Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The truths are out there...

Some of my best friends are 911 conspiracy theorists. We don't talk about it much - or, at least, I try and avoid talking about it, simply because I hate arguing with friends.

All the resulting bottled up counter-arguments probably contribute to the fact that 911 conspiracy theories really get my goat.

On top of enforced repressed skepticism on my behalf, one other reason that the theories bug me is because many of the people involved don't really seem that interested in the truth (now there's an irony given the name 'truthers'); instead their approach seems to start with the certainty that a conspiracy is a-foot and then involves finding every single factoid that - atomised and on its own - might provide evidence of this. They rarely, as Matt Taibbi notes, ever engage in trying to construct a plausible coherent alternative version events themselves. Indeed they don't even seem bothered when there own assertions contradict each other. Taibbi:

...9/11 Truth is the lowest form of conspiracy theory, because it doesn't offer an affirmative theory of the crime...Strikingly, there is no obvious answer to that question, since for all the many articles about "Able Danger" and the witnesses who heard explosions at Ground Zero, there is not -- at least not that I could find -- a single document anywhere that lays out a single, concrete theory of what happened, who ordered what and when they ordered it, and why. There obviously is such a theory, but it has to be pieced together by implication, by paying attention to the various assertions of 9/11 lore (the towers were mined, the Pentagon was really hit by a cruise missile, etc.) and then assembling them later on into one single story. But the funny thing is, when you put together all of those disparate theories, you get the dumbest story since Roman Polanski's Pirates.

The specifics vary, but the basic gist of what They Say Happened goes something like this: A group of power-hungry neocons, led by Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Bush and others and organizationally represented by groups like the Project for the New American Century, seeks to bring about a "Pearl-Harbor-like event" that would accelerate a rightist revolution, laying the political foundation for invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Your basic Reichstag fire scenario, logical enough so far. Except in this story, the Reichstag fire is an immensely complicated media hoax; the conspirators plot to topple the World Trade Center and pin a series of hijackings on a group of Sunni extremists with alleged ties to Al Qaeda. How do they topple the Trade Center? Well, they make use of NORAD's expertise in flying remote-control aircraft and actually fly two such remote-control aircraft into the Towers (in another version of the story, they conspire with Al Qaeda terrorists to actually hijack the planes), then pass the planes off as commercial jetliners in the media. But it isn't the plane crashes that topple the buildings, but bombs planted in the Towers that do the trick. For good measure -- apparently to lend credence to the hijacking story -- they then fake another hijacking/crash in the Pentagon, where there actually is no plane crash at all but instead a hole created by a cruise missile attack, fired by a mysterious "white jet" that after the attack circles the White House for some time, inspiring the attention of Secret Service agents who point at it curiously from the ground (apparently these White House Secret Service agents were not in on the plot, although FBI agents on scene at Ground Zero and in Shanksville and elsewhere were).

Lastly, again apparently to lend weight to the whole hijacking cover story, they burn a big hole in the ground in Pennsylvania and claim that a jet went down there, crashed by a bunch of brave fictional civilians who fictionally storm the fictional plane cabin. The real-life wife of one of the fictional heroes, Lisa Beamer, then writes a convincingly self-serving paean/memoir to her dead husband, again lending tremendous verisimilitude to the hijacking story. These guys are good!

Taibbi then follows this up with a truly hilarious fictitious conversation between Bush, Cheney and others which includes gems like:

BUSH: I'm a total idiot who can barely read, so I'll buy that.

Taibbi makes also makes the point that leftwing conspiracy theories not only divert energy from all the real issues that the left ought to be worrying about, but that they also provide the right with plenty of ammo with which to write-off the left in general. The prevalence of real conspiracy theorists makes it that much easier for the right dismiss a whole heap of other critics as 'conspiracy theorists' too.

Or as Christopher Hayes puts it in this, very thoughtful essay from the Nation:

For the [Bush] Administration, "conspiracy" is a tremendously useful term, and can be applied even in the most seemingly bizarre conditions to declare an inquiry or criticism out of bounds."
In his essay, Hayes goes on to highlight what he thinks is one of the key reasons for the prevalence of conspiracy theories: the credulous nature of much of establishment media.

The public has been presented with two worldviews, one credulous, one paranoid, and both unsatisfactory. The more the former breaks apart, the greater the appeal of the latter.

I couldn't agree more.

To Hayes' explanation of the rise of conspiracy theories I thought I'd add a couple more:

First, that modern government (particularly modern American government) is a beast with many, many of secrets tucked away. Too many, as John Ralston Saul points out in Voltaire's Bastards. Many more - and held much longer - than can be explained by the need to "keep things from the enemy". Keep things from the voting public more like it. And this alone, while not justifying the belief that the neo-cons dynamited the twin towers, does provide people with a perfectly good reason to be very skeptical of the powers that be. And all it takes is a few apparently damning factoids to carry people over the boarder from skepticism into conspiracy land.

Second, 911 and all that, has created a world where the answers for us on the left aren't so easy anymore.

True the United States is a militaristic super power, currently in the hands of a bunch of deranged neo-thugs, but the people they are fighting aren't exactly a charming lot either.

True, the erosion of civil liberties in many western democracies is a bad thing but, at the same time, the threat of terrorist attacks is real. Over-hyped, but real nonetheless.

Now for me personally, these trade offs (for want of a better word) didn't stop me from opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor do they stop me from believing that civil liberties are too important to surrender, but they do leave me feeling conflicted and unsure.

I doubt I'm alone in this, and my sincere belief is that, for many 911 conspiracy theorists, it is simply more comforting to believe that all the problems really do come from one side, and that there are not difficult trade offs to be made.

It's a very strange sort of comfort of course - as Hayes notes, "...if tens of millions of Americans really believe their government was complicit in the murder of 3,000 of their fellow citizens, they seem remarkably sanguine about this fact. By and large, life continues as before, even though tens of millions of people apparently believe they are being governed by mass murderers" - but it's a comfort nonetheless.


Loring said...

Terence, thanks so much for your suppport of the Chris Hayes article. I work for a Colorado Springs group that opposes the militarization of space, and we have many folks here who believe whole-heartedly in the "9/11 Truth Movement." If you try to point out inconsistencies in the arguments of people like David Ray Griffin, they immediately suspect you of being a "police agent," or say that such talk "divides and ruins the left." It is conspiracy theories that divide and ruin the left.

TotallyFixed said...

I appreciate your thoughts on this complex subject, but I had a different set of conclusions after reading Christopher Hayes' article. So much so, that I wrote my own article, pointing out what I thought to be the flaws in his.


I welcome civil discourse on these subjects at all times, agree or disagree with my opinion of what the evidence indicates.

This is not a game. Three thousand people died that day. Many more have died since from shrapnel, hot flying lead, depleted uranium, and asbestos dust.

Those of us who are unhappy with both the process and the tenacity of the official investigation should not be dismissed as people with nothing better to do, just getting fired up on the internet.

We're talking about mass murder.

We're talking about wholesale changes in the rules of law enforcement and surveillance.

We're talking long-cherished freedoms and legal protections suddenly eliminated.

We've seen these laws passed in a panicky haste, "miraculously appearing" in the atmosphere of unexpected crisis, even though they were obviously prepared well in advance.

We're talking about obvious, blatant, and brazen deviations from the standard norms of evidence, documentation, and transparency in the investigation into this crime.

And that's what it is. A crime.

A massive, brutal, violent, and shocking crime of mass murder and property destruction.

A crime of gargantuan ecological and public health consequences.

A crime that killed hundreds of brave public servants, willingly risking their lives for two reasons:

1) It was their job, their mission, their duty, and their calling, and

2) Not a single one of them thought that there would be a catastrophic, total, and near instantaneous collapse of the building.

That's my problem. Tell the kids of the NYC firefighters that the killers of their parents have seen justice. Tell the widows that we've followed every lead, turned over every stone, faithfully investigated all significant disparities in sworn testimony, and subpoenaed all the relevant official documents.

I don't think you can. Not with a clear conscience. Not when the 9/11 commission refused to pursue or even discuss two thirds of the questions posed to them by the widow's committee that spurred the investigation in the first place.

You might not agree, but I hardly think I'm beyond the pale to entertain such notions.

David Caputo
Editor and Publisher

Terence said...

Now here's a conspiracy for you. How is it that my blog - which I can't even get my girlfriend to read - all of a sudden gets two comments from the other side of the world? huh?

Anyhow, thanks both Loring and David,

Loring - I don't really have anything to say - it looks like we're in agreement on this (not to mention appreciation of Cat Power too; not so sure about the Dead C though, even if they are compatriots of mine). I can empathise also with your surprise at just how many lefties you thought you knew end up being 911 truthers. I had to think long and hard about just which of my friends would see the humour in Tiabbi's article before I started forwarding it on.


Thanks for the relatively civil tone of your comment. I agree that Bush et. al. have used 911 as a means to embark on all sorts of awful policy. I also agree that 911 hasn't been investigated properly. Neither of these factoids, however, is evidence of conspiracy. Profiteering doesn't have to stem from perpetration. And inadequate investigation doesn't prove that Bush et al were behind the attacks - it simply shows them covering up their ineptitude.

One thing we do agree on is that the victims of this horrible attack deserve a better investigation though.