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History is an asymmetrical mess. The past foretells the future; the future arrives and, often enough, exposes the past as an amiable fraud.
The history of Sept. 11, 2001, was explained, for instance, on Dec. 29, 1913 when William A. Dunning stood before the annual meeting of the American Historical Association and caught hold of a luminous ray of truth.
"If the lesson of the past is sought as a guide to any policy," Dunning said, "the lesson that is learned and acted upon is derived from the error that passes as history at the time, not from the truth that becomes known long after." In short: "The deeds of men have been affected more by the beliefs in what was false than by the knowledge of what was true."
Romans went to battle convinced that two boys, suckled by wolves, founded their city. Medieval kings justified their tyranny from biblical accounts written centuries after the fact. Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian prime minister, wanted to start a war so he carefully edited an account of a conversation between his king and a French ambassador so as to provoke the French into war. They bought it and, around the fresh corpses of the Franco-Prussian War grew the German empire that, the year after Dunning spoke, would help destroy Old Europe in World War I.
Now, with another old order scattered in bits from lower Manhattan to outer Shanksville, and American soldiers scraping through Iraqi cities where they were supposed to find weapons of mass destruction but now must deliver a package called Arabic democracy, error and misapprehension seem to have etched almost every border across which our people and others see each other.
It is no longer enough for us to be entitled to our own opinions. Now we're entitled to our own facts.
The men of 9/11, from Osama bin Laden to the 19 hijackers -- 15 of them fellow Saudis of Osama -- grew up in an educational system that teaches that the United States is in thrall to a world conspiracy of Jews. They studied textbooks that included class discussion questions such as, "With what types of weapons should Muslims arm themselves against the Jews?" and "Who will be victorious on the Day of Judgment?" One eighth- grade textbook explains that Jews and Christians, known as Kufar, were cursed by God and turned into apes and pigs.
An accompanying religious text used in the Saudi middle schools includes this advice: "It's allowed to demolish, burn or destroy the bastions of the Kufar and all what constitutes their shield from Muslims if that was for the sake of victory for the Muslims and the defeat of the Kufar." Their state-sanctioned newspapers include columns that say Jews use the blood of Gentiles for their Purim foods. Four months ago, Saudi television interviewed an Egyptian historian who explained that the World Trade Center was blown up by a controlled explosion orchestrated by the U.S. government at the behest of the Vatican and the World Council of Churches.
This is our trade ally, Saudi Arabia, which has financed this bizarre educational system since the 1970s. Even as it condemns bin Laden, it continues to fund the schools from which he drew young men who strap on bombs, walk into bustling subways and detonate themselves with the expectation they'll be in heaven in two minutes flat.
Slaughter built upon fictions in turn establishes policies. Four years ago, I did not have to remove my shoes to walk through an airport checkpoint. I did not need a photo ID to ride Amtrak and criticism of my president did not elicit accusations ranging from treason to hatred of my country.
Four years ago, as the Twin Towers turned to Kufar dust, George W. Bush moved handily from one belief set -- the one correctly identifying Osama bin Laden as a terrorist -- to the next, targeting Saddam Hussein and Iraq as a logical response to 9/11.
Bush on Sept. 13, 2001: "The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our No. 1 priority and we will not rest until we find him."
Bush on March 3, 2002: "And the idea of focusing on one person is -- really indicates to me people don't understand the scope of this mission."
On Aug. 25 -- four days before a terrorist known as Katrina attacked the Gulf Coast -- Bush delivered a speech before the VFW in Salt Lake City. Five times he invoked Sept. 11, 2001, while justifying Iraq and the overall war on terror.
Bush said: "We're not yet safe. Terrorists in foreign lands still hope to attack our country. They still hope to kill our citizens. The lesson of Sept. 11, 2001, is that we must confront threats before they fully materialize."
Doubtless that is true, but the threats must be real, not fictions. And fiction can be avoided only by not combining facts in a way that create errors such as the notion that repeatedly invoking 9/11 in the same breath as Iraq will somehow establish an equivalence between bin Laden and Saddam, or the equally fatuous idea that claiming no one could have foreseen the failure of the New Orleans levees obscures the obligation this government had to rescue people, as if establishing a fact requires mere declaration and some mild persuasion.
This talent for conflating one thing with another to create alternative truths went into full bloom as the Gulf Coast turned into a swamp and people died for lack of a coordinated rescue.
The White House and Bush's apologists, stung by criticism that federal response was lacking, went in search of everything from the political registration of the New Orleans mayor to 100 school buses swamped in a lot, to shift blame for people stranded days after the storm.
They dealt with New Orleans the same way they dealt with Iraq. Confronted with inconvenient facts, they constructed an alternative narrative. When one reality doesn't suit, they retreat to the madrassas of Fox News and talk radio.
Two conflicting realities, fact and opinion, stand like Twin Towers of unreality, a ready target for the next enemy we misjudge and the history that will someday wonder how an empire could enwrap so much of the world and not comprehend what it embraced.
First Published September 11, 2005 12:00 am