What You Should Think About 9/11 Conspiracy Theories

“Give up what is doubtful for what is certain. Truth brings peace of mind, and deception doubt.”

–Muhammad Ali

Scholars of future generations will be hard-pressed to make sense of early 21st century world history. Senseless violence begets senseless violence. Leaders speak of a desire for peace while dedicating the bulk of their energies to intensifying hostilities. It is fair to wonder if even national leaders have a good grip on the realities of world events. That some ordinary people should lack such a grasp is no particular shock.

Plenty of factors play into denial of what actually happened one fateful autumn morning. Perhaps foremost among them was the myth of American invulnerability. Terrorism on American soil, insofar as it was recognized at all, was largely associated with disturbed citizens like abortion clinic bombers or the men behind the Oklahoma City incident. The idea that Fortress America protected us from all prospect of foreign attack was never sound, but it was still comforting to a great many people.

There was an actual conspiracy at the heart of it all. A “conspiracy” is nothing more than a secret plan to commit a crime. Terrorism, provided it is not conducted under the auspices of a sovereign state (or in a jurisdiction where it is legal) is criminal activity. Legitimate reliable information on the subject reveals that the most newsworthy events of that day began with a conspiracy of hijackers coordinated by Al Qaeda with the knowing authorization and support of Osama bin Laden.

Yet the mechanism of misinformation reinforcing itself in echo chambers of passionate folly spills over into this. Like critics of evolution or global warming, critics of the mainstream view of 9/11 history find that wallowing in their own pseudointellectual filth is an addictive social activity. After getting an inside view of the sort of people who take denying global warming to the hobbyist level, I can understand why this is deeply satisfying to a certain type of person . . .

Individuals wrongly convinced that they are somehow gifted may never find any affirmation of that delusion in mainstream dialog. On the other hand, working with some other, popular, delusion is a recipe for validation. A tendency toward sound analysis is actually a liability when enmeshed in these subcultures. Instead it is the ability to be zealous in regurgitating false narratives that generates waves of support from others excited to feel a part of something special and important. It seems to me that the “9/11 Truth Movement” is, as with “Creation science” or global warming denial, a sort of Special Olympics for people with much more desire than ability to engage in insightful discussion of profound matters.

The thing is, everyone involved with Special Olympics events is well aware that the focus is on triumphs of spirit rather than advancing the frontiers of human athleticism. Such perspective is lacking in venues that glorify the intellectually handicapped. Participants in these peculiar subcultures will passionately hold up fanciful assertions and even outright lies as magnificent achievements. The work of bona fide experts dwelling on credible information is dismissed as part of some sinister plot. Conspiracy theory newsletters and the like have long been with us, but new media gives these subcultures a much greater ability to close ranks and insulate their most hallowed tales from pesky facts that might undermine “the movement.”

Something particularly bizarre about the 9/11 conspiracy theorists is the widespread assertion that U.S. involvement in the plot was intended to justify the war in Iraq. What actually happened did nothing to justify the war in Iraq! Even if Al Qaeda’s responsibility were a fabrication, that would only justify pursuing Al Qaeda, and by extension any regime significantly impeding efforts to neutralize the Al Qaeda threat. Among many other falsehoods, the dominant narrative of 9/11 conspiracy theorists rests on the bogus assertion that hunting a largely Saudi group of terrorists enjoying the protection of Afghani Taliban provided casus belli against Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraqi regime.

No doubt some of this confusion can be traced back to the White House. Almost immediately after the attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney started spinning tall tales of a working relationship between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime. Yokels, including some with advanced degrees and book deals, now happily opine about “Islamofascism” as if the term made any sense at all. It is the result of a disturbingly successful Orwellian effort to dupe people into believing that attacking Saddam Hussein was somehow relevant to dealing with threats from Islamic terrorists.

Today government misinformation serves to ratchet up tensions between Iran and the United States. Again and again our President goes out of his way to emphasize any hint of possibility of some connection between Iran and insurgent operations in Iraq. Though there may be a kernel of truth underneath that neoconservative smoke screen, there is also a bigger picture to consider. Jihadists and bankrolls coming out of Saudi Arabia are clearly the greatest foreign source of strength behind terrorist and insurgent activities in Iraq. Yet no sanctions against that downright medieval regime are forthcoming. Hyping Iran as a menace may have as much to do with obscuring a real danger as it has to do with the ongoing Presidential commitment to maintaining a high level of fear among the electorate.

Perhaps there are few people who can truly claim to have never dignified the ridiculous with a moment’s serious contemplation. Ufology and ghost hunting clearly enjoy plenty of support from individuals more interested in validating fantasies than advancing the frontiers of science. Perhaps, as with many religious doctrines, no one is in a position to repudiate the existence of an enigmatic underlying phenomenon. Yet so much media activity inappropriately presents the wildest of speculations as non-fiction. Resonating in specific subcultures, pseudoscientists prosper to the degree they confirm popular falsehoods and deflect valid mainstream criticism.

Efforts to clear away this fog sometimes merely strengthen a bunker mentality amongst the zealous. The idea that modern political liberals are out to destroy the American way of life is ridiculous on its face. Yet many fortunes have been made using venom, lies, and/or wit to promulgate precisely that view. Be it expeditions to catch a Sasquatch or rants about Al Gore’s plot to sabotage American indusry, there is no accounting for what fictions might be entertaining to some people. Yet when coherent communities of belief form around such fictions, the results tend to be anything but entertaining.

Though it would be wonderful if every adult cultivated and exercised critical thinking skills in formulating opinions about matters of consequence, reality offers us no such wonder to behold. Problem subcultures apply skepticism selectively to reinforce orthodox thinking. In the process, they provide an avenues for false validation that cannot be found in an environment of even-handed skepticism. As gutters accumulate filth, so do these subcultures accumulate the worst concentrations of overconfidence coupled with misinformation.

Conspiracy theories about the terrorism of September 11th, 2001 would be good for a laugh if they were not potentially dangerous. They distract from dealing with serious problems, like the real menace from Al Qaeda or real misinformation coming out of the White House. In the latter case, nonsense about a false flag plot provides cover under which the administration can denounce entirely sensible criticism of their actual public deceptions. In short, enough poo is flung into political discussions by our elected officials. Grass roots movements adding their own brand of filth to the process do not deserve anyone’s support, regardless of how much unconditional acceptance they lavish on fellow believers.


8 Responses to What You Should Think About 9/11 Conspiracy Theories

  1. maxwyvern says:

    “Among many other falsehoods, the dominant narrative of 9/11 conspiracy theorists rests on the bogus assertion that hunting a largely Saudi group of terrorists enjoying the protection of Afghani Taliban provided casus belli against Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraqi regime.”

    I haven’t followed this “911 Truth movement” well enough to know if you are correctly characterizing this “dominant narrative.” If so, I would agree that you’ve debunked it well with this analysis. The problem I see is that there are other possibilities than may not be described by such a dominant narrative that stand a much better chance of being accurate, at least in part. I don’t like to use the word conspiracy, but I think there could well have been a plan shared by certain nefarious characters in and out of current US government that involved making the most of whatever heinous crimes might be committed upon American interests to advance a cause to their liking.

    The Project for a New American Century official manifesto openly pined for “a catalyzing event––like a new Pearl Harbor.” This doesn’t mean that anyone planned for such an event, or that it was even consciously hoped for, but I can see the unconscious understanding that such an event might help their cause affect actions that some people might take that would make it more likely for a tragedy like 9/11 to occur. The scenario that makes the most sense to me involves one of the most mendacious individuals in the Bush admin, Dick Cheney. As I understand it, he was given leadership of a terrorism task force after Richard Clarke was pushed out and the task force never met prior to 9/11. Perhaps he put such an effort on the back burner, realizing that an attack of some sort might be useful to his plans (if only unconsciously)?

    This idea has the advantage of not specifying a particular advance knowledge of any terrorist plan. Cheney needed an excuse to attack Iraq and, lo and behold, an attack occurred. He would probably have preferred that the attack was orchestrated by Saddam’s agents than his Saudi friends, but he wasn’t going to let such a nice potentially catalyzing event slip away without making the most of it.

  2. Demonweed says:

    When it comes to failures of counterterrorism policy leading up to September 11th, 2001, I believe Occam’s Razor works nicely here. This administration is rife with severe incompetence. From your tone I suspect we both agree that there is no way the White House actually supported the attacks. After all, a prominent conservative pundit married to the administration’s Solicitor General was actually on the plane that struck the Pentagon. Plenty of other “loyal Bushies” were in the twin towers at the time of those impacts. It seems wildly out of character to think they would not protect their own in such a plot.

    Yet that whole “simplest explanation” approach also applies to the willful delinquency vs. incompetence analysis. A few days ago I wanted to write something positive about the administration, and I thought the Healthy Forests Initiative might work as a topic for that. In principle I support thinning as a conservation measure, and I have no objection to corporations making profits while doing something productive. Yet as I dug into the thing I realized even that policy was bungled by the epic incompetence of this administration. At this point I really cannot think of a significant success achieved by this President that did something positive for a legitimate national interest. I approve of the initial approach taken to regime change in Afghanistan, but even that triumph has been undermined by a frenzy of horrible follow-up policies, not the least of which being that distracting debacle in Iraq.

    Is it possible that one element in the decision to ignore alarms about terrorism in the first nine months of his Presidency was a desire for an attack on American soil to change the political landscape? I suppose I cannot completely rule out a notion like that, especially with an outright villain like Dick Cheney in the mix. Is it possible that the administration would have allowed the September 11th hijackings to occur if they’d had the means to prevent them? I see that as an implausible scenario. In fact, the actions of the President and Vice President at the time suggest to me that they were every bit as blindsided by the events of that day as the rest of the nation (well, save for Cassandra figures like Dick Clarke, Gary Hart, Ralph Nader, Tom Clancy, etc.)

    I agree that hawks in politics and the media exploited a climate of fear to push an agenda of aggression. Yet I draw the line at asserting the climate of fear was a product of their own cunning manipulation of world events. They just do not possess that level of cunning. Theirs is the petty myopic shrewdness of corporate profiteers — eager to gorge themselves at the expense of others, yet not nearly so malicious as to walk over corpses for another lucrative payday. I believe Iraq policy is what it is because war planners really were so ignorant as to believe their own misinformation about Saddam Hussein, not to mention their own misinformation about initiatives like de-Ba’athification of government or privatization of oil fields.

    To me the idea that this whole mess is a fulfillment of our national leaders’ intentions just seems like a much bigger stretch than the idea that it is a consequence of their chronic ineptitude. After all, if they could manage such a plot, then why can’t they manage anything at all constructive in terms of a domestic agenda? I do not doubt that there were deliberate lies told during the rush to war with Iraq, and I do not doubt that Operation Iraqi Freedom was substantially motivated by personal greed. After all, I cannot dispute that, even before the 9/11 attacks took place, nearly $1 billion had been spent on Middle Eastern shipping and trucking infrastructure to support a future war effort in Iraq. Yet when it comes to who can develop and execute a grand plan to bring about historic change as intended, it seems clear to me that Osama bin Laden, not George W. Bush, may rightly be termed a “mastermind.”

  3. maxwyvern says:

    “After all, if they could manage such a plot, then why can’t they manage anything at all constructive in terms of a domestic agenda?”

    Just what is their domestic agenda? I mean their real aims, conscious and unconscious- beyond the empty rhetoric of compassionate conservatism? The more rabid voices among their supporters claim to want to eliminate government (drown it in a bathtub). If their agenda is seen as fundamentally destructive then perhaps they’ve really managed it quite well?

    Maybe they get more benefit from the appearance of incompetence than of maliciousness? Then they can get the next republican elected by selling the voters on the idea that their principles were and are solid and the newly anointed leader will have the competence to execute their strategies to perfection. Meanwhile, each cycle results in the destruction of more of the gains made by a few high-minded civil servants who really do want to build something of value for the populace.

  4. Demonweed says:

    Actually, as flawed as it was, I supported the administration’s push for immigration reform. If cultural paranoia and latent racism are set aside (not to mention the absurdity of zero sum economic thinking,) the only valid criticism I saw was that it might encourage some forms of exploitation. Yet by legalizing economic migrant activity, widespread and severe exploitation ongoing in an enormous inevitable black market would be obstructed. Unfortunately, cultural paranoia and latent racism are staples of conservative punditry. Opinion leaders fervently supporting one wrong move after another from this White House chose the one instance significant good could have been accomplished to stop marching in lockstep with elected partisans.

    Obviously I don’t think partially privatizing Social Security or amending the Constitution to enshrine a “separate but equal” legal standard for homosexual couples makes sense. Apart from serious cutbacks in tax rates and tax enforcement, I’m not sure they really got much of anything they wanted. I suppose the President may have been big on free subsidies for already profitable fossil fuel corporations, and it is hard to miss the Vice President’s connection to the most lavishly compensated war profiteers of this century (if not all human history.) Still I believe they, and their administration, are at heart dedicated to making America a better place — they just have a woefully misguided view of that, based on 1950s morality and talk radio ideology.

    The dittohead set always gets dismissive when someone criticizes Fox News et al. Yet the fact that people like the two incumbent federal executives now have papers and even a television network that caters to their deliberate distortions of reality enables them to live more comfortably with those distortions. In the time of Reagan or earlier, people with a warped ideology had a choice between being told what they wanted to hear or taking information from legitimate news media. I question the legitimacy of FNC, The Washington Times, et al. Yet the experience is so much akin to consuming mainstream news that it fortifies the bunker of self-deception.

    In the end, it seems like political behavior is driven much more by hate than insight. If the next Republican nominee takes on Karl Rove as anything more than a token consultant (sometimes candidates pay small fees to operatives they dislike simply to keep them from becoming openly critical on the pundit circuit) then his advice would be to rob the adversary of his or her strengths and stir up anger amongst political conservatives. It may seem strange to think of a Clinton-Giuliani race where he runs as the candidate more sensitive to women’s issues or an Obama-Thompson race where the traditional Southern gentleman is trumpeted as more sensitive to minority issues. Yet who would have thunk that the Kerry-Bush race would involve widespread perceptions that the decorated war veteran was a coward while the slacker cokehead ran as a military role model? It only takes half a spin to turn everything upside down.

    If Democrats actually manage to land the electoral fish already well-hooked, I would expect it will be through successful motivation of voters who hate the war in Iraq, runaway deficit spending, pathological government secrecy, and Bush-Cheney in general. To win in the usual way, Republican operatives must stir up greater degrees of hate at their anger points of choice. Yet if this project of mine has a single political theme, it would be that our nation and its people deserve better than that. “The ends justify the means” in political advocacy involves embarking on the single most morally significant human endeavor with an unprincipled approach from the outset. To do so is virtually to beg for the corruption real power engenders.

    Even the most radical of the “starve the beast” set are not really intent on making America a worse place to live. They’re just too damned stupid to understand that anarchy is a worse place to live than actual fascism, never mind the featherlight oppression of 50% top marginal tax rates. If we look on that rabble as black-hatted bad guys causing pain for pain’s sake, we simultaneously miss the point of it all and fall into the same trap as those who demonize political liberals. If (possibly setting Dick Cheney aside as a special case) we look at them as less a product of malice and more a product of ignorance, then we pave the way to build bridges that enable healthy progress with reasonable compromise. Even more importantly, it becomes easier to set out to do good from a base of hope and inner strength. I am confident that approach to governance will produce better results than resting on a form of strength that draws chiefly from hostility toward a subset of fellow Americans.

  5. rmwarnick says:

    Not for the first time, I am moved to wonder if anyone except me remembers the Cold War. You know, the omnipresent daily threat of nuclear annihilation? My whole life, there has never been a Fortress America. It wasn’t even a myth. When I was in elementary school, we practiced for the day the missiles dropped out of the sky, when we would die hiding under our little desks. That was scarier than Al Qaeda.

  6. Demonweed says:

    I think I have an interesting perspective on this, as my close friends in college were evenly divided between serious news junkies intent on futures as captains of industry or leaders of politics and light-hearted artistic types intent on dedicating their lives to theater and/or music. One set was keenly aware of how dangerous rattling the nuclear sabre could be, and the other tended to believe that responsible experts were dealing with that mess and life was too short for everyone else to be preoccupied with it.

    Both perspectives were valid, and in the middle of my college years it all became moot anyway. As Max reminded me in discussing the piece I wrote on nuclear proliferation, John Kerry still sees that as the greatest threat to American national security. He is correct in that assessment. As I pointed out in the piece on the Global War on Terror (or Ted Koppel pointed out well before I did) the American automobile kills about as many of our people in a typical month as Middle Eastern criminals did in their most murderous attacks ever.

    The terrorists’ objective was to make America afraid. Be it because of personal insecurities or Machiavellian foolishness, the White House has also seen fit to energize a media drumbeat designed to amplify American fear of terrorists. International terrorism provides some cause for concern. Heck, I even believe it provided good reason to invade Afghanistan. However, it certainly does not justify the kind of all-consuming focus terrorism as a political issue has developed in the present environment.

    While the dangers of nuclear war were much more serious and at least as real as the threat from Al Qaeda, preoccupation with that issue was never so widespread as terrorist worries have become. It is almost as if people in small towns throughout the heartland feel they have a patriotic duty to be scared the evil-doers have their heart set on exploding every backwater post office and feed store in the nation. I don’t fault people for sharing my sense of concern about mutually assured destruction in a time when leaders of a superpower could credibly assure the world of their capacity to destroy American civilization outright.

    Yet I do believe a majority of Americans were not much afraid of that threat. On the other hand, a majority does seem fearful of bin Laden’s boasts in this department, even though it doesn’t take much thought to understand that he simply doesn’t have the goods to back up his rhetoric. Terrorism weakens us much more because we react irrationally to it than because it actually has any possibility of directly causing megadeath and reducing all our great cities to rubble. Yet sound long term perspectives are not the primary factors shaping 21st century political discourse.

  7. shumonik says:

    Meanwhile, in reality, the 9-11-01 attacks involved treasonous action and inaction, and the ongoing cover-up is treasonous as well.

    And not understanding such a crucial event at the turn of the millennium, which has been used to send us off on a “clash of civilizations”, brown-boogeyman chase away from our real challenges here in American and Planet Earth-economic, ecological and cultural-is a serious challenge to one’s comprehension of reality.

    There is a reason that millions of Americans believe that criminal elements in and out of our government synthesized the 9-11-01 terrorist attacks. And it’s not that millions of Americans will always be susceptible to “paranoid conspiracy theories,” its that millions of Americans can see the reality through the lies. Not that there isn’t some (serious) fact-checking issues in some (many) pockets of the 9-11 truth movement.

    10’s of millions more Americans think that the Bush administration let 9-11 happen aka treason under Article III Section 3 of the Constitution.

    More than half of America thinks that this administration is covering up something about the 9-11 attacks. This fact alone, along with the utter silence of Congress in reinitiating a more trustworthy and transparent investigation in order to clear this up, is more treason in my accounting in that if you really do think Al-Qaeda is the global threat that this administration says it is, having more than half the American population not believe their government about the worst terrorist attack our history is clearly giving aid and comfort to our enemies.

    And it’s not the “other” half of America’s fault. This could have been cleared up. Dick Cheney, the second most powerful civilian in the land could clarify for us all whether he went to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center under the White House before, while or after the Pentagon was hit. And what he knew about the approaching Pentagon attack and when he knew it. The case for his treason that day likely turns on the answers to these questions.

    The FBI could release the videotapes of the Pentagon being hit so that there wouldn’t be even any chance for doubt. There are many more questions, as you all clearly know, that have more serious consequences than “what hit the Pentagon?” But, until this is cleared up and the truth of the entire matter is laid bare for all to see, the other serious questions are not going to be addressed in as serious a manner as they deserve.

  8. Demonweed says:

    Sometimes a banana is just a banana. It would be much more suspicious that the Bush administration was not forthcoming in dealing with aspects of the 9/11 attacks that should be public information if that secrecy did not take place in the context of a pathological hostility to transparency in government. Against a backdrop of leadership with little respect for the rule of law, it would be suspect if every facet of the 9/11 attacks was subject to the statutes and principles governing freedom of information.

    It is suspicious that a group mostly from Saudi Arabia, affiliated with a group based in Afghanistan, should set in motion a chain of events that saw Saddam Hussein hanged and a brutal military occupation in Iraq. It is right that people should be distraught about that situation. However, it is wrong to think that nefarious secrets are to blame for it. The government did not prohibit people from telling the story of Al Qaeda the religious fanatics being generally hostile to the regime of Saddam Hussein, with its secular institutions and religious tolerance. The military-industrial complex drowned it out with tall tales of mushroom cloud danger,

    It is shameful that the President and Vice President both stand strongly against disclosing a wide range of public information that should be available not only to inform the electorate, but also to help people make better choices in their daily lives. Yet that is no excuse for leaping to the conclusion that they are covering up for some sort of secret much darker than the rational consensus that a few teams of suicidal terrorists used boxcutters to control airliners and airliners to attack buildings.

    The comment above is thoughtful, and I believe earnest as well. Yet it falls prey to the usual conspiracy theory mechanism — “something is troubling about this big important matter, therefore the ‘real truth’ must be wildly different from what is generally believed to be true.” Among those familiar with Dick Cheney’s energy task force, opinion should run near 100% that the administration is “covering up something.” That merits investigation, certainly. However, it does not merit developing a subculture of stories in which this secrecy conceals some fantastic conspiracy.

    Half the country is right to assert that the administration is covering up something about the 9/11 attacks. Because covering things up is standard operating procedure in the Bush White House, half the nation is probably mistaken to believe there are no secrets in that realm. There may also be tens of millions of Americans who believe that this President has committed serious criminal acts while in office. So far we are in the same reality.

    Where reality as I understand it diverges from the above account is in this sleight-of-hand that conflates reasonable doubts about government transparency with nightmare delusions of federal complicity in the attacks. It is extremely unlikely that tens of millions of Americans believe such nonsense. Even if it were as popular a schtick as “climate change skepticism,” the 9/11 Truth Movement is no less bogus or contemptible. Dick Cheney may be a much better fit in the role of doomsday archvillain than Al Gore. Yet both false narratives are clearly at odds with how things actually are, and giving voice to either only serves to distract from useful and accurate political discourse.

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