The Man in the Tinfoil Hat

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it possible that Donald Trump has been president for a full 61 days and not once claimed that 9/11 was an inside job?

I’ve scoured the internet for possible examples of such a statement from the sitting commander-in-chief, and so far, I’ve come up with nothing.  (For our purposes, we will discount this interview, since it was given on 9/11 itself, before anyone knew anything.)  As it turns out, in the decade-and-a-half since the worst terrorist attack on American soil, Trump has been totally, weirdly consistent in his view that the World Trade Center was brought down by Osama bin Laden and his minions in al Qaeda—and not, say, by a controlled explosion orchestrated by George W. Bush.  As far as our dear leader is concerned, the basic facts of 9/11 are settled science and not worth questioning further.

In light of all the nonsense that this administration has forced us to confront on a daily—if not hourly—basis, let us take a moment to appreciate the grace and maturity exhibited by the 45th president, vis-à-vis September 11, in accepting incontrovertible evidence as objective truth when there are other options open to him.

After all, this is the same guy who glanced at the cover of National Enquirer and proclaimed that Ted Cruz’s father was an accomplice in the Kennedy assassination.  The guy who propagated the theory that millions of non-citizens committed voter fraud because a German golfer told him so.  The guy who pushed hard for birtherism based on sources he never named, and who just recently accused President Obama of illegally wiretapping him based on documentation he has never produced.  And on and on and on.

Given all of this irresponsible rumor-mongering—this obsessive-compulsive embrace of political fairy tales when empirical facts are readily available—we are left to wonder:  Why isn’t Trump a 9/11 truther?  If he can so easily be made to believe that Obama could surreptitiously “tapp” the phones at Trump Tower, what’s stopping him from buying into a Bush administration that could surreptitiously blow up the World Trade Center to justify a war in Iraq?  As the leader of the free world, shouldn’t he be chomping at the bit to expose the would-be greatest crime of his least favorite Republican president once and for all?

You’d think he would be, and if Trump’s rank gullibility and ignorance aren’t sufficient reasons for him to be suspicious, surely his ongoing association with avowed 9/11 truthers would eventually do the job.

That’s right:  At this very moment, there are bona fide 9/11 skeptics within the president’s inner circle.  No, not his chief of staff or secretary of state—I’m talking about people he actually listens to and whose ideas he regularly repeats.  People like Alex Jones—aka the poor man’s Rush Limbaugh—who uses his radio program to scream about how the Sandy Hook massacre was fake and the government is using chemicals to turn frogs gay.  (Google it, kids!)  Or people like Andrew Napolitano, the Fox News contributor who originated this week’s bizarre claim that the (fictional) wiretaps in Trump Tower were the work of British spies.

These men are cooks, yet Trump’s ear seems to hang on their every word.  The president has come to view their hysterical ravings as gospel, thereby nudging paranoid gobbledygook into mainstream political culture.

We already know how pointlessly disruptive the presence of conspiracy theories can be on the daily operations of the U.S. government.  As we speak, actual intelligence officials are being paid actual wages to “investigate” something the president tweeted several weeks back at 3:35 a.m.  Two days ago, the director of the FBI was compelled to discuss those investigations in front of a congressional committee, all of whose members—like every other person in America—already knew those tweets were BS and hardly needed James Comey to confirm it.

The question now isn’t whether anything substantive will be gleaned from these mad accusations.  (It won’t.)  Rather, the question is how Trump will react to being proved a liar in half a dozen different ways.  If his past behavior is any indication—and it always is—he will continue insisting upon the rightness of his wrongness right up until every member of his administration abandons him, at which point he will sheepishly concede that no wiretap took place, quickly adding that he’s proud to have stubbornly suggested otherwise, since the ensuing investigation was the only way for us to know for sure that President Obama isn’t a criminal.  (As you’ll recall, this was roughly how he handled being humiliated about Obama’s birth certificate in 2011.)

However this particular national embarrassment is resolved, we can take it as a moral certainty that life under Trump will only get dumber from here, and you can take it from me that the longer he remains president, the greater the odds are that he will openly question 9/11.

Remember:  Trump’s solution to any big scandal is to create an even bigger scandal, and at the current rate his presidency is unraveling, it won’t be long before he burns through every other shiny object in his playbook and all that’s left is the Hail Mary.  Yes, the pushback will be fierce, and yes, the calls for his resignation will reach a veritable fever pitch.  But what would that matter to a man who believes he can generate his own reality and dismiss all opponents as the instruments of “fake news”?

In other words, the nation is currently engaged in a staring contest with someone who has no eyelids.  For all the unpredictability baked into our 45th president, we can be absolutely sure that a man who has skirted personal responsibility for the first 70 years of his life is not going to change course by the time he turns 71.  As Newton might’ve said, a president under a delusion will remain that way unless acted upon by a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate.


Against All Enemies

The election of Donald Trump was arguably the worst disaster to befall the United States since September 11, 2001.  But if you ask what will keep me up at night once Trump assumes power, the answer is:  Whatever disaster comes next.

I say “whatever,” but really, I mean terrorism.  If not a large-scale, years-in-the-making cataclysm like 9/11, then perhaps a series of multi-city, mass-casualty suicide bombings like we’ve seen throughout Europe the last several years:  Barbarous, politically-motivated strikes that, individually, are not destructive enough to bring America to its collective knees but, taken together, have the effect of radicalizing ordinary citizens into seeking extraordinary, extralegal measures to ensure such death and disruption doesn’t become (to use the buzzword of the moment) normalized.

You can see it coming from 100 miles away:  Trump conditions his supporters to view all Muslims with suspicion as potential ISIS recruits.  Then one day, their worst fears are realized when actual radical Islamists commit an actual act of terrorism on American soil.  As a consequence, those citizens who for years have been fed a steady diet of revulsion and contempt toward the entire Islamic faith will feel emboldened to act on those worst instincts.

At the street level, this will inevitably take the form of countless assaults and harassment against any and all perceived “foreigners” by brainless white thugs cloaking themselves in the mantle of “patriotism,” cheered on by fellow white thugs waving the flag of white supremacy.

We know this is what would happen following the next terrorist attack because it’s happening right now in the absence of it:  Every other day, we hear about some Muslim-American or other being targeted by deranged white idiots for the sole crime of reading from the wrong bible and praying to the wrong god.  Never mind that virtually every major act of violence in America since 9/11 has been committed by white Christians; never mind that you’re more likely to be killed by a piece of furniture than a terrorist attack; and never mind that, within the United States, organized Islamic jihad isn’t even remotely a thing.

Nope:  We are now firmly entrenched in a post-fact environment, and there’s no amount of data or common sense that will prevent several million of our dumbest countrymen from viewing several million of their fellow citizens as avowed enemies of our very way of life.

It’s an insane, racist, destructive way to think, and the incoming commander-in-chief has been enabling it every step of the way.

Without much doubt, a Trump administration will be lousy for women, lousy for African-Americans, lousy for gays, lousy for Hispanics and lousy for Jews.  But for my money, it is America’s Muslims who are the most vulnerable group of all, because their “otherness” is so completely (and irrationally) tethered to a gang of murderers 5,000 miles away over whose actions they have absolutely no control.

Like German Jews in the 1930s or the young women of Salem, Mass., in 1692, Muslims have become the designated scapegoats for most, if not all, social unrest in the 21st century, and it is entirely up to us—the non-Muslim majority—to ensure they don’t suffer a similar historical fate.

As with all other heretofore-unthinkable scenarios, we have little cause for complacency on this front.  Never forget:  During the campaign—in response to no specific threat—Trump suggested a blanket prohibition on all Muslims entering the United States “until we know what’s going on,” and also insinuated—albeit in his characteristically slippery, incoherent way—that the government should create some sort of “registry” to keep an eye on Muslims already living in the U.S.  You know, just in case.

The point isn’t whether he really meant it.  As anyone with half a brain ought to know by now, Trump doesn’t really mean anything.

The point—chilling and undeniable—is that, in Trump’s mind, absolutely nothing is out of bounds.  To him, there is no limit to what the president can do for the sake of “national security”:  The ends justify the means, even when the ends themselves are unclear.  Having never read a word of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions or, for that matter, the Old and New Testaments, he believes himself immune to the institutional checks and basic ethical norms that every other democratically-elected official takes for granted and that serve as the societal glue that holds this crazy world together.

Fundamentally, our next president possesses the mind of a dictator, waking up every morning thinking, “If it can be done, why shouldn’t it be?”

Hence the profound unease we should all feel about how he might behave in an emergency—particularly given our country’s abysmal track record in this department.

Remember:  In response to World War II, Franklin Roosevelt systemically violated the Constitutional rights of 120,000 American citizens in the off-chance they were Japanese sleeper agents—and he is considered the greatest president of the 20th century.  Eight decades earlier, Abraham Lincoln reacted to the Civil War by unilaterally suspending habeas corpus—a highly unconstitutional move that was roundly condemned by the Supreme Court, whose judgment the president then promptly ignored.  And Lincoln was the greatest man in the history of everything.

You don’t think Trump’s advisers have studied up on those cases and are prepared to use them as a pretext for rounding up Muslims en masse in the aftermath of the next big national calamity?  More worrying still:  Are we at all confident that, in a 9/11-like situation, Republicans in Congress will summon the courage to defend America’s core principles and prevent Trump from assuming dictatorial powers from now until the end of time?

They won’t if they live in competitive districts and fear being “primaried” in the next election.  They won’t if they expect to be labeled unpatriotic and “soft on terror” if they dare suggest that not all Muslims pose a national security risk.  And they certainly won’t if there is a groundswell of support from America’s basket of deplorables to turn the world’s greatest democracy into a perpetual police state with the sole objective of making white people feel safe.

It’s a central—and oft-repeated—lesson of world history:  Republics cannot be destroyed except from within.  In 1787, our founders designed a system of government—subject to layer upon layer of checks and balances—that could withstand every imaginable challenge to its viability save one:  The failure of all three branches to uphold it.

On January 20, Donald Trump will raise his right hand and swear an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  If his public statements over the last 18 months are any indication, he will probably violate that oath midway through his inaugural address, at which point Congress will need to decide whether it truly values country over party, and whether the principles established in that very Constitution are still worth defending against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Particularly when one of those enemies is sitting in the Oval Office.

When the Unthinkable Happens

A few years back, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a terrific little book called Revolutionary Summer, which revisited the events of 1776 in Philadelphia and New York, and concluded that the entire fate of the Revolutionary War—and, therefore, the United States itself—was sealed in those few extraordinary months.

The essence of Ellis’s case was that, although Great Britain enjoyed overwhelming tactical advantages throughout the war—its troops were better-armed, better-trained, more experienced and, by far, more numerous—in the end, the Continental Army was fundamentally unbeatable.  As the war’s home team—its soldiers culled from the very land on which they were fighting—George Washington’s troops were an endlessly renewable resource with everything to gain and very little to lose.  As miserable as their experience was, they were never going to give up the fight, since, unlike the British, they had nowhere else to go.

“Whereas most people have said, ‘How in heaven’s name did a ragtag group of amateur soldiers defeat the greatest military power on the planet?’” said Ellis upon the release of his book, “The real issue is:  Did the British ever really have a chance?  I don’t think they did.”

It’s a compelling piece of historical revisionism, and a companion to Ellis’s assertion in his most celebrated book, Founding Brothers, that “no event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution.”

So improbable at the time, so inevitable in retrospect.  Those words have been floating around my head a lot over the last 48 hours, as I continue to grapple with the fact that a racist, authoritarian windbag has been elected the 45th president of the United States, despite assurances by just about every political pundit on Earth that such a thing could never, ever occur on American soil.

Well, it did occur.  Practically no one expected it, but it happened, anyway.  And as half the country reaches for the cyanide tablets, stuck somewhere between denial and depression on the Kübler-Ross scale, we have to wonder how history is going to handle the events of 2016 many years from now.

Will the ascendancy of Donald Trump be seen as an inexplicable aberration in an otherwise logical series of events?  A perfect storm of madness caused by a handful of Mississippi Klansmen and an Electoral College snafu?  An insane historical theft of America’s first woman president by a boor who never really wanted the job in the first place?

Or—to Ellis’s point—will we instead come to view Trump’s victory as completely foreseeable?  As a natural progression of American populism that began with extreme anger toward George W. Bush and gradually transformed into extreme anger toward Barack Obama?  In other words, after spending the balance of 2016 more or less assuming Hillary Clinton had this thing in the bag, will we ultimately conclude that a Trump win was the only possible way this election could’ve ended?

History has a way of surprising us in big ways, and it’s the job of both historians and the general public to continually re-interpret everything that ever happened in the past to understand what the hell is happening in the present.

After 9/11, for instance, many people decided that the late 1990s weren’t quite as peaceful as they seemed at the time, as bands of jihadists worked secretly on a plan to totally upend the world order.  More than eight decades earlier, the entire nature of Europe was reassessed after a 19-year-old Serb murdered the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, somehow triggering a world war that claimed 16 million lives and ended four empires.  I dare say that few people saw that coming prior to 1914.

While it is yet to be seen whether the rise of Donald Trump will stand as an equally cataclysmic event in human affairs—and, if so, what sort of cataclysm it will be—we are already tasked with reverse-engineering the narrative of 2016 so it matches up with what it produced in the end.  Had Hillary Clinton won on Tuesday—as we thought she was destined to do—the story of this election would’ve been the shattering of the glass ceiling, the vindication of Barack Obama’s presidency and the rejection of the brutalism that Trump and his “basket of deplorables” so proudly and execrably represent.

Instead, we got the exact opposite in every respect, and it will take quite a while for us to collectively agree on just what that means in the long arc of history.  We could conclude—as many analysts have—that Trump’s win signifies that his anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, isolationist bellowing resonated with a majority of Americans, but how do we square that with the fact that Hillary Clinton actually received more votes nationwide?  While the Electoral College allowed Trump to become the next president, how can we say that Trump’s message won the day when his name was marked on only the second-highest number of ballots?

In time, we may know for sure.  For now, we can only guess.

The journalist I.F. Stone famously said that history is more of a tragedy than a morality tale.  At the moment, perhaps an even more fitting sentiment comes from James Joyce, who called history “a nightmare from which I am trying to wake.”  Either way, the essential lesson is that events don’t always unfold as you think they should—or, indeed, as you think they must—and that sometimes the unthinkable is staring us right in the face, if only we had the nerve to see it.

Like America itself, the notion of Donald Trump as president was a crazy, reckless, impossible idea right up until the moment that it became a living, groping reality.  We all assured each other the American people had a certain moral firewall that would prevent certain things from ever happening, yet now we have all become President Muffley in Dr. Strangelove, bitterly informing General Turgidson, “I am becoming less and less interested in your estimates of what is possible and impossible.”

That is the correct attitude to strike about the nature of human events, and history has borne it out over and over again.  Now that an American Mussolini is going to be the most powerful person on planet Earth, we no longer have the luxury to assume the world will ever again make any sense.

It’s Pronounced Fronkensteen

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was my original favorite movie.  Like every former child, I remember vividly the first time I saw it.  My parents were out and the babysitter popped the VHS into the VCR.  Hip to my apparently short attention span, she fast-forwarded through the boring bits—i.e. the first hour or so—picking it up just as we enter the marvelous candied fun house itself and meet its whimsical, bizarre, borderline psychotic chocolatier-in-chief.

The one particular thing that stands out from that initial Wonka experience is the ominous, psychedelic boat ride through the chocolate tunnel, during which a series of random, unnerving images flash across the screen as Wonka pleasantly sings, “There’s no earthly way of knowing / which direction we are going.”

Did I say pleasantly?  Sorry, I meant menacingly.  Predatorily.  Sadistically.  By the time that short ride was over, I’m not sure whether I was more in need of a lollipop or a shrink.

Indeed, reflecting on it now, I realize my first impression of Gene Wilder was one of abject terror.  His Willy Wonka—a character so idiosyncratic that not even Johnny Depp could handle him 34 years later—was the stuff of nightmares for six-year-old me.  That Hollywood executives in 1971 thought a movie about a moody, enigmatic sociopath would be perfect for kids is a testament to the respect that the film industry used to have for children’s intelligence and sophistication.  That Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory remains one of the most beloved of all films suggests there may be hope for the human race yet.

And it’s all thanks to Wilder, a thoroughly warm and decent man who, in Mel Stuart’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s trippy book, created a candy magnate who is endlessly charismatic and charming even as he behaves like a shrieking, irrational tyrant, merrily skipping through the halls one minute while allowing his guests to float up into a giant fan the next.

In the few interviews he ever gave, Wilder explained that Wonka’s first appearance—a cane-aided limp followed by a somersault—serves as a metaphor for his entire persona.  “From that time on,” said Wilder, “no one will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth.”

And we don’t, do we?  I’ve seen his performance billions of times and I couldn’t tell you whether he’s on the level at any given moment.  A slave-driving CEO by trade and a recluse by habit, he makes a point of not letting anyone know—until the very last moments of the film—what he’s really thinking.  He’s a mystery wrapped in a chocolate bar.

It’s for that very singularity that Gene Wilder will forever be associated with Willy Wonka in the mind of everyone who was ever a frightened child.  Just as Judy Garland never escaped the shadow of The Wizard of Oz, Wilder’s Wonka first appeared to us in our most vulnerable, impressionable period, branding our memories with a visceral, almost supernatural force that few movie characters are able to do.

If Willy Wonka is a signpost from my own adolescence—a bridge between innocence and guile—then Wilder’s other great leading role, as Frederick Frankenstein in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, carried me across that same chasm in an entirely different way.

By age 13, I had already watched Young Frankenstein more times that I could count and, if prodded, could recite entire scenes from memory.  But as it happened, I decided to pop that particular disc into my DVD player on the evening of September 10, 2001.  As ever, the next hundred-odd minutes were an embarrassment of comedic riches, from Igor (pronounced “eye-gore”) telling Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced “fronk-en-steen”) to “walk this way,” to Dr. Frankenstein getting crushed by a rotating bookcase (“Put…the candle…back”), to the good doctor not only creating a living, breathing monster from spare parts, but teaching him to sing and dance (and eventually, by accident, to rape and pillage).

I imagine I went to bed that night utterly carefree, with a smile on my face and a song in my heart.  Then I woke up the next morning and witnessed the world turned upside down.

Now, there’s no point drawing more symbolism than necessary from this arbitrary sequence of events.  The September 11 attacks didn’t happen to me personally—although I lived close enough to see the billowing smoke from a nearby hilltop—and I can’t say my own life was changed as swiftly and dramatically as the nation’s as a whole.

Nevertheless, 9/11 was certainly eye-opening to a 13-year-old suburbanite who had never given any thought to concepts like terrorism and religious extremism and who probably couldn’t locate Afghanistan on a map or explain how any of the above were related to each other.  (Admittedly, some days I still can’t.)

And so—at this moment—I think it’s worth mentioning how I spent my final evening of relative ignorance about the real world—the world beyond my house, my family and my values—in the company of Gene Wilder, with all the frivolity and gleeful fright that comes with it.  If 9/11 was the turning point in my generation’s conception of reality, it seems fitting that an actor who could so finely juggle the wonders of childhood with the cruelties of adulthood would happen to be in the forefront of my mind at the very moment I needed him the most.

The world needs him still.  That he remains so beloved, despite having not made a single movie since 1991, suggests it was the depths of his humanity—not just the heights of his acting chops—that made him such a special part of our lives.

He was the man giving out golden tickets.  Little did we know that the shiniest ticket of all was him.

Solving Islam

More than 14 years after the September 11 attacks, why are Americans still arguing about whether Muslims are people?

In 2001, the country suffered an act of terrorism carried out by 19 men, all of whom were Muslim and claimed to be acting on divine orders.  Even then, however, cooler heads occasionally prevailed when it came to assigning blame.

Consider the following statement from September 17 of that year:

“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.  […]  When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world.  […]  America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country.  Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads.  And they need to be treated with respect.  In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”

That was George W. Bush.  In a special address to Congress three days later, he added, “[T]hose who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.  The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.”

In other words, even President Bush in 2001 understood that a war against Islamic extremists was not the same as a war against Islam.  It’s a fairly simple concept to grasp, so why are we having so much trouble with it now?  Why can so many Americans still not distinguish a gang of murderers from the billion-plus peaceful folks whose religion they happen to share?  Why are we scapegoating all members of a particular faith for a problem caused by some of them?

The explanation for this can roughly be traced to three separate but occasionally interconnected sources:  Ignorance, bigotry and a few unfortunate facts.

The first two require little explanation.  Regrettably, a sizable minority of American citizens are just plain dumb when it comes to understanding people who are different from them.  Either because they don’t bother to educate themselves or because they reject the information that is staring them directly in the face, these people are impervious to reason, sensitivity and intellectual growth.

In the present context, this would include those who look at someone wearing a hijab and immediately think, “Terrorist!”  Or, more explicitly, those who see Muslims committing atrocities overseas and bellow, “Let’s not allow any Muslims to enter the United States!”

Not even Mark Rothko painted with a brush that broad, yet that is precisely the mainstream view among nearly all Republican presidential candidates and their supporters.  Donald Trump surprised no one this week by suggesting all American Muslims should be “registered.”  (Whatever that means.)  Ben Carson has said an observant Muslim should not be elected president.  Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz gave the game away by advocating preferential treatment to Christian refugees over those who, shall we say, pray to a slightly different god.

Against all of this xenophobic nonsense—betrayals of such foundational American values as multiculturalism and religious freedom—there remains a profoundly uncomfortable question:  Why , at this moment, are ISIS and its ideas so goddamned popular among certain members of the Islamic faith?

In 2013, Pew released results of a survey of Muslims around the world.  Among other things, the survey found that 72 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “Suicide bombing in defense of Islam is never justified.”  That seems reassuring—until you realize that it means 28 percent of respondents didn’t agree with the same statement.

In fact, 11 percent of the world’s Muslims explicitly endorsed the view that suicide bombing in defense of Islam is either “often justified” or “sometimes justified.”  That leaves 17 percent who either refused to answer or didn’t have an opinion on the merits of murdering large amounts of civilians.

I don’t know about you, but I find these numbers slightly alarming.

If one out of every nine Christians were in favor of blowing themselves up in a crowded marketplace because someone said something disparaging about Jesus, would we not be correct in saying that Christianity had a problem?

We can bang on and on about how Islam is a religion of peace and that an overwhelming majority of Muslims reject violence in all its forms—the latter being an incontrovertibly true statement, particularly in the United States—but we are entitled to look at that minority and conclude that Islam itself might have something to do with it.

There’s a popular refrain that says the problem isn’t religion; it’s people.  That is, there’s nothing in religion to turn good people evil; rather, it’s that certain people are already evil and will cling to any philosophy to justify their actions.

It sounds convincing and is largely true—in the end, each individual is responsible for his own behavior—but it does not resolve the question of why a disproportionate number of these murderous psychopaths belong to one faith is particular.  If suicide bombing doesn’t have to do with religion, why do virtually all suicide bombers belong to the same religion?  If Islamic texts don’t instruct adherents to resort to violence in response to blasphemy, why is one in nine Muslims so convinced that they do?

These are the sorts of questions we ignore at our peril.  However, they are ultimately mere window dressing for the only question that matters:  What do we do with this information?

As we have found, there are two general approaches to addressing this issue.  One, we could decide that because 11 percent of Muslims are sympathetic to Islamic terrorism, we are therefore entitled to stigmatize and openly discriminate against the other 89 percent.  Or two, we could stop acting like children and recognize that two separate and seemingly contradictory facts can be true at the same time.  Namely, that Islamic holy books provide justification for holy violence and also that most Muslims have the decency and common sense to ignore what those books say.

We can all recite verses from the Christian and Jewish bibles that condemn certain people to death for all sorts of offenses, and we can equally recite the names of people—in America and elsewhere—who take those verses to heart.  Why, it was just a few weeks ago that several GOP presidential candidates spoke at an event hosted by a Colorado pastor who openly advocates the murder of all gay people on Earth—as explicitly recommended in Leviticus 20:13.  In many countries in Africa and the Middle East, of course, this commandment is actually carried out.

Yet somehow, the balance of the world’s Jews and Christians manage to overlook these prehistoric injunctions, living, instead, according to the laws of man and the good old Golden Rule.  If we Judeo-Christians can pat ourselves on the back for pulling this off, why can’t we extend the same courtesy to others who have done the same?

As ever, the tonic to religious fanaticism includes such concepts as secularism, pluralism, rule of law and—when all else fails—treating one’s fellow human beings with dignity and respect.  This necessitates seeing people as individuals rather than members of a group—even when they identify as both—since applying labels to each other tends to produce hatred and discord at the precise moment when common ground and reconciliation are in order.

We might agree that love, respect and empathy will not solve a problem like ISIS all by themselves.  On the other hand, there is no instance I know about in which they have ever made matters worse.


It’s exactly as Alfred Hitchcock described it.

There’s a bomb under the table and it explodes.  That’s surprise.

There’s a bomb under the table and it doesn’t explode.  That’s suspense.

At the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, two bombs went off without warning, killing three and injuring 260.  That’s surprise.

In raw video released last week, we see the bombers getting into their positions.  We know where the bombs are, and we know that, sooner or later, they’re gonna go off.  We see throngs of Bostonians milling about, having a good time.  They have no earthly idea that something terrible is about to happen, but we do.

That’s suspense.

Included in the barrage of film footage that prosecutors presented to the Tsarnaev jury and the public beginning last Monday—a series of clips from before and after the explosions—is the surveillance video from outside Forum, the restaurant where the second bomb went off.

This segment—four and a half minutes long—is eerie both for what it shows and what it obscures.  We see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev approach and stop, carrying a backpack, eyeing the race that’s still in full swing.  We see him make a brief cell phone call (to his brother, apparently) and drop his backpack to the ground.  Suddenly, there’s a tremor and every head turns to the left—except for Dzhokhar, who, in a sudden hurry, shuffles away to the right.  About 15 seconds elapse, as everyone in view tries to register whatever just happened down the street.  Then, in the very last frame of the clip, we see a flash, and the screen goes black.

It’s become a cliché to hypothesize that Hitchcock would appreciate this or that film, or sequence, or some cinematic technique or other.  Indeed, for so long has Hitch been synonymous with the very concept of screen suspense that his presence is felt any time it is done well.

As it turns out, the Boston Marathon attack was one such instance.  We often say that art imitates life, but every now and again, it’s life that imitates art.  The surveillance footage of Boston’s Public Enemy No. 1 in his final moments as a private citizen, kept under wraps until now, could not have been creepier if the Master of Suspense had directed it himself.

Anyone with a keen sense of dramatic irony will appreciate the contrast, in those four-odd minutes, between the relaxed merriment of Boylston Street on Marathon Monday and the obscene, horrible carnage that was wrought by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Patriots Day 2013—the manner in which that one city block, otherwise filled with so much cheer, was suddenly, silently occupied by the presence of evil.

The clip I’ve described, you’ll note, contains none of that carnage, and is not as viscerally sickening as any number of videos and photographs of the attack that have been freely available for the past two years.  Rather, it is sickening in a more indirect and unusual way:  It disturbs us because we find ourselves in a position of knowing a grave crime is about to be committed, yet we are powerless to stop it.  And so our access to it is purely an act of voyeurism—the most Hitchcockian of all sins.

Surely it is also a sin to speak of a tragic real-life event as if it were a movie.  Hitchcock himself was an entertainer above all else—“I enjoy playing the audience like a piano,” he once said—and “entertaining” is not exactly a word that leaps to mind regarding a terrorist attack that killed an eight-year-old boy (among others) and blew off the limbs of 16 survivors.  As with the September 11 attacks, being able to speak of it in such detached, unemotional terms is a luxury of those who weren’t actually there.

But the Marathon bombing was a public tragedy, in addition to being several hundred private ones, and we onlookers cannot hide our grisly fascination with the various forces that brought it about.

Besides, it is probable that someday a narrative film will be made from the ruins of the modern-day Boston Massacre, allowing us to consider it in cinematic terms for real.  It’s anyone’s guess how this hypothetical movie might approach the event it depicts.  It could focus—in the vein of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center vis-à-vis 9/11—on one or several of the men and women who saved the day—the cops and medics who, amidst mass chaos and confusion, transported victims from the sidewalk to the hospital.  It could focus on the victims themselves and the effect of their horrific injuries on their lives and careers.

Or, as I would prefer, it could take the gamble that Paul Greengrass did in making United 93, which approached 9/11 by depicting it more or less as it actually occurred—specifically, by following the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 all the way through the day, from them praying in their hotel rooms until the moment the plane crashes in the Pennsylvania woods following a struggle between the terrorists and some extremely brave passengers.

United 93 was premised on two risky assumptions.  First, that 9/11 was so inherently compelling that no additional drama was necessary.  And second, that even terrorists deserve to be treated as three-dimensional human beings, and can be presented as such without diminishing the wickedness of their actions and ideas.

As it happens, the Tsarnaevs claim to have attacked Boston for approximately the same reason Osama bin Laden and company attacked New York and the Pentagon:  As retribution for American involvement in the Middle East.

Maybe, then, it would be appropriate to depict the former like the latter:  As men who have firm religious convictions and follow through with them by murdering innocent people, which they justify by insisting their victims are not innocent at all.

To us, this is completely insane and not worthy of our attention.  Unfortunately, we don’t have a choice, because they’ve already gotten our attention and we can’t pretend their actions come from nothing.

They say the best revenge is to live well.  Similarly, the best way to combat evil is to do good.  Western culture is superior to radical Islamic culture not because we say it is, but because the former saves lives while the latter destroys lives.  This was certainly the case in Boston, where so many onlookers to the explosions found themselves running toward the fire instead of away from it, not allowing their fellow citizens to bleed to death on the street.

The bombers, meanwhile—with their supposed high ideals and dreams of martyrdom—didn’t even have the nerve to stay with their bombs.  They ran away.  As if being heartless and homicidal weren’t enough, they were also cowardly.

So if we ever turn the whole ordeal into a film, let’s keep it simple by sticking to the facts of the case—not because historical accuracy is paramount (it isn’t), but rather because the facts of the Marathon attack are more interesting than anything Hollywood could make up.  That’s how you beat the terrorists:  By exposing them as the worthless losers that they are.

In this instance, truth is more compelling—and more suspenseful—than fiction.

Hitchcock would approve.

Baker’s Dozen

Roughly a year from now, I will have lived in a post-9/11 world longer than I ever lived in a pre-9/11 world.

Presumably this means nothing to you, but it sure scares the hell out of me.

Know what’s even scarier?  Last month I attended the bar mitzvah—the Jewish coming-of-age—of a cousin for whom the memory of the September 11, 2001, attacks is no memory at all, because he was two months old at the time.

Worse still:  Last week I shot hoops and played wiffle ball with another cousin, aged four and a half, who probably doesn’t yet know what “9/11” is, and when he does, it will present simply as one more event in history, much as Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis did for me.

To my fellow twentysomethings, I ask:  Have we already reached that point where we talk to young people about September 11 the way our grandparents always talked to us about World War II?  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but:  Where does the time go?

While debate still rages, up until now my own definition of what it means to be a Millennial is that the formative global event of your life—albeit if only viewed on television—was the act of evil committed in New York and Arlington, Virginia, 13 years ago today.  For me and pretty much everyone in my graduating class, it most certainly was, if only because nothing else was quite so interesting.

Yet here are members of my generation—contemporaries, as it were—for whom September 11 means nothing because they were born just a few years later than I.

Indeed, Richard Linklater’s seismic new movie Boyhood, which effectively bottles up the Millennial experience for all future generations to consider, begins sometime in 2002, with a protagonist just old enough to be aware of the attack but too young to understand what it means.

Even as the film progresses—it covers 12 years in all—the only allusions to 9/11 are indirect or after-the-fact, such as when a young soldier recounts his tours of duty in the Middle East or when the boy’s dad rants about how the Iraq War was one big scam.

But the event itself seems to have had no immediate effect on this family.  It’s just something that happened far away at some point in the past.  So far as the movie is concerned, the world prior to September 11, 2001, is not worth mentioning.

So perhaps I had everything all wrong:  When the dust clears and the timelines are adjusted, maybe Millennials will be defined not as the generation on which 9/11 had the deepest impact, but as the first generation on which it had none at all.

In any case, it’s not like September 11 has grown any less important over time.  Au contraire.  With each passing year, it becomes ever clearer how the reality of so much of today’s world, good and bad, is a direct consequence of that horrible day, whether it should be or not.

To wit:  With no 9/11, there would have been no Iraq War.  With no Iraq War, there would have been no opportunity for a young, charismatic state senator from Illinois to oppose said war and rise to national prominence just in time for the anti-Bush backlash in 2008.  And with no President Barack Obama…well, I leave you to fill in the blanks.

(This is to say nothing of the effects of the Iraq War on the Middle East itself, but in the interest of time, I’ll say nothing of them.)

Every big political event has a way of altering the assumed trajectory of history, but 9/11 is still the Big Kahuna of our time.  It may not have “changed everything” right away, but 13 years out, we find there is very little about our lives that it did not change.  Its shadow only grows.

So in a way, it almost doesn’t matter that an increasing proportion of the world’s population didn’t experience the attack in real time.  For those born in the late-1990s onward, the post-9/11 world is the only world they know, and since it’s the only world we now occupy, there is little cause for alarm.

As someone who was already a teenager on the fateful day, and who saw the smoke billowing from Ground Zero from the top of a hill in my hometown in Westchester County, I guess I just didn’t expect this moment to come so quickly.  I wasn’t prepared to treat my own personal memory of 9/11 as something precious—something that wasn’t also shared, in one way or another, by every other person on planet Earth.

For this emerging generation—Millennial 2.0, perhaps?—I don’t know whether to feel sorry or envious.  On the one hand, today’s teens have never known the relative peace, quiet and civil liberties of the pre-9/11 era.  On the other hand, they also do not know what it is like to lose them.