[6 November 2006]
A media system as enormous as America’s, in a country as violent as America, is fated in the long run to produce a wide body of work preoccupied with warfare.
From the duck-and-cover shorts of mid-century to amateur video from Iraq War soldiers you often see set to nu-metal and posted on YouTube, entertainment and journalism devote boundless resources to brooding over war and its effects. In this they reveal—a street corner in Sadr City where a car bomb explodes; the faces of a weeping father and the daughter he’s holding, whose foot has been mutilated in a US air strike; a disfigured soldier’s homecoming—but more often, and more significantly, they conceal.
Alas, the media tend not to do so well with the enduring consequences of tragedy as with the visible trappings in which it first reveals itself, the particular Rorschach arrangement of the rubble around the smoking bomb site. Because the media traffic in cameras and screens their primary product is image. Anything referent to the invisible tends to be neglected, which is unfortunate, since the realm of the invisible here includes many matters of significance. There are doubtless towns around Iraq made ghostly by war and evacuation, but their silence won’t be documented on the Sunday talk shows.
9/11: Press for Truth starts off with the obligatory iconic cable news footage of 9/11, reflecting and acknowledging the media’s preference for the visible, but soon it veers off toward the unseen—doing so first in introducing the “Jersey Girls”, four widows who teamed up after the events of September 11 to pressure the government to be more forthcoming about them. When we first see the Jersey Girls they are meditating on vanished or fleeting images: the relatives they left behind on the day of the attacks. The foursome, Kristen Breitweiser, Patty Casazza, Lorie Van Auken, and Mindy Kleinberg, would later make the cover of major weeklies and pressure the administration into creating the 9/11 Commission, but here we see their initial thankless research in those weary early months after the attacks. This is the movie’s other major excursion into the invisible: the story the women uncover as they examine 9/11 and the circumstances in which it happened.
In an evident narrative convenience, the filmmakers imply that these four were the first to piece together the tale they’re about to tell, when in fact, variations of it have been around for years. Far from being broadsided by the attacks, so goes the story, the administration actually received several warnings before 9/11 and reacted in ways that showed they understood what the warnings meant. Everything that’s happened since then—Osama bin Laden’s escape from Afghanistan, the failure of the 9/11 Commission, the ill-fated war in Iraq with its mysterious motivations—is then reframed as a symptom of the administration’s desire to keep evidence of its incompetence out of general circulation, while harnessing American horror and rage over the attacks to advance a previously orchestrated agenda.
The mainstream account of 9/11 has its stake in the visible; the mugshots of the hijackers and the Osama bin Laden videotapes. (Among other things, by virtue of being so rigorously associated with images, this mainstream account gives the false impression of having been verified.) But the analysis of 9/11 offered here trades in secret meetings, clandestine deals, vested motivations. We’re reminded once more of the Project for a New American Century of the ‘90s, which called for Saddam Hussein’s overthrow but speculated the American public could never be convinced to support such a venture absent a “new Pearl Harbor” on US soil. Mentioned also are the energy task force meetings of 2000, the minutes of which are among the most closely guarded secrets in an administration known for them. The filmmakers wonder what sensitive discussions in the summer of 2001—when according to CIA director George Tenet, “everything” in terms of terrorist threat warnings “was blinking red”—led John Ashcroft to start flying by private jet in July and the G8 to protect Bush with anti-aircraft missiles at the summit in Genoa. These statesmen appear to have been warned of something, the narrator intones, but took “little or no defensive action ... except for their own personal protection.”
Is the change in Ashcroft’s flight plans a coincidence or an unacknowledged response to the warnings the administration had received? Press for Truth raises all sorts of questions like this’ links between seemingly disparate events that start appearing quite different once examined together. One of the movie’s more laudable maneuvers is to leave these correlative connections be without trying too hard to explain them. This is particularly noteworthy, given the sources. The Jersey Girls are unimpeachable, of course, except by the likes of Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly. On the other hand Paul Thompson, though nothing if not thorough, has been known in other contexts to level fairly outrageous accusations against the government regarding 9/11. (Then again, so have I.) And executive producer Kyle Hence has delved even further into the parapolitical. As one of the founders of the 9/11 Truth Movement, Hence has appeared in conferences with Jim Fetzer, Alex Jones, and others who make the morbidly fascinating but factually insupportable claim that the government deliberately wired the buildings to collapse in an orchestrated psychological assault on the American people.
Press for Truth steers studiously clear of such science-fictionish notions (and other notable pitfalls such as the proposal that a cruise missile hit the Pentagon or the planes were flown by remote control), but the entire movie raises possibilities that amount to much the same thing. Citing the research not only of Thompson but also New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh, Nowosielski and Duffy relate how bin Laden, cornered by American forces in Tora Bora in late 2001, escaped in a military convoy that would doubtless have been seen from the air. This leads Hersh to speculate that elements in the Pakistani government were sympathetic to al Qaeda. Hersh leaves it at this, but Nowosielski and Duffy go on to mention a $100,000 wire transfer that Pakistani intelligence allegedly sent to Mohammed Atta, according to CNN, and stories that high-ranking Pakistani officials met with administration high-ups on the morning of September 11.
Up to now, the claim has been that the Bush administration possibly helped cover for Pakistan’s dirty dealings in a mutual scramble to mask incompetence. But with mention of the anomalous wire transfer, it’s easy to come away with the impression that the administration actively participated in the arrangements leading to 9/11, and then purposely worked with Pakistan to help bin Laden escape American retaliation. This is an accusation of the towers-were-rigged-to-blow variety, though somewhat concealed, and it’s here that a lot of people who might otherwise be willing to hear out alternative theories about 9/11 suddenly get skeptical. It’s unthinkable, say they, that an American government would act in so despicable and deranged a way toward its own people.
To accept an idea such as this is to adopt a worldview completely at variance with the one we’re shown on TV. Instead of a duly elected government with the people’s needs at heart, one must substitute a secretive cabal beholden solely to wealthy interests and unerringly ruthless in its pursuit of power. In place of an easily grasped universe of absolutes in which the good-guy cowboys and bad-guy foreigners comport slavishly to the moral axis of a Rambo movie, one must instead struggle to understand a maze of shifting geopolitical allegiances and ethical compromises. One must accept the unsettling notion that a widening sphere of influence expands the avenues of possibility for its misuse. In other words, one must become incorrigibly cynical about our current government and its relationship to the people. Such cynicism is hard to come by even in these difficult times. But it seems to be getting more common by inches as we collectively lose our faith in those who govern, our faith that the truth about their actions accords with the part of them that’s visible.
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Paul Thompson’s remarkably thorough timeline, on which much of the movie’s research is based, can be found at CooperativeSearch.org