would say.

To start, let’s recall Horton’s Nietschean reading of Bush’s performance on 9/11. (Recall that Bush was visiting a public elementary school in Sarasota, Florida when he learned of the attacks).

“The reality is George Bush fled in cowardly terror to Louisiana, where he stayed for four hours,” Horton said during an antiwar rally on Sept. 11, 2021. “Then he fled to Nebraska, to a giant underground H-bomb bunker, at Strategic Air Command in Nebraska. And he didn’t bring his sorry ass back to Washington D.C. until 7:30 that night.”

9/11: Inside the President’s War Room offers a more charitable reading of this admittedly accurate timeline. In the documentary, Bush is adamant that he wants to return to Washington D.C. It is the Secret Service that refuses to allow Air Force One to accommodate him. This leaves Chief of Staff Andrew Card to play middleman, talking Bush down from a confrontation with his security detail.

“It’s our job to keep the office of the President of the United States safe,” says Secret Service Agent Dave Wilkinson. It’s interesting that he invokes the safety of the office, not the safety of the physical Bush himself. The implication is that no one is more important than the system, not even the president.

The documentary interviews George W. Bush, Andrew Card, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher, and CIA Daily Presidential Briefer Mike Morrell. In fact, except for one interview with a former student at the school Bush visited the morning of the attacks, all of the interviews are with government officials or news reporters.

Early in the documentary we meet Bush going for an early morning run. He yells out for Bloomberg Reporter Richard “Stretch” Keil to join him. Keil dutifully tags along for the run. He travels with the President and his team throughout the day. This unwittingly highlights the state/media alliance at the heights of American power. And like Keil, we are all about to be taken for a ride.

Our future students should not be allowed to view this documentary until they get an undergraduate degree in Hortonism and move onto grad school. It would be irresponsible to fill their heads with this hagiographic reverence for the American Hegemon. However, it does have incredibly damning moments.

When the president is rushed to the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and Air Force One, “intelligence reports” have his security apparatus concerned terrorists might try to shoot down the plane with a Stinger missile. One can imagine someone on the plane wondering who would have given the terrorists Stinger missiles and everyone glaring at Morrell.

To counter this threat, Air Force One Commander Colonel Tillman rotated the plane and engaged in a more dangerous, faster, and steeper takeoff with much less runway. Once in the air, another “intelligence” report indicated that someone on Air Force One might attempt to hijack it. At this point, one feels like the documentary cannot be serious. But, if we take it at face value, the inner circle of power looks like a paranoid bunch who have watched too many movies.

In fact, if a Soviet filmmaker created intentional propaganda of this kind, he would no doubt be shot by the KGB. A theme that emerges is that these people are not in control. They are in no position to help. They are confused and their communication equipment is experiencing technical difficulties. At one point they are reduced to watching the news just to learn what’s going on.

In the most disturbing moment of the documentary, President Bush is in the aforementioned nuclear bunker. In a video conference with CIA Director George Tenet, Bush learns the agency believes al Qaeda is responsible for the attacks. According to Rice, when Bush asks Tenet how he can know this, Tenet tells him that there were passengers on hijacked planes who were on CIA watch lists. The documentary moves on, unaware of how profound this moment is. One would like to be in that bunker and able to say, “They were on your watchlist? Um…were you watching them?”

Morell was upset that this information had not been sent to him by his CIA colleagues sooner, so he called the Agency to complain. “I called Georeg Tenet’s executive assistant and he told me the information that CIA had developed on al Qaeda that day, was embargoed from leaving the building. And I said in a very loud voice, and with some swear words, embargoed from the President of the United States?”

At the CIA, as well as the FBI and the NSA, the CYA protocols had begun.

Near the end of the documentary, Bush visits “Ground Zero.” One might think the filmmakers would include, maybe even end with, Bush’s famous “I hear you” address amidst the rubble. But the documentary avoids this kind of obvious propaganda. Instead, it does something more subtle. It allows Rove to tearfully recount the story of Arlene Howard giving Bush the badge of her son, who was killed responding to the World Trade Center. One is reminded of the wheat offering scene in the film Wag The Dog.

Speaking of wagging the dog, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is absent from the film. Rumsfeld, who died on June 29, 2021, may have been too sick to be interviewed. The documentary never tells why he isn’t featured. At one point, Rice tells us they were trying to get into touch with him at the Pentagon, but he was unavailable. Strangely, he’s never mentioned again.

The best thing about this documentary is the soothing voice of Jeff Daniels. The filmmakers could have had Rove or Cheney narrate, which would have made it an unbearable watch. If you’re going to view this one, read your Horton first.

Our future historian at the School of Interplanetary Communications has her work cut out for her. Assuming she wants to impart the truth to her students, the above high-profile documentaries won’t be enough. She would do well to add the documentary The Power of Nightmares; The Politics of Fear to the syllabus. This three-part BBC documentary series from 2004 offers a great deal of valuable insight.

In addition to Horton’s books, she could also recommend the following reading material:

After all, 9/11 deserves to be serious history, not expedient propaganda.

About John Weeks

John is a member of the Society for Consciousness Studies, where he researches literary theory. Whereas dominant academic literary discourse revolves around Marx, Lacan and Derrida, he prefers Mises, Horton and Woods.

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