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Conspiracies All the Way Down

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Conspiracies All the Way Down

The 9/11 Truther movement was a harbinger of today’s paranoid politics. September 5, 2021
Politics and law
The Social Order

I hadn’t intended to join the Globalist/Bush–Cheney/Zionist/CIA cabal for world domination. And I certainly didn’t mean to become a leading figure in the conspiracy to cover up the truth about 9/11. According to my critics, though, I was all that and more. All I’d meant to do was publish an article investigating 9/11 conspiracy theories. The unhinged response to that article taught me a lot about the hold such paranoid worldviews can have on otherwise normal people. In Jonathan Kay’s 2011 book Among the Truthers, he describes followers of the “9/11 Truth Movement” as having “spun out of rationality’s ever-weakening gravitational pull” and fallen into “fantasy universes of their own construction.” I met those people. They used to call and email me every day. Many took pains to explain all the horrible things that would happen to me once my crimes were “exposed.”

I now believe the 9/11 Truthers I encountered were canaries in the coal mines of American society. They were an early warning sign of a style of thinking that has only grown more common in the years since 9/11: alienated, enraged, and not just irrational, but anti-rational. Today, fantasy universes abound in our current political culture. On the far right, Capitol-storming QAnon followers imagine vast, deep-state conspiracies involving pedophiles and pizza parlors. The Left’s conspiracy theories aren’t as obviously bonkers, but progressives also imagine powerful forces that secretly conspire against the people. In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, for example, writer Naomi Klein introduced the concept of “disaster capitalism”—a kind of global plot to exploit the powerless—and promised to “reveal the puppet strings behind the critical events of the last four decades.” Today, the Woke Left routinely portrays American institutions as engines of cleverly concealed oppression. Racism, sexism, and the like are not just biases to be overcome but fundamental organizing principles of American society.

For more than two centuries, the U.S. has occasionally had spasms of populist fantasies: fears about Freemasons, “minions of the Pope,” “international bankers,” or other shadowy forces controlling events from behind the scenes. But the grassroots popularity of 9/11 conspiracy theories—and the surprising tolerance for such ideas in elite media and political circles—helped bring paranoia into the modern mainstream. I watched it happen.

Let me start at the beginning. In the fall of 2004, I had recently been hired as editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics, the century-old magazine that combines science and tech news with do-it-yourself advice. The publication had grown stale, and it was my job to reinvigorate it with new talent and bold reporting. So I had my eye out for newsworthy stories rooted in science and technology.

One day, I opened the New York Times and saw a full-page advertisement for a book called Painful Questions. The ad suggested that we hadn’t been told the truth about 9/11 and offered a list of factual claims that supposedly refuted the conventional account of the attacks. For example, it claimed that jet fuel doesn’t burn at a temperature high enough to melt steel (therefore the jet plane impacts couldn’t explain the collapse of the Twin Towers) and that the hole in the Pentagon wasn’t big enough to have been made by a commercial jet (so it could only have been made by a guided missile), and so on.

I’d been in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, and I had loosely followed the conspiracy theories that bubbled up in the attack’s aftermath. The theories surfaced first in the Arab world—for them it was all Israel’s fault, of course—but extremists of various stripes around the world quickly embraced and embellished them. Most versions of the idea suggested the real perpetrator was a cabal that included Bush, Cheney, oil companies, military contractors, the Mossad, and other malefactors, all conspiring to launch wars in the Middle East. In the faux-insider jargon that conspiracists love, it was a “false-flag operation.” The notion meshed perfectly with the Howard Zinn view of history in which all evils in the world can be traced back to some original sin involving U.S. policy. (True to form, Zinn offered a supportive blurb for one of the most popular books promoting these 9/11 claims, David Ray Griffin’s The New Pearl Harbor.) Such theories, avidly discussed on left-wing websites and in the alternative press, rarely surfaced in the American mainstream media. But here was a full-page ad proclaiming these ideas in the New York Times.

The book’s claims sounded doubtful but also fairly easy to confirm or disprove. How hot does jet fuel burn? How big a hole would a Boeing 757 make in a reinforced concrete building? These questions were very much in the Popular Mechanics wheelhouse. Every conspiracy theory ultimately rests on a handful of claims about physical reality. What if we put together a team of reporters and simply fact-checked the most common claims made by 9/11 conspiracy theorists? If the factual assertions were wrong, then the elaborate theories built on them were wrong, too. On the other hand, if there were even a grain of truth in any of these claims, well, what could be more vital to investigate?

We assigned eight reporters to the inquiry. Popular Mechanics executive editor David Dunbar led the project, making sure to keep it focused on technical questions and rigorously non-political. For the next few weeks, our reporters interviewed experts, pored over documents, and talked with eyewitnesses. In every case, they found that the conspiracy advocates’ claims were based on evidence that was inaccurate, misinterpreted, or deliberately falsified. For example, it is true that jet fuel burns at 1,100 degrees Celsius, while steel melts at about 1,500 degrees Celsius. But, as our sources explained, a steel beam can lose half its strength at temperatures as low as 600 degrees. A number of in-depth engineering studies provide detailed accounts of how the impacts of the planes, combined with heat from fires, eventually weakened the structures to the point where collapse was inevitable.

The claim that the hole in the Pentagon wasn’t big enough to have been made by a 757 rested on similarly flawed evidence: the airplane’s wings were simply sheared off by the building’s thick concrete walls. In any event, investigators found wreckage from the fuselage and remains of the passengers, crew, and hijackers deep inside the Pentagon, and they subjected this evidence to forensic examination. (We interviewed some of the people involved in this horrific task.) And so it went. Every conspiracy claim crumbled when subjected to the slightest factual scrutiny. In every case, we found, the theorists clung to slender reeds of misinformation, while scorning mountains of evidence supporting the mainstream view.

In February 2005, as our cover story, “Debunking 9/11 Myths,” hit newsstands, we braced for the blowback. When we started the project, we imagined some conspiracy buffs might actually be pleased that a mainstream outlet was finally taking their questions seriously. By the time we finished, we had learned that conspiracy theorists respond to factual refutation much the way the human immune system reacts to a foreign substance: by trying to destroy or absorb the unwelcome intruder. Almost overnight, my staff and I weathered the most inflammatory accusations: Popular Mechanics was a CIA front, a “tool of the Illuminati,” and an agent of the Mossad. Christopher Bollyn, a longtime champion of the most outré conspiracy theories, published an article comparing our investigation with the 1933 Reichstag fire, which helped cement Nazi power in Germany.

If not for the death threats, it might have been almost amusing.

We had launched the project in the hopeful belief that facts matter, and that people of goodwill could review the evidence and make up their own minds. That turned out to be the case for many readers. I gave some lectures about our 9/11 reporting and was reassured by the people who showed up. Quite a few had doubts about what they saw as the “official” version of events—which isn’t a bad thing; people shouldn’t blindly accept everything the media or government tells them. But after listening to how carefully we had investigated their concerns, most left satisfied that the mainstream view of 9/11—that it really was the work of al-Qaida terrorists—actually made sense.

That appeal to a shared sense of reality didn’t work with hardcore conspiracy fans, however. Quite the opposite. Dedicated conspiracists use a whole suite of techniques to dismiss inconvenient facts. They vilify opponents with ad hominem attacks. While refusing to engage with legitimate evidence, they zero in on a handful of anomalies they think undermine the mainstream narrative. For example, a single eyewitness’s mistaken impression becomes definitive proof against the weight of hundreds of other eyewitness accounts. (Michael Shermer, then a columnist at Scientific American, called this approach “argument by anomaly” and noted that creationists and Holocaust deniers employ the same sort of selection bias.) Of course, Popular Mechanics’ reporting showed that even the supposed anomalies relied on falsehoods. But that gave the Truthers little pause. If a claim became too troublesome, they would simply abandon it and move on to new, even flimsier assertions. For example, most Truthers eventually dropped the contention that a missile and not an airplane hit the Pentagon. (There were simply too many photos showing pieces of American Airlines Flight 77 scattered around the impact zone.) Instead, the defter theorists pivoted. They began arguing not only that the missile claims were wrong, but that phony conspiracy theorists had planted them in order to make the Truther movement look bad.

If all else fails, conspiracy theorists neutralize contradictory evidence by simply expanding the orbit of their theories. If a magazine like Popular Mechanics points out facts that demolish your theory, you just declare the magazine a part of the conspiracy. Now you can ignore those inconvenient facts; they are all part of the coverup. Under Truther logic, anyone who doubts the conspiracy narrative is, ipso facto, on the side of the cabal. In this way, conspiracy theorists are like Marxists or members of a cult; their worldview is immune to refutation. Today’s Woke Left employs a similar kind of unfalsifiable logic: Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility claims that to doubt one’s own racism is proof of racism.

The following year we expanded our reporting into a book-length version, Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts. In 2011, we updated the book with new research in time for the tenth anniversary of the attacks. In other words, for more than half a decade, my team and I were among the very few mainstream journalists aggressively challenging the Truther narrative. Each installment of our investigation prompted supportive coverage from conservative media (including Fox News) but relatively grudging interest from mainstream or liberal outlets. The attacks of 9/11 were arguably the most important event in the lifetimes of most Americans. Why wasn’t the mainstream media more interested in correcting the growing flood of misinformation about the event?

Not long after our first article came out, I was booked to appear on NPR’s “On the Media” with host Brooke Gladstone. I assumed Gladstone would support our mission and might want to hear some shop-talk about our reporting methods. Instead, she seemed perplexed as to why we had bothered to challenge the conspiracy claims in the first place. “Who’s your audience for this?” she asked. I told her that we didn’t think we would win over hardcore conspiracy theorists but hoped we could influence “the sensible middle.”

By that I meant any readers willing to look honestly at the verifiable facts, regardless of their personal politics. That notion left her cold. “I don’t want to be a contrarian here, but when you talk about a sensible middle, that’s a rather slippery location,” she said. The interview wasn’t openly hostile, but Gladstone’s questioning left the distinct impression that there was something vaguely fishy about a magazine trying to set the record straight about 9/11.

Eventually, I developed a few thoughts about why the liberal media was lukewarm toward our work. First, it’s important to remember that 9/11 conspiracy theories were mostly embraced on the far left at that point. George W. Bush was in the White House, and antiwar sentiment was strong. Few liberal leaders and media figures actively promoted the theories, but few also saw them as a problem worth criticizing. (David Corn, then a columnist at The Nation, was a notable—and noble—exception.) The unspoken assumption seemed to be that there wasn’t much harm in a few hotheads calling Bush a terrorist puppet master. In fact, if it convinced a few more people to hate Republicans, it might even be a good thing.

When Popular Mechanics waded into the discussion, some on the mainstream left were bemused. We must have some kind of political agenda. Were we trying to defend the Bush White House? Why would we want to help them? This was the moment I realized journalism was changing. The evenhanded search for truth—rarely achieved in practice—was fading even as a journalistic aspiration. Now every set of facts must serve a political purpose. If it wasn’t helpful to the Left, it must be helpful to the Right. Where journalists once obsessed over the accuracy of facts, now they worried more about their utility. If some piece of information helps the wrong sorts of people, perhaps it’s best left unpublished. Last year, we saw this logic carried to a new extreme, when virtually all major media outlets refused to cover the revelations contained in Hunter Biden’s laptop, or to explore evidence that Covid-19 might have escaped from a Wuhan, China lab.

So, with a few exceptions, the media mostly gave the 9/11 Truthers a pass. That was one factor helping this minor cult become a mass movement. Another was the Internet. Social media was in its infancy at the time, and YouTube didn’t yet exist. But anyone could start a blog. Websites dedicated to 9/11 theories sprouted like weeds. In 2005, a Red Lobster waiter and aspiring filmmaker named Dylan Avery released a homemade 9/11 film he called Loose Change. The movie was a pastiche of absurd claims, spooky music, and portentous narration. But it was slickly made and—for anyone unfamiliar with the facts—weirdly compelling. Aided by a growing team of compatriots, Avery released several increasingly polished versions of the film over the next four years. The movie’s claims shifted from one edition to another but included the notion that no plane hit the Pentagon, that the Twin Towers had been wired for controlled demolition, and that Flight 93 didn’t crash in Pennsylvania but instead landed in Cleveland, where the passengers were mysteriously disappeared. Loose Change became an Internet blockbuster. In 2006 alone, the movie clocked more than 10 million views on the YouTube precursor Google Video.

Even before Loose Change, a few prominent Democrats had begun catering to the Truther cohort. Howard Dean flirted with conspiracy claims during his 2004 presidential campaign. Van Jones had to resign as an Obama advisor when word got out that he had earlier signed a 9/11 conspiracy petition. In the House of Representatives, Georgia’s Cynthia McKinney invited conspiracy theorists, including David Ray Griffin, to address the Congressional Black Caucus. But Loose Change opened the floodgates. Filmmakers Kevin Smith and David Lynch praised the movie. Alec Baldwin called it “the Gone With the Wind” of the conspiracy movement. Progressive radio stations including New York’s WBAI and Los Angeles’s KPFK began giving away Loose Change DVDs during their fundraising drives. Vanity Fair published a gushing profile of the filmmakers (which included a backhanded suggestion that Popular Mechanics was part of a 9/11 coverup). Actors including Mark Ruffalo, Roseanne Barr, Martin Sheen, and Woody Harrelson expressed support for the Truther position. Rosie O’Donnell promoted Truther claims on The View, the daily gabfest the New York Times has called “the most important political TV show in America.”

Hollywood’s weakness for conspiracy theories lives on. The original version of Spike Lee’s four-part documentary, NYC Epicenters 9/11➔2021½, currently airing on HBO, included interviews with about a dozen conspiracy theorists, including Robert Gage, founder of a group called Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth. Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, who has covered the Truther movement for over a decade, describes Gage as being “responsible for peddling some of the most pernicious and long-running lies about the 9/11 attacks.” When the New York Times asked Lee why he chose to include such voices in his film, he responded, “I mean, I got questions.” But, after encountering some blowback, Lee returned to the editing room and cut the entire 30-minute section.

The left-wing indulgence of the Truther movement obscured a strange fact: much of the original source material for these theories came from ultra-right-wing activists. Many Truther websites employed the sort of anti-Semitic canards promulgated in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and in the 1971 paranoia handbook None Dare Call It Conspiracy: the attacks must have been connected to some shadowy cabal of Jewish bankers—the Rothschilds are often mentioned—whom anti-Semites accuse of “funding both sides” in various wars. (In 2006, when a drunken Mel Gibson told a Malibu police officer, “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” he was referring to this ancient trope.) Truthers accused World Trade Center landlord Larry Silverstein of having the towers demolished as part of a global Zionist plot—but also to avoiding spending money on remodeling. (Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard repeated that charming canard in the French media.) Of course, it’s worth noting that the very first conspiracy theory about 9/11, floated just days after the attacks, held that 4,000 Jewish World Trade Center workers had somehow known not to show up for work that day. A quick look at the names engraved at the Ground Zero September 11 Memorial is enough to dispel that libel.

Christopher Bollyn, the prolific conspiracist who compared Popular Mechanics’ reporting with the Reichstag Fire, has worked with the American Free Press, a publication founded by notorious anti-Semite and white-supremacist Willis Carto. The publication mashes together 9/11 theories, Holocaust denial, vaccine paranoia, and other conspiracist topics. Bollyn’s own website is full of references to “Zionist criminals,” “the elders of Zion,” and articles suggesting that Israel was behind the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The Loose Change films rely heavily on assertions from the American Free Press. During the Bush years, alternative weeklies and progressive websites also routinely published articles from AFP and similar sources.

The leftists who amplified these Truther narratives probably believed they were undermining the hated Bush administration. But they were also nudging their followers along a path toward the worst sort of neo-fascist propaganda. Those who went all the way down the rabbit hole—as millions of Americans did—wound up in an ideological jungle where far-left and far-right politics become almost indistinguishable. It is a place where the U.S. democratic system is a cynical sham; where true power is held by a merciless, secretive cabal; and where Israel is the world’s eternal villain. So while progressives either ignored it or cheered it on, the Truther movement was evolving into a kind of gateway drug for paranoid extremism.

Alex Jones had been waiting all his life for this moment. Prior to 9/11, Jones was a blowhard Texas radio host with a small following and a website aptly named InfoWars. He rode the growing Truther movement to national prominence. I hadn’t heard of Jones before launching the Popular Mechanics conspiracy project. A few months later, I was doing a radio interview about our story when I found myself being yelled at by Jones himself. Unbeknownst to the publicist who had set up the interview, the radio host had arranged for Jones to call in, hoping for an explosive confrontation. Jones shouted something about how the Hearst Corporation, Popular Mechanics’ parent company, was started by William Randolph Hearst, who launched the Spanish-American War and invented yellow journalism, and, and . . . something or other. (Whether it’s the Reichstag Fire or the Spanish-American War, conspiracy theorists love citing historical events as if they bolster the plausibility of modern claims.) Jones’s method doesn’t depend on making coherent arguments—like explaining how the long-dead Hearst could entice the staff of Popular Mechanics to help cover up the greatest crime in American history—so much as wearing the audience down. Jones spews so many supposed facts, spooky coincidences, and unhinged allegations that the unwary listener might conclude that at least some of it must be true.

When Loose Change started taking off, Jones reached out to the filmmakers and offered to fund production of the movie’s third edition, which credits him as executive producer. In a recent fascinating history of Loose Change, Esquire’s John McDermott writes that the film’s most enduring legacy may have been “the mainstreaming of conspiracists—most notably InfoWars founder Alex Jones.” Jones would go on to interview presidential candidate Donald Trump on his radio show, be treated as a serious thinker on Joe Rogan’s massively popular podcast, and—in Zelig-like fashion—be found outside the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, exhorting the protestors with a bullhorn.

Meantime, the conspiracy mindset was soaking into the culture from the ground up. In a 2006 Scripps-Howard poll, 36 percent of Americans reported believing it was likely or somewhat likely that the U.S. government either launched the 9/11 attacks or let them happen to further geopolitical goals. (The idea that the government “let it happen on purpose”—known as LIHOP theory—is a major theme in conspiracy circles.) By 2016, 54 percent of Americans believed the government was hiding the truth about 9/11, according to a Chapman University poll.

Of course, it wasn’t just 9/11. Research shows that once people accept one conspiracy theory, they’re more likely to embrace others. “Conspiracism is a sort of creed,” author Jonathan Kay told Rolling Stone. “It’s the idea that there is a secret power in the world that can’t be changed by elections, that it has evil motivations and that it’s trying to destroy our way of life.” Many of the websites promoting 9/11 conspiracy theories also pushed the notion that the CIA created the crack epidemic, that Bush stole the 2000 election thanks to hacked Diebold voting machines, that the world economy would soon collapse due to “Peak Oil,” and so on. Not surprisingly, surveys show that a belief in conspiracies correlates strongly with anti-vaccine sentiment. Once people dip their toes in the conspiracy waters, they have fewer defenses against all kinds of misinformation. For one thing, they have no other trusted sources of information they can turn to. The conspiracy-minded, Kay says, “come to see the world as presented by the mainstream media and other institutions as sort of a counterfeit hoax.”

After the 2008 election, with Obama in the White House and Bush out of the picture, the Truther movement began to lose focus, but the alienation and distrust it had engendered didn’t entirely dissipate. Some of that intensity flowed into the Occupy Wall Street movement. “Inside-job” memes were common enough at OWS encampments to annoy protesters who thought the group should concentrate on economic issues. At the same time, conspiracist themes—like the obsession over Obama’s birth certificate—began circulating more widely on the right. Trump’s penchant for making wild claims further eroded the norm that political statements needed to be based on verifiable facts. At the same time, the media became so obsessed with protecting the public from Trump’s falsehoods that it lowered its own standards of veracity. Mainstream media routinely misrepresented Trump statements, such as his “fine people on both sides” comment regarding the 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Meantime, they eagerly repeated some of the wildest anti-Trump allegations, especially ones involving Russia. Step by step, the press surrendered any claim to being an honest broker in factual debates.

“It is the mark of an intellectually pathologized society that intellectuals and politicians will reject their opponents’ realities,” Kay writes. The U.S. might not be quite to that point, but we’re getting closer. Not long ago, fact-free, conspiratorial theories were mostly the province of cranks on street corners or paranoid bloggers. Today, we increasingly see mainstream political leaders indulging in conspiracist-style arguments. It’s not a coincidence that Trump entered the political arena flogging the Obama “birther” conspiracy claim. In 2012, Alex Jones bellowed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a “false flag” operation orchestrated by the U.S. government. Three years later, presidential candidate Trump was on Jones’s radio show telling the host, “Your reputation is amazing.”

When politicians like Trump use conspiracist rhetoric, they are actually doing two things. First, they are asking their followers to accept a particular claim on faith (“We won the election by a landslide!”), almost as a test of loyalty. But they are also asking followers to reject competing claims (“Fake news!“) coming from sources they consider illegitimate. In the process, that slippery middle ground—the place where both sides can make their cases using a shared, undisputed set of facts—becomes a scorched no-man’s-land.

Trump took political demagoguery to new extremes, but he certainly didn’t invent it. Asking followers to accept wild, unsupported assertions can be politically useful. And politicians no longer pay much of a price for going overboard. Campaigning as Obama’s vice presidential nominee in 2008, Biden told a largely black audience that Republicans were “going to put you all back in chains.” Hillary Clinton and other Democrats endlessly asserted that Trump’s 2016 election victory was “illegitimate.” Their followers listened. Even four years later, 62 percent of Democrats told pollsters they believe the 2016 election was fraudulent. That number is a mirror image of the 61 percent of Republicans who think the 2020 election was rigged. The idea that our democratic institutions are corrupt and untrustworthy is a hallmark of conspiracist thinking. But today political leaders in both parties routinely deploy such claims to motivate voters and raise money. Not surprisingly, in a recent survey of voters’ trust in the electoral process, the United States ranked close to last among developed countries.

In a recent essay, Bari Weiss noted that “revolutions in the street begin as revolutions in sense-making.” The way Americans make sense of the world has undoubtedly changed. Meanwhile, the institutions that help keep our society fact-based—especially academia and the media—are under attack from without by the conspiracist Right and from within by the Woke Left. Both sides deny the legitimacy of American democracy; to them, it’s all just a front for ruthless power, greed, and bias. You would think such a worldview would leave people in a state of hopelessness and despair. But the deep appeal of conspiracist thinking is that it actually makes people feel empowered. It gives them a mission.

In his classic 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter put his finger on what makes the paranoid worldview so compelling: “As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader,” he wrote. “He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.” The Truthers I encountered believed an evil, all-powerful conspiracy had hijacked our government. But they weren’t depressed about it. In fact, they were having a blast. Unlike ordinary people sleepwalking through life—the “sheeple” as Truthers used to call them—they were fully alive and manning the barricades. Progressive activists today are similarly energized: they are “woke.” They aren’t crushed by the belief that our society is built on a secret infrastructure of oppression. Instead, they’re proud of their ability to detect the hidden hand of racism and sexism even within institutions that, to the untrained eye, might seem like models of tolerance.

By the final year of the Trump administration, QAnon and Proud Boy cultists on the right, and woke activists on the left, were primed to take their revolutions to the streets. The pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and the fight over the presidential election gave both sides the spark they needed. Like most people, I watched the protesters storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021, with dismay and outrage. But for me, the scenes of impassioned, self-defined patriots also carried a whiff of déjà vu. In one video taken that day, a burly man turns to the camera and shouts, “They don’t get to tell us we didn’t see what we saw.” He knew the election had been stolen, in other words, and no set of so-called facts could dissuade him. I understood exactly how he’d learned to think like that.

In those BLM protests that veered into destruction, it was not inner-city youths but committed political radicals instigating the most determined violence. During anti-police riots in Brooklyn in May 2020, two young lawyers were arrested after tossing a Molotov cocktail into an empty police van. NPR described them as “idealistic attorneys hoping to change the world.” Perhaps. But, like the Capitol rioters, they seemed wedded to the view that the American system is too far gone for peaceful reform. One of the pair, Urooj Rahman, gave an impassioned video interview minutes before launching her firebomb attack. “The only way they hear us is through violence,” she said. “This s—t won’t ever stop unless we f—kin’ take it all down.”

This is what we’re up against. For now, only the most extreme activists on the right or left seek to participate in such violence. But the share of people who think political violence might be appropriate is growing. In a poll conducted prior to the 2020 election, 44 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats said that there would be “at least ‘a little’ justification for violence if the other party’s nominee won the election.” The revolution in sense-making that is driving these viewpoints must be confronted at its roots. The sensible middle, the place where Americans can hash out their differences on neutral ground with a shared definition of reality, might be a slippery location. But it’s all we’ve got, and 20 years after 9/11, we need it more than ever. We’re going to have to fight for it.

Photo by James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

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