One of the subtexts of my entry on teaching history is this: facts by themselves are never sufficient to render a coherent account of anything. Those facts must be selected, ordered, and interpreted in order to form any coherent narrative of any historical moment. And that means that any such narrative is intrinsically subjective, not merely a matter of teaching only the facts.
In this context, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s editorial calling for the firing of UW lecturer Kevin Barrett, who believes (and teaches, among other possibilities) that the 9/11 attacks were, essentially, an inside job, is both extraordinarily naive and quite dangerous. I’ve never attended any of Barrett’s classes (which are, for the benefit of non-Wisconsin readers, in Madison, not at my campus, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), so I do not know the extent to which Barrett pushes these theories or whether he merely presents them as possibilities to be considered. Ultimately, unless he denies any other possibility, it should not make any difference – so long as he makes clear that any interpretation of history is, necessarily, just that.
As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I am not a fan of George W. Bush and his administration. The evidence I’ve seen does not persuade me, however, that he or it could have gone that far – especially since whatever hypothetical benefit might have been gained could have been gained far more cheaply and at far less risk and cost. However: someone else might weigh the evidence differently, and that right – central to academic freedom – should not be infringed, no matter (and especially) how objectionable those conclusions might be.
What evidence might Barrett point to? Without wading too deeply into Conspiracy Central, when a long-term and conservative physicist such as Steven E. Jones (at the notoriously radical Brigham Young University) questions the physical evidence that such an unprecedented collapse as that of the WTC could have been caused by the impact of exploding aircraft alone, I at least (as a non-physicist) do not feel qualified to rule out his evidence. (Needless to say, other physicists disagree – but the point is that a qualified professional has put forth a reasoned perspective, which compels responsible academics to engage that evidence – not disregard it or sweep it under a rug as inconvenient or excessively controversial.)
One could also point to an article by William Arkin, originally published in the October 27, 2002 edition of the Los Angeles Times, in which Arkin describes Donald Rumsfeld as recommending the creation of a “Proactive, Preemptive Operations Group (P2OG), to bring together CIA and military covert action, information warfare, intelligence, and cover and deception.” P2OG “would launch secret operations aimed at ‘stimulating reactions’ among terrorists and states possessing weapons of mass destruction — that is, for instance, prodding terrorist cells into action and exposing themselves to ‘quick-response’ attacks by U.S. forces.” In plain English: Rumsfeld wants to create a secret agency that will provoke terrorists to act, in order that they might be caught. But is there any guarantee under such a scenario that American lives would not be lost? Of course not: there can be no such guarantee, since there is no control over what such terrorists would do when provoked. On his own statements, then, Donald Rumsfeld is willing to sacrifice American lives (and not just those of soldiers).
One might also look into history for examples of the U.S. government behaving with reckless disregard for the welfare and safety of its citizens. For decades, as is well documented, the U.S. Public Health Service subjected hundreds of African-Americans to experiments wherein it purposely withheld treatment for syphilis, in order to have a “control group” which would demonstrate the course of the untreated disease (the Tuskegee Syphilis Study). Later, nuclear testing was conducted in the western desert regions of Nevada and Utah without informing residents of the testing or properly evacuating those who might be exposed to fallout (as documented by writer Richard L. Miller, environmental historian Philip L. Fradkin, and many others). And in the 1950s, as part of its research into possible mind-control techniques, the CIA conducted Project MK-ULTRA, in which citizens were exposed to hallucinogenic drugs (such as LSD) without their consent.
And of course, Bush has endangered, and continues to endanger, the lives of many Americans and countless Iraqis in the war in Iraq, having gained support for the war among American citizens via blatantly false and misleading statements and rationales.
None of this, of course, proves that Barrett’s ideas are correct. But they suggest that when we dismiss any possibility of our government’s wrongdoing, we do so at great peril to ourselves and to democracy.
Commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Voice of America on February 26, 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” What, exactly, is the Journal Sentinel afraid of?