Tonight I had the opportunity to see one of the most engaging and controversial speakers here at UW-Oshkosh in recent times. I am speaking of UW-Madison’s Kevin Barrett. Kevin Barrett has come under national media scrutiny for his views on the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I do not agree with Barrett point for point, nor do I agree with some of his assertions, but his discourse makes you think. I am not going to proselytize for either side of the 9/11 debates. I am going to tell you what Barrett did right.
Barrett agreed to disagree with his critics. In reading his critics’ publications and letters it appeared to me that Barrett was some tin-foil hat wearing, internet forum posting junkie, conspiracy nut that just happened to have a doctorate. This preconceived notion proved to be false. Barrett was well versed and acutely aware of his critics. He stated that despite their harsh criticism, he was willing to debate them. In one instance Barrett recalled that he was to be set up in a debate against fellow UW-Madison professors. Unfortunately, no one took the offer despite the strenuous efforts of his critics to find someone. He also addressed questions challenging his position, to which he made arguments with supporting evidence. It is not required, nor advocated, by Barrett that you agree with him. He wants you to make an informed decision with valid evidence on either side of the issue.
When it came to providing evidence, Barrett was able to relay his findings in layman’s terms. This is absolutely crucial when trying to assuage someone’s position on a topic. Perhaps the most impressive use of evidence was when he demonstrated how the government uses polarizing incidents to shift majority opinion to the mobilization for war. Skipping thousands of years of history, Barrett used the staged military attack which led to the annexation of much of Mexico, the sinking of the Maine, the sinking of the Lusitania, the inaction against the attacks on Pearl Harbor, and more modern examples to demonstrate how government shifts opinion. When it came to discrepancies regarding the miniscule 16-foot hole in the Pentagon caused by huge 757, the complete vaporization of planes, or the “controlled demolition” way the Trade Center fell Barrett had logical answer for the all. He also points out idiosyncrasies in the chain of command, unusually high stock put options placed on American Airlines on the days before the attacks, and the Trade Tower owner’s unusually high insurance policy protecting against terrorism a short time before the attacks. He also bolstered his argument with statistical nuggets. Did you know that approximately 60,000 people have died from car crashes since 9/11. Only 3000 died in the 9/11 attacks. Which event is more dangerous to human life? Car crashes or terrorism? His arguments covered the broad spectrum of possibility and rationality. Perhaps most interesting in his evidence were the omissions in the government’s 9/11 report. Why is tower 7 never explicitly addressed?
Perhaps the most important issue at hand was not his views on 9/11, but academic freedom. People have been brandishing torches demanding that Barrett leave his post at UW-Madison. George Bush stated that 9/11 was the defining moment for this generation. Are places of higher education not the place to talk about this defining moment? Are we to believe everything that has been told to us by the government when they have lied to us in the past? Is not the purpose of higher education to promote the deep exploration of these defining moments? College is the perfect place to define this defining moment for what it is. To let the 9/11 commission and other government bodies define what these attacks meant takes the power of voice away from the people.
It has been said that Barrett is an embarrassment to the UW system. The problem with this is that Barrett does not represent the UW system. The administration and not the faculty officially represent the UW system. Professors are free to express their own ideas, beliefs, and ideologies. If a university were to hire professors based on an approved ideological rubric, higher education would cease to be. It is impossible to regulate free thought. After stringent review by UW-Madison, it was found that the introductory Islamic History course he teaches not only meets excellent standards and in some cases exceeds them. The intense pressure from the media has forced Barrett to keep his ducks in a row. His course, according to UW administrators, is beneficial to academic development students. This course does not require you to spend a great deal of time on 9/11. The small component of the course that does deal with it does not require a stand on either side of the issue. His course is not exclusive to the 9/11 conspiracy, as many believe.
Before entering Reeve to attend the speech I ran into several people protesting Barrett’s presence on campus. This was well within their right and I applaud their voice. However, three protesters made a stand during Barrett’s speech. I knew it was going to be an intense night when I was asked three times if I had a ticket by staff working the event. There were also three police officers and several media cameras on hand. When Barrett began speaking three protesters stood up, turned around, and were a distraction to the speech. The police promptly escorted out, these people without incident. I knew one was going to do something beforehand because I spotted the tinfoil under his hat. The action, however, did not phase Barrett one bit. He kept on speaking without interruption. I gather he’s had experience with this before. It is my impression that most people who protest Barrett do so based on what others have said about him. They jump on the bandwagon because it is easier than critically analyzing the claims. These people missed a fantastic opportunity to actually get the facts straight from the horse’s mouth.
Before leaving I had the opportunity to ask a question. I stated the observation that there were people who dismissed him out of hand and did not attend. I asked what he thought these people had to gain by not entertaining the government conspiracy side of the 9/11 debates. His answer was very poignant. In many ways, Barrett said, the events of 9/11 have become sacred mythology. It is heretical to question the finite details of such mythologies. Doing so constitutes a violation of the memories of the people who were killed and undermines the justifications for everything that has since happened. Without 9/11 there would be no Patriot Act, NSA wiretapping, Department of Homeland Security, justification for war in Iraq, sanctioned torture, the suspension of habeas corpus, and whatever else lies ahead. This puts the current administration at an almost inconceivable disadvantage when trying to gain public support if proven to be true.
One note before I wrap up my opinions. Critics of Barrett state that he compares George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler. As a student of German I listened very carefully when Barrett mentioned the Nazis. For clarification, Barrett compares the events of the Reichstag Fire in 1933 to the events of 9/11. The Reichstag was set ablaze a month after Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany. The Nazis by themselves were not a majority party in 1933. To win the support of the populace and control of the government the Nazis torched the government building. The public was outraged and the Nazis used the fire as an excuse to round up undesireables, communists, and other anti-Nazi supporters. Remember, the Nazis were an extremely conservative party. The connection here is that the government of the people and political right used conspiracy to win support for their deplorable actions. Not once did Barrett state: “George W. Bush is Adolf Hitler.”
I attended this speech because, admittedly, I did not know very much about the conspiracy. In many ways, I was disappointed by Barrett. In my head I imagined a vociferous conspiracy loon preaching fire and brimstone at a pulpit. Instead, I listened to the substantiated claims of a casual and worldly professor who promoted critical thinking. After five years of listening to the government and media’s position, I decided to balance out the equation. When making an informed decision it is best to know both sides of the issue. It is common sense to study the opposite side, to question their assertions, in order to formulate a valid counterargument. To put it into dogmatic terms “know thine enemy.” So what is my take on the events of 9/11? There is so much information out there to decipher. Some of it is true and some of it is, unfortunately, false. It isn’t important for me to justify them to you. I’m content with my own pursuit of truth. I hope you find personal truth. Ask questions.