9/11 and the birth of the Big Lie
September 11, 2021 2:07 PM   Subscribe

If there was only quibble I'd add, is that it feels like the Era of the Big Lie or the War on Truth or what have you really started a year earlier, during Bush v. Gore. I like to say that was when consensus reality broke, at least in America. Not that there hadn't been bad political polarization throughout American history, but it seems to me that having a truly disputable presidential election was what loaded the pistol, 9/11 locked it, and then the road to the Iraq War fired it.
posted by Apocryphon at 3:06 PM on September 11 [61 favorites]

There's a thread about the willfully ignorant right below this one. They want to believe, just not in good things.
posted by fnerg at 3:23 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]

This was really good. Lately any time I hear something say anything that sounds even remotely true or makes any sense I'm like oh my GOD FINALLY THANK YOU. I'm just sick of all of this empty, stupid bullshit.
posted by bleep at 3:34 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]

it seems to me that institutional lies have been around as long as institutions.
if you're of a certain age, then you remember that getting clear at certain sharp points in collective consciousness. certainly 9/11 is one of those sharp points.
posted by danjo at 3:42 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]

First Casualty, etc.
posted by Schmucko at 3:51 PM on September 11

This underlines the fact that we should have been grateful that the previous administration were the world's largest collection of uncoordinated, uneducated bumbling money grubbers, instead of a well-oiled geopolitical militaristic conglomerate of some of the world's greatest strategic minds working in unison to completely unhinge the planet.

It was shock and awe alright.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:16 PM on September 11 [11 favorites]

I don’t disagree at all with the level of lying that accompanied so many changes post 9/11. I do disagree that this was somehow newly invented or went unnoticed. It may have changed a tiny but in disposition, but mostly it was an eye opening for people paying attention that hadn’t before. The big lies are timeless.
posted by meinvt at 4:33 PM on September 11 [6 favorites]

Yeah, the real hinge point was the result of the 2000 election. The Brooks Brothers riots that stopped the Florida vote count was the origin point crime that opened the door for everything else. If the White House hadn't been inhabited by a feckless wastrel who ignored briefings and was surrounded by violently ideological scavengers, perhaps the events of that day would have been different, but certainly the events AFTER that day would have been. The Big Lie was that Bush won, or close enough/it doesn't matter anyway/both parties are the same/facts don't matter.
posted by rikschell at 4:34 PM on September 11 [42 favorites]

By now

That's the thing, the nub, the benefit of hindsight. Back then, in the days and months that followed, just about everyone was on board with whatever Bush and his friends wanted to do. And anyone who wasn't was a traitor. Check out this thick and juicy propaganda. From good and wholesome Disney culture, all the way to FOX News and FOX stations showing terrorism fiction that, despite being fake, became jurisprudence for SCOTUS opinion on the legality of torture. Hindsight doesn't cure blindness, but it sure puts a spotlight on it.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 5:19 PM on September 11 [10 favorites]

It's strange, today I feel at the same time that I have ten thousand words to say, to explain to my kids who were toddlers back then. and also nothing.
The essay is fine, I liked it, but it fails to show how nearly everyone got caught up in the rhetoric of the war on terror and all the other lies that followed. And if someone didn't align, they were ostracized. There were critical voices, but they weren't within mainstream political or media outlets. No wonder conspiracy theories grew out of control.
Other things that went out of control were support for torture and hatred towards muslims. My kids have never known a world where it wasn't legitimate mainstream politics to other immigrants and defend torture. I don't even know what to say or do.
At the same time, my impression was that a lot of people in power knew very well that it was all lies. I've mentioned before here on the blue that I had the opportunity in 2004 to ask officials in the US State Department why "we" were attacking Afghanistan and Iraq when everyone knew that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were financing the terrorists (not that I meant "we" should attack Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). I took the non-answer as an answer: they knew what I knew, but there was not a political will to take on the real issues. IMO it was no surprise that the Arab Spring mostly failed: it was pretty obvious that in reality, the West supported dictatorships across the board, just like they always had.
I'm not even certain an Al Gore administration would have handled this much better. Perhaps they would have reacted to the warnings and 9/11 wouldn't have happened. But then something else would have happened.
posted by mumimor at 5:23 PM on September 11 [10 favorites]

it's like the vietnam war never happened - or the mexican war - or ... hmm, that whopper that was told about all men being created equal by people who kept slaves?

my god, american history IS and always has been a big lie - that sometimes some truthfulness and good breaks through but most of the time, no

i really wish people like the well intentioned author would realize this
posted by pyramid termite at 5:32 PM on September 11 [22 favorites]

Not American history: all history. The story of human history is the story of a constant struggle between truth and liberation versus lies and oppression. America is not exceptional in that. 9/11 was not exceptional in that. And yet, it is nevertheless true that 9/11 and its aftermath were an axial period, and the Big Lies that were told then are the mothers of the Big Lies that are told today. It is a knot in the threads of deceit that run to the founding of the country and long before, and the structure of the tapestry of falsehood that is being woven today cannot be understood without trying to unravel that knot.
posted by biogeo at 6:06 PM on September 11 [13 favorites]

Mod note: Comment and a couple hitched-eyebrow replies removed. I don't know what the hell the intent with "judeo-nazi-corporate" was but the most generous interpretation is that that didn't remotely land the way it was intended. Give that a wide berth.
posted by cortex (staff) at 6:11 PM on September 11 [21 favorites]

You can trace it back a bit further. From an 8-year-old thread on the moon landing hoax:

Meta-Conspiracy-Theory time:

The Fake Moon Landings meme was a deliberate test to see how effective the Fox propaganda apparatus was. It had been a conspiracy meme for years, but no one took it seriously until the prime time Fox special of February, 2001 aired. The reason the moon program makes for a good test subject is because it was literally one of if not the best documented event in human history. 400,000 people participated. It was written about by every newspaper on the planet. Every stage of all of the flights were filmed with the best cameras available. it was in Life magazine, fer chrissake. If the Powers That Be at Fox could convince a significant percentage of people that the best documented events in human history never happened, then they could lie freely about anything and expect it to be believed.
posted by Mayor West at 6:39 PM on September 11 [42 favorites]

The essay is fine, I liked it, but it fails to show how nearly everyone got caught up in the rhetoric of the war on terror

That is a perfectly fair way to see the invasion of Afghanistan and hunt for OBL. At best, a very few people thought we could have at least tried to take the Taliban up on their offer to turn him over to a third country. Even fewer took serious issue with not doing that.

The other shit, though, like spying on US citizens, the militarization of the border, and especially the invasion of Iraq got substantial pushback from a large minority of the US population. The Iraq war bit was the only part that really happened in real time, though, because the rest of it was hidden behind a wall of secrecy.
posted by wierdo at 6:51 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]

It may be that the best way to do harm to a society is to wrap something big in a mystery, so that it can't be nicely wrapped up in a bow and put away when it's done.

I went to see "The Man in the Hat" last night (NZ is coming out of our lockdown in places) a delightful little movie set in the French countryside with almost no dialog .... but it doesn't wrap itself up cleanly, it leaves big questions about its plot unanswered, and I've been thinking about it all day, it's probably going to bug me all week
posted by mbo at 6:54 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]

There's a little bit of "kids upset to discover that Santa Claus ain't real" here. One doesn't have to delve too deeply into U.S. history - let alone world history - to see all these same themes repeating. Even the actual phrase "the Big Lie" was used not many decades earlier during the McCarthy era.
posted by PhineasGage at 7:09 PM on September 11 [6 favorites]

@weirdo, there was fairly early pushback against surveillance when outrage got Congress to defund the Total information Awareness program in 2003. Of course it continued anyway, just without the name.
posted by zenzenobia at 7:12 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]

“Winning” was a lie, every single time the word was used. Every. Single. Time. The Afghan army was a lie. It didn’t even bother surrendering to the Taliban. It just went … poof. The Afghan “government” was a lie. It too went poof. The Iraqi government is a lie. Everything we have done to win the war on terror for two decades, 20 long years, has been a lie.

i dunno, the article seems pretty juvenile to me. was invading iraq a totally immoral disaster that had nothing to do with 9/11? yes. but is the "iraqi government a lie" ? what does that even mean? i'm sure it would come as a surprise to them today.

and "everything" we have done in the war on terror is a lie? does the author think zero anti terror operations in the entire world in the last 20 years have been justified or effective? zero? destroying isis seems like a strong counter example.

anyway, it just reads like an 8th grader wrote it; just because some things are wrong and corrupt and pointless doesnt mean ALL things are wrong and corrupt and pointless, even if saying so gives one a feeling of moral clarity.
posted by wibari at 7:38 PM on September 11 [6 favorites]

Metafilter: just because some things are wrong and corrupt and pointless doesnt mean ALL things are wrong and corrupt and pointless, even if saying so gives one a feeling of moral clarity.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:13 PM on September 11 [38 favorites]

That's the best Metafilter tagline gag I've read in a long time.
posted by biogeo at 9:43 PM on September 11 [7 favorites]

I think you can definitely point past incidents such as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident or the The USS Maine as instances where potential lies and deception were used to goad the US public into supporting wars. Richard Hofstadter wrote about the The Paranoid Style in American Politics in 1964, so conspiracy theorizing certainly was a feature of US culture far before the opening decades of the 21st century. The 90's definitely felt like a conspiratorial time with the popularity of shows like the X-files and rampant conspiratorial thinking, primarily on the US right, over mediums such as AM Talk radio and mailing lists before the rise of the internet subsumed everything. The 60's and 70's were similarly conspiratorial decades that produced artists such as Phillip K. Dick and spiritual movements such as New Age. The 50's had their rampant paranoia as well that manifested itself in events such as the Red Scare and waves of flying saucer sightings. Before the revelations of military lies regarding the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, as well as revelations regarding US domestic spying and wikileaks, there were the Pentagon Papers and disclosures of CIA and FBI operations directed against American citizens such as MLK.

Still, the cost of the lies of the lies in terms of lives and lost opportunities since 9/11 strike me on an emotional level. How many trillions were spent in those conflicts that could have instead provided Americans healthcare, shelter, and educations? We could have used the feelings and unity and national purpose after 9/11 to wean ourselves off fossil fuel dependence, but even now attempts to do that, or even to provide basic economic aide and a safety net amidst the largest natural disaster in our lifetimes are met with moderate concerns over cost. No such concerns ever seem to be raised when thought leaders advocate indefinite wars and occupations or when the military budget rises yet again to procure more useless hardware like the F-35.

The media response to the US end to the Afghanistan occupation and the seeming repetition of these lies is depressing. It's like we never learn. It never seems to end.
posted by eagles123 at 11:02 PM on September 11 [10 favorites]

I dunno, the article seems pretty juvenile to me.


The author's insistence that Americans are in this mess because people keep lying, while writing, "In fact, he was rushed from the school he was visiting in Florida," when anyone with a brain knows he was not rushed anywhere. He famously sat there for 7+ minutes with an "Oh no" look on his face. I'm not even an American and I can recall the title of the book being read to the children.

And as a non-USA'n, I rolled my eyes at, "our country, the freest and most democratic ever".

Americans' belief in this big lie is the one that keeps them believing so, so many others.
posted by dobbs at 12:36 AM on September 12 [45 favorites]

"A collective madness ensued" indeed. I am really struggling with how to reconcile this mindset of mourning and sacrifice about the events and outcomes of 9/11 as THE defining cultural touchpoint of national tragedy, when the tragedy of daily life in this COVID world reaches ever greater heights. I was surprised to see how many posts and comments ignored this fact completely and the hypocrisy and hyperbole of it all just feels absurd.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:29 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]

They sucked his brains out!: "Check out this thick and juicy propaganda. "

Worth it for kid Shia LeBoeuf
posted by chavenet at 5:15 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

There's a difference between a Big Lie and a truth that glosses over exceptions. It's definitely worth pointing out this screed glosses over exceptions. It can be true both that the War on Terror was sort of a big lie and that we prevented acts of terrorism. The Big Lie wasn't that the War on Terror was going to prevent some terrorism, but that it was going to Defeat Evil and make a better world. The framing that it was Terrorism itself we were fighting was a lie; Terrorism was collateral damage, we were fighting people and cultures and countries we were ignorant of because they were fighting back.

The phrase near the start about the US being the freest and most democratic ever I think is pretty clearly setting out the mindset of how many Americans perceived 9/11. It's not the author's claim, but that many Americans thought: why would anyone attack the freest and most democratic country ever? They must hate us for our freedoms!
posted by Schmucko at 6:39 AM on September 12

This was a good rant. In fact, it was a great rant. Like all great rants, it took an acorn of outrage and fed it various conflations until it grew into a mighty oak. It built The Big Lie out of a few hundred teeny tiny lies in such a way that we were pleased to agree that The Big Lie sprang full-blown from only a few evil minds. "They brought the world to its knees with a handful of box cutters because they hate us for our freedom."

One cannot create a great rant if one breaks the rhythm of ideas with lip-biting parentheses pointing out exceptions or rein in hyperbole that captures the outpouring of emotion one wants to convey. Great rants leave you with the same feeling you get after you accept that second helping of spaghetti--certainly you are full, but with the gentle feeling of disquiet that comes from having overdone it, yet you have to have just one more bite of garlic bread.

The great rants lead you to absolution without the necessity of repentance.

Conflation lets us pick an arbitrary starting point for our grief. More importantly, our anger lets us objectify those dark places in us and modify them to be useful praiseworthy impulses. Revenge, for one example. Conflation also permits us to ignore our complicity, or tacit complicity, as supporters of that fictional vision of the Great Shining City On The Hill.

Great rants permit us to mourn in peace and treasure the heroes who step forward to clean up the mess. Great rants let us bury our dead with honors and ignore mayhem and carnage that we bequeath to those who don't realize that we are a nation of peace, love, and freedom. Great rants let us pretend (while the spell is upon us anyhow) that the world is filled with people wearing funny clothes and speaking gibberish, who want nothing more than to be Americans.

Great rants divert us from the notion that we never were the country we used to be.
posted by mule98J at 8:04 AM on September 12 [4 favorites]

I do remember thinking, during our tiny protest against the war in Afghanistan, "oh shit, this is so off the rails, the racist war machine will set the oil fields on fire again and we've lost the struggle against climate change"

But there has been some progress in 20 years
posted by eustatic at 8:15 AM on September 12

The other side of the story is that the lies fell on fertile ground. There is a substantial number of people who are lost, afraid, threatened; who take the lies up and shout them loud. These are the ones who resent and fear the progress of the marginalized, the ascent of the rest of the world, the changes wrought by technology.

When do the Liars show up? When the Ones-Looking-for-Lies crowd around.
posted by storybored at 8:36 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]

I’d say election 2000 was the moment for me where it was clear we were being blatantly lied to, because the lies were on TV and they were transparent enough for a child to see through. Folks of my parents’ generation have told me Vietnam had a similar effect.

There’s more internet now and our information sources are more fragmented and personalized - maybe that allows all the various lies to take hold simultaneously whereas more resources (media, propaganda) had to be focused on a few larger lies 20 years ago?
posted by internet of pillows at 8:50 AM on September 12

Interesting pushback against the article in this thread. To act as apologist for it, I'd say of course there have been Big Lies throughout the history of America and of the world, but certainly it's fine to fixate about what happened after 9/11 - or in my narrative, after Bush v. Gore - because it defines our current age. The past twenty years we have lived in the shadow of those towers. Everything wrong about our politics was greatly exacerbated by the War on Terror. All of the polarization, corruption, and neglect have simply been affected by such a huge governmental- no, societal- focus upon an enemy.

It's like how life before could not help but be influenced by the Cold War. Events matter. Eras matter. 9/11 and the War on Truth it sparked is an era, and it is important because every iota of energy, dollar, and pint of blood spent towards it was one less towards fixing our healthcare system, maintaining our infrastructure, addressing income inequality, reconciling our divisions, addressing climate change. Yes, the end of history was a naive triumphalist proclamation. Yet it was a vision that was far more within reach without the War on Terror than with it.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:49 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]

One of the things I am enjoying about all the 9/11 retrospectives is all the Very Serious People writing Very Serious Thinkpieces like "America Dun Goofed". Like, who was drumbeating for war, guys? Who was enforcing all the conformity of thought and squelched any dissent? Many of the same Very Serious People, some of them still writing for the same publications! And if you push them on it, they get huffy, like "Oh we were supposed to Just Know the government was lying to us?! You really think our pals that we hobknob with at all the DC mixers would do that to us? Just go on TV and tell lies?"

For hard-nosed crusaders of truth raised on the tales of Woodward and Bernstein they sure did get snookered and they sure are determined to not learn anything from it.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:04 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]

MetaFilter: the best Metafilter tagline gag I've read in a long time.
posted by loquacious at 11:13 AM on September 12 [5 favorites]

One thing this has made me realize at a more profound level than before is how history is almost a complete invention. Historians and the mainstream media lionize Ronald Reagan and ridicule W. But they were probably equally ignorant, unprepared and if not themselves crooked (we don't know), then at the very least enablers of crooks.

The Berlin Wall would have fallen regardless of whatever Reagan said and did, but he is lauded for that event which was completely outside of his control. Most American presidents would probably have botched the reaction to 9/11 somehow, but Bush is to this day seen as uniquely stupid, both on the left and the right. Don't get me wrong, again, I see both men as ignorant populists. But I wonder how we as a society create the different narratives and why.
The other day I read that Nancy Reagan was disappointed that Ronald didn't get the Nobel Peace Prize. Now thinking about who got that prize, like Kissinger, she may have had a point. But the real point was that he didn't because he didn't do anything. At the time, Reagan had about the same amount of international respect and influence as Donald Trump had a year ago. How did he ever become "Saint Ronnie" outside of Republican circles?

Back to the subject of 9/11: yes, it was a defining moment, and while I had no idea what would happen, I was pretty sure it would lead to something bad, right when it happened. I didn't trust anyone at any level to deal with it in a way that would do right for us ordinary humans on the streets and in the fields. I expected lies. What surprised me the most was how many people believed the lies, including people I had respected up to that moment and people in important positions.

Worst of all, as I see it, was the islamophobia and all the sick theories about Islam that rose out of the fear and hate. It's still with us. All of these amateur orientalists pontificating about what Islam is and does, mostly based on colonial BS. It makes me sick to the heart.

Come to think of it: I know almost as little about Afghanistan today as I did 9/15 2001, which was and is very little. All of the reporters and analysts and historians who have told us stories about what that country was about were clearly completely clueless. I'm not blaming them. It was probably not easy to find the relevant information and knowledge. At the time, I had access to a lot of apparent experts because of my job, but already then I noticed that their stories didn't match up. Those allies who were supposed to fight for democracy and women's rights were also frying prisoners alive in shipping containers. The Taliban who are still supposed to be ruthless murderers were also fighting corruption and building social security. And yes, the Americans who were supposed to be the beacons of democracy were torturing people. Inspired by a TV show.

I am so sad for the women who believed they had a chance of building a better future who have now been left behind. But they were always the hostages of psy-op campaign, meant to convince the taxpayers in the West that the forever war was meaningful. I have no idea how to help them now, and it seems we don't even have the decency to help them out and give them new homes and lives.
posted by mumimor at 12:07 PM on September 12 [8 favorites]

It's been suggested a couple of times that the reality of the Big Lie doesn't mean that everything is a lie. For example, that actual acts of terror have been prevented. It's possibly true that the US security apparatus has stopped bad people from doing some really bad things, it may even be probable. But one of the first casualties of the Big Lie, and extraordinary rendition to black sites, and torture, is credibility. Why would anyone believe any US "security" or "defense" official who asks to be taken at their word these days? We've been told to accept as truths things that we know to be lies. And I think that's a big problem because it makes it more difficult to trust other parts of the government, fairly or not. It's corruption rotting the body politic from within.
posted by wintermind at 12:22 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]

METAFILTER; gives one a feeling of moral clarity.
posted by philip-random at 12:43 PM on September 12 [3 favorites]

Unstated is this describes two regimes of lies, or just the lies of two regimes - the war lies of the pre-Trump Republicans and Democrats, and the election lies of the Republicans post-Trump takeover.

On Saturday, the streams crossed as the war criminal degenerate George W. Bush practically proclaimed the War on Terror at Home to fight the MAGAs, so that'll be fun. Avoid rural weddings!

Considering how these things go, though, now I feel like maybe in 20-30 years I'll be watching VR clips of the last helicopters evacuating USG personnel from the DC green zone as American militias enter the capital city unopposed.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 10:54 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]

It's not the author's claim, but that many Americans thought: why would anyone attack the freest and most democratic country ever? They must hate us for our freedoms!

Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:20 AM on September 13

Back to the subject of 9/11: yes, it was a defining moment, and while I had no idea what would happen, I was pretty sure it would lead to something bad, right when it happened. I didn't trust anyone at any level to deal with it in a way that would do right for us ordinary humans on the streets and in the fields. I expected lies. What surprised me the most was how many people believed the lies, including people I had respected up to that moment and people in important positions.

This, totally. It quickly became obvious that we were reacting to 9/11 in dystopian ways, and that a massively invasive surveillance and security state was spinning up. (Especially when the Orwellian newspeak started proliferating; I recall an acute sense of sadness and dread upon learning that an unnecessary, cabinet-level department was being created, and that it was being named the Dept. of HOMELAND SECURITY. That is some naked propagandizing in a name, right there. In this regard, everything since has been sad confirmation of that early dread.)

But the real shock was--and continues to be--how many people are simply willing to believe obvious, easy lies. Smart people, thoughtful people, influential people, so many people who should know (and do) better. That was profoundly demoralizing to me, and I've never regained any real confidence in America's (people and political leaders) ability and willingness to respond to crisis with any collective good clearly in mind. And many crises since then have proven that to be accurate, up to and including the current ones.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:41 AM on September 13 [9 favorites]

I can tell that I'm getting old because I see these pieces written by people younger than me, who didn't live through previous episodes where the batshit-craziness of the conservatives got whitewashed and memory-holed until the actors got remembered as august statesmen and Very Serious People. See e.g the place in American memory of Ronald Reagan, possibly the worst President of the 20th century.

The Big Lie has roots much, much deeper than 9/11. It's just that the people whose job it is to tell us things about the world are much, much more concerned about keeping up acceptable appearances than in describing what is actually going on.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 8:59 AM on September 13 [8 favorites]

Reagan was a piece of shit nearly on par with the current crop of Republicans, but unlike the current crop of Republicans, be changed his mind for the good of the country (and the continued existence of human civilization) a couple of times.

I have a hard time seeing that happening today, so I have a hard time with sweeping statements that things have always been this bad.
posted by wierdo at 9:21 AM on September 13

Reagan got run over by history. He had no other choice than to "change his mind" when it came to the Cold War in Europe. Where he did have a choice, he traded arms with Iran and funded terrorists. He also refused to do anything about the AIDS pandemic. He vetoed the Apartheid Act. I can't think of a single redeeming aspect of the Reagan presidency.
Actually, I can forgive Obama for most of his failures. Presidenting is hard, and he probably hadn't thought of a lot of the ways in which it is hard. But he is my age + a bit. He was an adult when Reagan was president. He saw the lies, the crimes, the racism, the bigotry just like I did in real time, and still he praised Reagan. That hurt. And also, that may have been an element in his naivité about the Republican Party when he entered office.
posted by mumimor at 12:45 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]

Worth it for kid Shia LeBoeuf

I always had an inkling he was a depraved capitalist imperialist pig dog.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 6:06 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]

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