NEWS: On 22 November 2015, presidential candidate Donald Trump appeared on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos; among topics of discussion was Trump’s 21 November 2015 assertion that he witnessed footage on television of large crowd of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the September 11th attacks.
Trump was challenged by Stephanopoulos, who began by replaying footage of the candidate’s 21 November 2015 remarks in Birmingham, Alabama. In that footage, Trump stated:
Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.
After they viewed the clip Stephanopoulos told Trump “police [in New Jersey said] that didn’t happen” and that “those rumors have been on the Internet for some time,” before asking whether Trump misspoke. Following a brief exchange, Trump responded:
There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down. I know it might be not politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as that building came down — as those buildings came down. And that tells you something. It was well covered at the time, George. Now, I know they don’t like to talk about it, but it was well covered at the time. There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down. Not good.
As Stephanopoulos suggested, the claims were in fact rooted in early rumors about the September 11th attacks (which were later proved false). Multiple iterations of those “Muslims celebrating” tales circulated in the weeks and months after 9/11, rumors a 21 November 2015 New York Times article reported were never substantiated:
It was not clear what Mr. Trump was referring to. There were cheers of support in some Middle Eastern countries that day, which were broadcast on television. But a persistent Internet rumor of Muslims celebrating in Paterson, N.J., was discounted by police officials at the time. A search of news accounts from that period shows no reports of mass cheering in Jersey City.
A 26 July 2007 Reuters article appeared several years after the attacks, but incidentally provided a possible explanation for how Trump came to so firmly believe he saw non-existent footage:
THE CELEBRATION THAT WASN’T
Paterson was shaken by the September 11 attacks. On that day, a report circulated on some radio stations and Internet sites that Muslims in Paterson had demonstrated in celebration.
Paterson officials promptly issued a statement denying the report, and Muslim leaders insist it was pure fabrication.
Trump’s assertion could handily be corroborated via a large volume of easily accessed archival footage from September 2001. NPR attempted to locate any material matching that description, but found nothing:
We asked our library to look through contemporaneous news reports. They tells us that that they could not turn up any news accounts of American Muslims cheering or celebrating in the wake of Sept. 11.
A 22 November 2015 Atlanta Journal-Constitution blog post (titled “What Donald Trump might have seen on 9/11. Hint: Not ‘cheering’ Arabs”) provided additional background as to related incidents which may have sparked the “cheering Muslims” rumor:
Here’s the thing. As the towers came down, some people indeed saw a group of five — not thousands, but five — Middle Eastern men clowning around and photographing themselves in front of the burning towers from the New Jersey waterfront. They weren’t Arabs, and they weren’t Muslims.
They were Israeli and Jewish – young men making asses of themselves, as some young men are wont to do. Perhaps not recognizing the import of what they were seeing.
How do I know this? I tracked one of their friends down to Jesus’ hometown, two months after the attack[.]
While many presumed Trump was outright lying or fabricated the claim (and others believed his version of events), a third compelling possibility remained. Trump (like many New Yorkers and Americans) was clearly exposed to erroneous, misattributed, or otherwise faulty information in the chaotic period after September 11th. Both internet and radio reports made mention of the rumor; suggesting possibly conflation, or a false memory:
In two separate experiments, they had more than 170 undergraduates view, imagine or listen to the sound of common, easily recognized events, such as a baby crying, a toilet flushing, a hammer hammering or a basketball bouncing. And they found that participants were much more likely to incorrectly say they saw, for example, a hammer if they previously imagined a hammer, or heard a tape of hammering, than if they had no previous exposure to anything “hammer-like.” And they were even more likely to falsely remember the hammer if they visually imagined it and, at a different time, heard hammering.
The findings suggest that repeated exposure to certain objects and events through sight, sound or just imagination can muddle people’s memories of where or how they experienced something or even whether their experience is real, conclude [researchers].
Trump wouldn’t be the first politician to experience a fractured recollection of the events of that day. In a February 2015 article CNN referenced a 2004 paper titled “President Bush’s False ‘Flashbulb’ Memory of 9/11/01,” [PDF] reporting:
Even President Bush suffered a false memory of what he saw on television the day of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Bush recalled more than once how he saw the first plane hit the north of the World Trade Center before he entered a classroom in Florida, where his reaction to the devastating attacks was forever captured on television cameras.
“In reality, he had been told that a plane had hit the building, but had not seen it — there was no live footage of the plane hitting the tower,” the two professors wrote.
As it turns out, muddled memories about the events of (and days after) 9/11 appeared to be exceptionally common among all Americans, not just the people stumping for a nomination. A 6 September 2011 Skeptic article (titled “How Accurate Are Memories of 9/11? Recollections of the circumstances of how we first heard of the 2001 terrorist attacks may feel extraordinarily vivid and true, but they are flawed”) examined long-term research into “flashbulb memories” of the event.
What researchers learned was that while confidence in the accuracy of such recollections was high among respondents, the data didn’t reflect that certainty:
Our measure of accuracy is consistency with what people told us in the survey the week after the attack. From that first survey to the second survey a year later, the overall consistency of the details of how they learned of 9/11 was only 63 percent. At the third survey, three years after the attack, consistency was 57 percent. So people were only a little more than 50 percent right for a lot of the details.
But they were particularly bad at remembering what their emotions were after 9/11—accurate only about 40 percent of the time, after a year. And yet overall, for all those details, people’s confidence in their memories was, on average, greater than 4 on a scale of 1 to 5.
New York University psychologist Elizabeth A. Phelps led the study, and surmised that “enhanced confidence” was a possible function of the relative weight of chaotic, dangerous events:
I think—and it’s just a theory—that part of why we have this super-enhanced feeling of remembering and sense of vividness for these highly emotional events is that knowing that they occurred matters a lot. Knowing the details about how they occurred, who told you about it, doesn’t necessarily matter.
But the enhanced confidence that we have in the memory lets us rely on it and act quickly. You want to be confident of that previous memory, the main point of which was that there was this terrorist attack that could threaten my life and now I have to be wary of things that might be similar. Because you don’t want to have to go, “Gee, does this remind me of anything…?” before you act on those types of threats in the future.
Moreover, extant research generally attributed such conflations not to malice or deceit, but the alarming tendency of the human brain to stitch fractured recollections into a useful, cohesive narrative:
There is no evidence that the mistaken accounts of either person were malicious or intentionally false. Studies of memories of traumatic events consistently show how common it is for errors to creep into confidently recalled accounts, according to cognitive psychologists.
“It’s pretty normal,” said Deryn Strange, an associate psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “That’s the hard thing to get our heads around. It’s frightening how easy it is to build in a false memory … They are more likely to do that when they are upset about the event — if they are getting intrusive thoughts about it, or talking to other people about it,” she said.
In short, it’s certainly possible Trump fabricated the story. However, the candidate’s spotty recollection of 9/11 was not unlike that of many of his fellow Americans, including President George W. Bush. Finally, Donald Trump himself has been the unwitting star of similar (albeit less emotionally fraught) widespread false memories:
Even with a straight news story like this, a bit of manufactured memory has changed many people’s recall of the event. There are those who now swear they saw Donald Trump hand over an oversized, Ed McMahon-type check on TV. Likely this “Publisher’s Clearing House” mental image fits in better with our notion of how a celebrity would reward an ordinary fellow, hence the substituted memory.
On 23 November 2015, Trump tweeted:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 23, 2015
However, it should be noted that the excerpt to which Trump pointed (originally published by the Washington Post on 18 September 2001) described individuals who “allegedly” celebrated the attacks on rooftops in Jersey City (indicating that the celebrations were rumored, not confirmed). Trump claimed to have seen “thousands and thousands” of individuals in New Jersey on television, footage that has long been cited in rumors but doesn’t appear to exist and doesn’t jibe with the material he cited. Finally, it’s unlikely thousands of any group of people could physically congregate on a rooftop.