We are so used to egregious lies we scarcely notice them anymore. But we may be entering a new phase of official mendacity. Governments don’t usually resort to lies that have long been exploded – they think up new ones instead. Yet if the world is to be plunged into another interminable war, it will be at least in part on the basis of a lie whose long-rotted corpse is being dug up and displayed as a living truth.
Last Friday, after the assassination in Baghdad of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, US vice-president Mike Pence issued a series of tweets justifying the killing. In one, he wrote that Suleimani “assisted in the clandestine travel to Afghanistan of 10 of the 12 terrorists who carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States”.
The atrocities of September 11th, 2001, were carried out by 19 terrorists, not 12. Neither Suleimani nor any other Iranians were involved. The attackers, and the organisers, were mostly from Iran’s great religious and political enemy (and Donald Trump’s great ally), Saudi Arabia.
What’s interesting, though, is not the lying but the particular lie. Because this one, of course, has history
The interesting thing here is not, alas, the lie itself. The old definition is that “Dog bites man” is not news – “Man bites dog” is news. “Trump administration lies” has long been canine-on-human action. These people have evolved, like tapeworms or dung beetles, to live in and off the ordure of falsehood. It is both their habitat and their sustenance. Real news would be if any of them actually told the truth.
So what if the report of the official 9/11 commission of inquiry does not mention Suleimani at all? What it does say is that, while some of the hijackers may indeed have travelled to Afghanistan through Iran, there is “no evidence that Iran or [its proxy] Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack”. Under interrogation, the key planners of the atrocities, Khalid Sheik Mohammad and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, both said that the terrorists passed through Iran merely to take “advantage of the Iranian practice of not stamping Saudi passports”. Pence’s claim that the 9/11 attacks count among “some of [Suleimani’s] worst atrocities” is transparently false.
What’s interesting, though, is not the lying but the particular lie. Because this one, of course, has history. It is not just a balloon of bogus claims – it is a balloon that was burst a long time ago. The greatest public lie in the US in this century is that someone other than al-Qaeda and its backers in Saudi Arabia was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Those atrocities were one of the most vivid, immediate and terrible events in US history. Nearly 3,000 real people died in a crime against humanity. And usually when such vile things happen, the political representatives of the victims insist above all on truth. They demand that history should at least record what happened with clarity and accuracy.
By far the more consequential lie about 9/11 was that Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq were involved in the atrocities. They were not
What makes 9/11 different is that the American right – including those in government – has relentlessly abused the memory of its victims by lying about what happened. In November 2015, Trump told a rally: “Hey, 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!” Shortly afterwards, faced on television with the overwhelming evidence that he was lying, Trump doubled down: “It did happen. I saw it. It was on television, I saw it… There were people who 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.”
But by far the more consequential lie about 9/11 was that Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq were involved in the atrocities. They were not. The official US commission of inquiry states: “Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq co-operated with Al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States. ”
We have long known that what Trump determines to be true is whatever suits him at the moment
But just a day after 9/11 then president George W Bush demanded of his officials: “I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this.” Even in the very first moments of grief and horror, the deaths of thousands of innocent Americans were being exploited by their own government to provide a pretext for a war against a different enemy.
Hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis and thousands of Americans have paid for that lie. It seemed to have been buried with them. Yet now it is exhumed and repurposed: it wasn’t Iraq that did 9/11, it was Iran. There are two reasons for this grotesque revival of a dead fraud.
One is that there is no popular support in the US for another “forever war” – revenge for 9/11 is the last resort of the phoney patriots. The other, ominously, is that existing law gives Trump as president sweeping powers to attack whoever he himself “determines” planned, authorised, committed or aided the 9/11 attacks. We have long known that what Trump determines to be true is whatever suits him at the moment. Now, that gift for shameless fabrication is being literally weaponised.