Fahrenheit 9/11, Logically

August 15, 2004

Trevor Matich


See Michael Moore's movie, Fahrenheit 9/11. 

See it for two reasons.  First, it is brilliantly crafted, evoking emotions and building arguments with an inexorable flow of powerful images.  You will laugh at genuinely funny stuff.  You will grieve for those suffering the terror of war and the pain of loss.  

And second, see it because it represents how much our political discourse has degenerated from illustrative debate into senseless blather. 

Reasonable people can disagree on the relevance and meaning of facts.  The problem with Moore's movie is that he builds his arguments on a foundation of clearly confirmable falsehoods.  Facts have left the building.    

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Moore ignores or misrepresents the truth, prefers innuendo to fact, edits with poetic license rather than accuracy, and strips existing news footage of its context to make events and real people say what he wants, even if they don't.

The best lies are mostly true; with one fundamental untruth thrown in to the equation, the logical progression will seem to make sense even though the conclusion is actually false. 

It's like a math equation.  You can do all the arithmetic perfectly and come to what seems a correct answer.  But if the underlying numbers are incorrect, then even though the arithmetic adds up, the conclusion is flawed.  Anyone who has ever done their own tax return has this principle seared into their brain. 

Moore knows this.  He starts with false premises, then brilliantly leads the audience through perfect arithmetic to what seem to be logical conclusions -- a Pied Piper of revisionist history.

For example, he goes to considerable effort to lead the audience to conclude that in the days after 9/11, during the ban on all commercial flights, bin Laden family members were flown out of the United States on orders of their beholden handmaiden, George W. Bush. 

He then interviews a former FBI agent who says that it would be improper for the bin Laden family to be allowed to leave the country before the FBI had a chance to screen them.  

And then the coup de gras:  He says that in the end, "the White House" gave final approval for the hasty exodus. 

The problem:  Each of those fundamental premises is false or misleading.  

According to Newsweek:  

The innuendo is greatest, of course, in Moore's dealings with the matter of the departing Saudis flown out of the United States in the days after the September 11 terror attacks. Much has already been written about these flights, especially the film's implication that figures with possible knowledge of the terrorist attacks were allowed to leave the country without adequate FBI screening, a notion that has been essentially rejected by the 9/11 commission. The 9/11 commission found that the FBI screened the Saudi passengers, ran their names through federal databases, interviewed 30 of them and asked many of them "detailed questions."  "Nobody of interest to the FBI with regard to the 9/11 investigation was allowed to leave the country," the commission stated. 

New information about a flight from Tampa, Florida late on Sept. 13 seems mostly a red herring: The flight didn't take any Saudis out of the United States. It was a domestic flight to Lexington, Kentucky that took place after the Tampa airport had already reopened.  The flights in question didn't leave on 9/13; they departed after the flight ban was lifted for everyone. 

Moreover, it was not Bush who made the decision to allow the Saudis to leave the country.  Richard Clarke, Bill Clinton's counter-terrorism czar who was carried over to the Bush Administration, has said on multiple occasions that it was his own decision, that Bush didn't even know about it.  The decision did come from "the White House," because Clarke worked at the White House.

(Clarke is a virulent anti-Bush activist; he wrote an anti-Bush book, and testified negatively towards Bush in his public 9/11 commission testimony.  He is no Bush apologist.)

Clarke said that he personally ensured that no Saudi in question was allowed to leave the country until after the FBI cleared them.  In June, 2004, he told ABC News:

"The Saudis had reasonable fear that they might be the subject of vigilante attacks in the United States after 9/11. And there is no evidence even to this date that any of the people who left on those flights were people of interest to the FBI."

Moore's arithmetic progression is flawless:  

Saudis allowed to leave the country during the flight ban 


No FBI screening of the Saudis allowed to leave


Decision allowing their departure coming from "the White House"


Bush is compromised by Saudi interests. 

The problem:  The underlying facts are wrong.  These are not facts on which reasonable people might disagree; they are easily confirmable falsehoods.

Why do you suppose Moore would misrepresent the facts like that?

This is just one of many examples.  Two more, more briefly: 

Moore goes to great lengths to suggest that the Bush family was bought by the Saudis.  He says that they gave the Bush family, Bush associates, and related corporations $1.4 billion.  Then he asks of the audience the burning question that if someone gives you $1.4 billion, "Who's your daddy?" 

The problem:  Almost 90% of that money --  $1.18 billion -- came in the form of contracts awarded to a single defense contractor, BDM, which was a subsidiary of the Carlyle Group.  It was done in the mid-90s, when no Bush was associated with Carlyle.  And by the way, Carlyle sold BDM to another defense contractor in 1997, five months before George H. W. Bush joined Carlyle's Asian-affiliate advisory board.  

Again Newsweek:  

The movie clearly implies that the Saudis gave $1.4 billion to the Bushes and their friends. But most of it went to a Carlyle Group company before Bush even joined the firm. Bush had nothing to do with BDM.

Moore knows this.  But he's confident that his audience doesn't, so he's all too happy to add that falsehood to his equation so that his arithmetic seems to add up to his own personal conclusion. 

Who's your daddy indeed.  

And a final example from the many possibilities... 

Moore suggests that Bush went to war in Afghanistan not to root out terror, but to make it safe for his oil buddies at Unocal to build a natural gas pipeline there. 

The problem:  The Unocal pipeline concept was conceived, attempted, and upon failure abandoned, entirely during the Clinton Administration.  Bush had nothing to do with it.     

According to Newsweek:

Moore raises the issue by stringing together two unrelated events. The first is that a delegation of Taliban leaders flew to Houston, Texas, in 1997...The second is that another Taliban emissary visited Washington in March, 2001 and got an audience at the State Department, leaving Moore to speculate that the Bush administration had gone soft on the protectors of Osama bin Laden because it was interested in promoting a pipeline deal...

This, as conspiracy theories go, is more than a stretch.

The pipeline agreement signed by the post-Taliban Afghan government as depicted in the movie was with with neighboring countries; the movie doesn't overtly allege that Unocal was involved in that deal; it just insinuates that it was.

If you didn't catch that during the movie, it's okay; no one else did either.  You weren't supposed to.  

Moore wanted the audience to draw the conclusion that Bush went to war for oil buddies, so he inserted false numbers into his equation to make the arithmetic seem to make sense. 

Oh, he's good, that Michael Moore.

Again the Wall Street Journal:

A documentary film doesn't have to be fair and balanced, to coin a phrase. But it ought to make an attempt to be accurate. It can certainly be pointed and opinionated. But it should not knowingly misrepresent the truth. Much of Michael Moore's films and books, however entertaining to his fans and enraging to his critics, seems to regard facts as mere nuisances to the story he wants to tell...

In the New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote that, "Viewers may come away from Moore's movie believing some things that probably aren't true," and that he "uses association and innuendo to create false impressions..."

...9/11 Commission Chairman Kean ha[d] to take a minute at a press knock down a proven falsehood like the secret flights of the bin Laden family...

There is much to debate in times of war.  Reasonable people can disagree on the meaning and relevance of facts.  But note that this discussion has not been about the meaning and relevance of facts; we couldn't even go there, because we had to spend our time properly identifying the facts in the first place.

The best lies are mostly true... 





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