9/11: The Roots of Paranoia
In March 2005 Popular Mechanics assembled a team of engineers, physicists, flight experts and the like to critically examine some of the Truth Movement's most common claims. They found them almost entirely without merit. To pick just one example, steel might not melt at 1,500 degrees, the temperature at which jet fuel burns, but it does begin to lose a lot of its strength, enough to cause the support beams to fail.
And yet no amount of debunking seems to work. The Internet empowers people with esoteric interests to spend all kinds of time pursuing their hobbies, and if the Truth Movement was the political equivalent of Lord of the Rings fan fiction or furries, there wouldn't be much reason to pay attention. But the public opinion trend lines are moving in the truthers' direction, even after the official 9/11 Commission report was supposed to settle the matter once and for all.
Of course, the commission report was something of a whitewash--Bush would only be interviewed in the presence of Dick Cheney, the commission was denied access to other key witnesses and just this year we learned of a meeting convened by George Tenet the summer before the attacks to warn Condoleezza Rice about Al Qaeda's plotting, a meeting that was nowhere mentioned in the report.
So it's hard to blame people for thinking we're not getting the whole story. For six years, the government has prevaricated and the press has largely failed to point out this simple truth. Critics like The New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann might lament the resurgence of the "paranoid style," but the seeds of paranoia have taken root partly because of the complete lack of appropriate skepticism by the establishment press, a complementary impulse to the paranoid style that might be called the credulous style. In the credulous style all political actors are acting with good intentions and in good faith. Mistakes are made, but never because of ulterior motives or undue influence from the various locii of corporate power. When people in power advocate strenuously for a position it is because they believe in it. When their advocacy leads to policies that create misery, it is due not to any evil intentions or greed or corruption, but rather simple human error. Ahmad Chalabi summed up this worldview perfectly. Faced with the utter absence of the WMD he and his cohorts had long touted in Iraq, he replied, "We are heroes in error."
For a long time the credulous style has dominated the establishment, but its hold intensified after 9/11. When the government speaks, particularly about the Enemy, it must be presumed to be telling the truth. From the reporting about Iraq's alleged WMD to the current spate of stories about how "dangerous" Iran is, time and again the press has reacted to official pronouncements about threats with a near total absence of skepticism. Each time the government announces the indictment of domestic terrorists allegedly plotting our demise, the press devotes itself to the story with obsessive relish, only to later note, on page A22 or in a casual aside, that the whole thing was bunk. In August 2003, to cite just one example, the New York dailies breathlessly reported what one US official called an "incredible triumph in the war against terrorism," the arrest of Hemant Lakhani, a supposed terrorist mastermind caught red-handed attempting to acquire a surface-to-air missile. Only later did the government admit that the "plot" consisted of an FBI informant begging Lakhani to find him a missile, while a Russian intelligence officer called up Lakhani and offered to sell him one.
Yet after nearly a dozen such instances, the establishment media continue to earnestly report each new alleged threat or indictment, secure in the belief that their proximity to policy-makers gets it closer to the truth. But proximity can obscure more than clarify. It's hard to imagine that the guy sitting next to you at the White House correspondents' dinner is plotting to, say, send the country into a disastrous and illegal war, or is spying on Americans in blatant defiance of federal statutes. Bob Woodward, the journalist with the most access to the Bush Administration, was just about the last one to realize that the White House is disingenuous and cynical, that it has manipulated the machinery of state for its narrow political ends.
Meanwhile, those who realized this was the White House's MO from the beginning have been labeled conspiracy theorists. During the 2004 campaign Howard Dean made the charge that the White House was manipulating the terror threat level and recycling old intelligence. The Bush campaign responded by dismissing Dean as a "bizarre conspiracy theorist." A year later, after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge retired, he admitted that Dean's charge was, indeed, the truth. The same accusation of conspiracy-mongering was routinely leveled at anyone who suggested that the war in Iraq was and is motivated by a desire for the United States to control the world's second-largest oil reserves.
For the 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. Responding to a question from NBC's Brian Williams as to whether he ever discusses official business with his father, Bush said such a suggestion was a "kind of conspiracy theory at its most rampant." The credulous style can brook no acknowledgment of unarticulated motives to our political actors, or consultations to which the public is not privy.
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. Conspiracy theories that claim to explain 9/11 are wrongheaded and a terrible waste of time, but the skeptical instinct is, on balance, salutary. It is right to suspect that the operations of government, the power elite and the military-industrial complex are often not what they seem; and proper to raise questions when the answers provided have been unconvincing. Given the untruths to which American citizens have been subjected these past six years, is it any surprise that a majority of them think the government's lying about what happened before and on 9/11?
Still, the persistent appeal of paranoid theories reflects a cynicism that the credulous media have failed to address, because they posit a world of good intentions and face-value pronouncements, one in which the suggestion that a government would mislead or abuse its citizens for its own gains or the gains of its benefactors is on its face absurd. The danger is that the more this government's cynicism and deception are laid bare, the more people--on the left in particular and among the public in general--will be drawn down the rabbit hole of delusion of the 9/11 Truth Movement.
To avoid such a fate, the public must come to trust that the gatekeepers of public discourse share their skepticism about the agenda its government is pursuing. The antidote, ultimately, to the Truth Movement is a press that refuses to allow the government to continue to lie.