Donald Trump keeps claiming that thousands of Muslims in the United States publicly celebrated the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. So far, there’s been exactly zero evidence to back up this claim, though that hasn’t stopped him from doubling and tripling down — on Sunday, for example, he told Chuck Todd, “I’ve had hundreds of phone calls to the Trump Organization saying, ‘We saw it. It was dancing in the streets.’ I’m not going to take it back.”
Earlier today, Mark Halperin tweeted out a paragraph from a September 14, 2001, New York Post op-ed by Fred Siegel that refers to such celebrations:
Here in New York, it was easy to get angry listening to Egyptians, Palestinians and the Arabs of nearby Paterson, N.J., celebrate as they received word of the murderous attack in New York and Washington. But Mayor Giuliani (who has been tireless and magnificent in this crisis) rightly warned New Yorkers that it would be wrong to take their anger out on the city’s Arab and Muslim residents. Attacks on Arab-Americans in Paterson or elsewhere are utterly indefensible.
The right-wing internet immediately sank its teeth in: “Trump Card: New Report Points To DC Media Cover-Up of 9/11 NJ Muslim Celebration” read the Breitbartian headline of a Breitbart article published later in the day. In the article, author John Nolte allowed that Trump has exaggerated, but argued that “There is, however, plenty of evidence that some number of New Jersey Muslims celebrated 9/11 and that for the last 14 years the DC Media has engaged in a coordinated cover up.”
Setting aside the claim of a cover-up, which Nolte didn’t bother providing any evidence for, this does seem, as Halperin pointed out, to be a contemporaneous account of post-9/11 celebrating on American soil. The problem is that Siegel, a scholar-in-residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, didn’t witness any of it firsthand, and today, a decade and a half after the fact, he can no longer remember who told him about it. While he continues to believe some Muslims were celebrating after 9/11, he also thinks Trump is exaggerating for effect. “I think something did happen,” he told Daily Intelligencer, “[and] he exaggerated — he often exaggerates.”
Siegel told Daily Intelligencer that he first heard about the celebrations (and the nationalities of the perpetrators) on the radio, though he couldn’t remember which station. In addition to those news reports, he said, he believes that some Muslims did celebrate because he heard it from two sources: an acquaintance from Clifton, New Jersey, and an Arab-American professor with whom he corresponded.
First, the acquaintance: Siegel said that, after hearing the rumors of Paterson celebrations on the radio, he reached out to the one acquaintance he had in the area, who lived in Clifton — right next door to Paterson — to try to figure out what was going on. His acquaintance said that “He saw some of it,” said Siegel. “Not what he thought was the main show, but people riding around in cars honking, shouting with joy.” Two cars, to be specific, with the drivers and passengers shouting out Allahu Akbar. Siegel did say that his acquaintance saw this firsthand and that he spoke with him before writing the column, but also said he couldn’t remember the guy’s name anymore.
As for the professor: Siegel said that after 9/11 he engaged in email correspondence with an Arab-American professor he thought was an adjunct at “Trenton State College” (that school actually changed its name to the College of New Jersey in 1996). The two had an “intelligent and cordial” back-and-forth, Siegel explained, but disagreed about the rumors of Muslims celebrating, which this professor thought to be false. But months after their initial correspondence tailed off, said Siegel, perhaps in February of 2002 — he emphasized that he couldn’t remember exact dates — the scholar got back in touch: He’d asked around, he told Siegel in an email, and confirmed that there had been Muslims celebrating. Siegel didn’t remember this source’s name either but said he’d get in touch if he was able to dig up or remember either name.
Siegel was straightforward and honest about what he did and didn’t remember — there was no exaggeration in his account. But the lack of specifics is familiar and seems to fit a pattern: In the chaos immediately following the attacks, there were all sorts of rumors, on the radio and elsewhere, of people in Paterson celebrating the destruction that had just occurred across the Hudson. But basically every attempt to actually verify the existence of such celebrations has hit a dead end.
Steve Kornacki, for instance, tweeted earlier today that a celebration story recounted by Giuliani this morning appears to be totally false. It wasn’t the case, as Giuliani said on CNN, that Muslims who owned a candy store celebrated the attacks and were then assaulted by outraged onlookers — rather, one report suggests that a Muslim person who owned a candy store got knocked out in an apparent hate crime after the attacks.
MTV also released a clip last week completely debunking an early, powerful report of kids chanting “Burn America” in Paterson after the attacks — a report that went viral, reaching prominent anti-Muslim demagogues like Debbie Schlussel, and that formed a sturdy foundation for the present-day belief that such celebrations occurred:
Then there’s the Washington Post’s thorough effort to dig through past clips and find solid evidence of such celebrations. The reporters note that while there were celebrations overseas — it is well established that they took place in the West Bank and elsewhere — there’s ”nothing that we can find involving the Arab populations of New Jersey except for unconfirmed reports.”
It’s certainly not impossible that someone, somewhere in New Jersey celebrated the 9/11 attacks. Maybe Trump’s digging-in on his false story of mass celebration will lead to more re-reporting, which will lead to someone, somewhere at least confirming a single celebration that really did provably take place. But at the moment, in the absence of more concrete evidence, it seems just as likely that those “unconfirmed reports” were unfounded rumors which solidified into mythology as a result of the chaos and confusion of 9/11.