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Separating Truth from Rumor
An Essay by NPR's Scott Simon

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon

Sept. 29, 2001 -- Over the past week, I've received several e-mail communications asking why we refuse to report the truth about the events of Sept. 11th and their aftermath, the truth, they say, being that Israeli agents actually hijacked airplanes and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, that those pictures CNN broadcast of Palestinians cheering the attacks were actually shot nine years ago during the Gulf War, that rich corporate interests or Jewish producers have banned music from the radio waves, including John Lennon's Imagine or Yusaf Islam's Peace Train that could inspire Americans to oppose war.

Now it's tempting to blame an amorphous presence called the Internet for this high-tech exchange of untruths, but the people who contacted us are notably well-informed and intelligent. Several are university professors. A smart technology isn't responsible for such rumor-mongering. It's smart people.

Now in reverse order of importance, on banned music in the United States, in the first hours of the crisis, Clear Channel, which owns more than a thousand commercial radio stations, apparently cautioned that playing certain songs could sound unintentionally tasteless while the nation recoiled from seeing airplanes set buildings afire. Run the lyrics of, say, Peter, Paul & Mary's Leaving on a Jet Plane or Talking Heads' Burning Down the House through your mind. Was that caution unwise?

The scenes CNN showed of a small crowd celebrating the attacks on America were shot by a Reuters news crew in Gaza City on Sept. 11th. If you take a look at some of the cars and ads surrounding the crowd, you can see they are contemporary.

Finally, the reports that Israel actually launched the attacks seem to have begun in the state-run press of several Middle Eastern nations. Abu Sultan, a Palestinian diplomat, told the Gulf News, which is published by the United Arab Emirates, "I can smell Israeli fingers behind this. The scope of the attack was beyond the capability of Arabs. Only the Israelis have the ability to do such things."

When many Americans ponder the intricacy of the plot that brought down the twin towers and punched a hole in the Pentagon, when we read through the handwritten pages found in Mohamed Atta's luggage, we may wonder once more how intelligent people could have turned their lives over to acts so monstrous. You may also wonder how intelligent people can conflate rumor with fact. But history can sometimes be read as a continuing chronicle of how smart and thoughtful people can flex and twist their strong minds to justify, rationalize or simply tolerate terrible things. Their intelligence does not replace good sense or basic fact-checking.

Scott Simon is host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday.