According to a July poll conducted by Scripps News Service, one-third of Americans think the government either carried out the 9/11 attacks or intentionally allowed them to happen in order to provide a pretext for war in the Middle East. This is at once alarming and unsurprising. Alarming, because 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. Unsurprising, because the government these Americans suspect of complicity in 9/11 has acquired a justified reputation for deception: weapons of mass destruction, secret prisons, illegal wiretapping. What else are they hiding?
This pattern of deception has not only fed diffuse public cynicism but has provided an opening for alternate theories of 9/11 to flourish. As these theories–propounded by the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement–seep toward the edges of the mainstream, they have raised the specter of the return (if it ever left) of what Richard Hofstadter famously described as “the paranoid style in American politics.” But the real danger posed by the Truth Movement isn’t paranoia. Rather, the danger is that it will discredit and deform the salutary skepticism Americans increasingly show toward their leaders.
The Truth Movement’s recent growth can be largely attributed to the Internet-distributed documentary Loose Change. A low-budget film produced by two 20-somethings that purports to debunk the official story of 9/11, it’s been viewed over the Internet millions of times. Complementing Loose Change are the more highbrow offerings of a handful of writers and scholars, many of whom are associated with Scholars for 9/11 Truth. Two of these academics, retired theologian David Ray Griffin and retired Brigham Young University physics professor Steven Jones, have written books and articles that serve as the movement’s canon. Videos of their lectures circulate among the burgeoning portions of the Internet devoted to the cause of the “truthers.” A variety of groups have chapters across the country and organize conferences that draw hundreds. In the last election cycle, the website www.911truth.org even produced a questionnaire with pointed inquiries for candidates, just like the US Chamber of Commerce or the Sierra Club. The Truth Movement’s relationship to the truth may be tenuous, but that it is a movement is no longer in doubt.
Truth activists often maintain they are simply “raising questions,” and as such tend to focus with dogged persistence on physical minutiae: the lampposts near the Pentagon that should have been knocked down by Flight 77, the altitude in Pennsylvania at which cellphones on Flight 93 should have stopped working, the temperature at which jet fuel burns and at which steel melts. They then use these perceived inconsistencies to argue that the central events of 9/11–the plane hitting the Pentagon, the towers collapsing–were not what they appeared to be. So: The eyewitness accounts of those who heard explosions in the World Trade Center, combined with the facts that jet fuel burns at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and steel melts at 2,500, shows that the towers were brought down by controlled explosions from inside the buildings, not by the planes crashing into them.
If the official story is wrong, then what did happen? As you might expect, there’s quite a bit of dissension on this point. Like any movement, the Truth Movement is beset by internecine fights between different factions: those who subscribe to what are termed LIHOP theories (that the government “let it happen on purpose”) and the more radical MIHOP (“made it happen on purpose”) contingent. Even within these groups, there are divisions: Some believe the WTC was detonated with explosives after the planes hit and some don’t even think there were any planes.
To the extent that there is a unified theory of the nature of the conspiracy, it is based, in part, on the precedent of the Reichstag fire in Germany in the 1930s. The idea is that just as the Nazis staged a fire in the Reichstag in order to frighten the populace and consolidate power, the Bush Administration, military contractors, oil barons and the CIA staged 9/11 so as to provide cause and latitude to pursue its imperial ambitions unfettered by dissent and criticism. But the example of the Reichstag fire itself is instructive. While during and after the war many observers, including officials of the US government, suspected the fire was a Nazi plot, the consensus among historians is that it was, in fact, the product of a lone zealous anarchist. That fact changes little about the Nazi regime, or its use of the fire for its own ends. It’s true the Nazis were the chief beneficiaries of the fire, but that doesn’t mean they started it, and the same goes for the Bush Administration and 9/11.
The Reichstag example also holds a lesson for those who would dismiss the very notion of a conspiracy as necessarily absurd. It was perfectly reasonable to suspect the Nazis of setting the fire, so long as the evidence suggested that might have been the case. The problem isn’t with conspiracy theories as such; the problem is continuing to assert the existence of a conspiracy even after the evidence shows it to be virtually impossible.
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.