The spreading popularity of the 9/11 conspiracy hypothesis is a political phenomenon of some significance. I wish to examine both the causes and the effects, as well as the substance of the hypothesis itself.
Distrust and hatred of the Bush administration and of the “neo-conservatives” of the Program for a New American Century (PNAC).
Their lies and crimes are so great that in purely moral terms, they seem capable of anything. This is the factor that supplies the emotional and moral readiness to believe the worst.
However, the fact that they may well be morally capable of every conceivable crime does not mean that they are necessarily capable in purely practical terms. The test of the conspiracy hypothesis is not the character of the alleged conspirators, but the plausibility of the conspiracy in both practical and political terms.
I should note at the outset that I have an open mind about conspiracy theories in general. History is replete with conspiracies. No hypothesis should be rejected automatically because it involves a conspiracy. But each hypothesis must be judged on its own merits, in terms of solid evidence and plausibility, as well as in comparison with conflicting hypotheses. A scientific attitude requires special skepticism in regard to theories one would like, for various personal or ideological reasons, to believe. The wish to pin the supreme crime on the criminal Bush administration is an initial reason to be skeptical.
Who profits from the crime?
The Bush administration has shamelessly exploited 9/11 to instill paranoid fear in the American public in order to justify a repressive domestic policy and an aggressive war policy abroad. The event seems to have served as the “Pearl Harbor” posited by certain neo-cons as necessary to bring the U.S. public around to their agenda. So the Bush administration can rightly be said to have profited from the crime.
But so did Osama bin Laden, who has become a hero to millions. So did numerous other Islamic extremists, who were inspired by the impact of that event. The plain fact is that the September 11 attacks were greeted rapturously in much of the Arab-Muslim world. They have inspired emulation.
If both sides profited, one profited opportunistically and the other actually designed the attacks to fit its purpose . So the attacks should be examined to see which set of aims it was designed to serve.
The targets and the message.
The al Qaeda hypothesis: The choice of 9/11 targets contained an eloquent message that was perfectly understood in most of the world. The World Trade Center stood for America’s economic power in the world, and the Pentagon its military power. Assuming the targets were chosen by bin Laden and his associates, they were meant to show that this overwhelming power was in reality vulnerable, and could be dealt a deadly blow by only a few determined men ready to sacrifice their lives.
The Bushite conspiracy hypothesis: All along, the Bush explanation for the attacks is that “the terrorists hate us because we are free, they want to destroy our freedom”.
But wait a minute: this ignores entirely the symbolism of the targets.
Now, let us suppose that Bushite plotters designed the attacks so that Bush could use them to claim that “they want to destroy us because of our freedom”. The choice of targets should support that claim. Suppose one of the planes had crashed into the Statue of Liberty; that would really carry the message that “they want to destroy our freedom”. For ordinary Americans, it would be just as shocking as the World Trade Center, while costing a lot less to American capitalism (an old gift from France would hardly be missed). For good measure, to show that the terrorists want to kill as many people as possible, they could have crashed into a couple of packed football stadiums. That would have killed more people than in the Twin Towers and the message would have been exactly the one claimed by the Bush administration.
It should be clear that the choice of targets was perfectly suited to express violent opposition to United States economic and military power (and perhaps political power if, as claimed without proof, the fourth plane was heading for the White House), not primarily the American people. The approximately three thousand victims were not the target, but were, as the Americans and Israelis say of their bombing runs, “collateral damage”.
W’s goat story.
Was George W. Bush supposed to be part of the plot? Or was he left out of the planning by his handlers? Either way, an entourage clever enough to pull off the 9/11 spectacle should have been clever enough to manipulate the President to get him to play his important role in the scenario. If the whole thing was a set-up, he should have been made to leap into action, rush to the defense of the nation and show himself heroically on the front lines of this new “war”. Instead, looking totally bewildered, he went on reading a goat story, then vanished from sight allowing Mayor Giuliani to hog the limelight. I fail to understand why anyone can interpret that pathetic performance as indication of an “inside job”.
The Arab pilots.
In any case, whatever the financial or ideological role of Osama bin Laden, focusing on the mysterious cave dweller distracts attention from the actual perpetrators. According to the official version, these were not cave dwellers, but well educated young men, mostly from Saudi Arabia. To deliver such a strong message to the “evil Empire”, they were ready to give up their lives — and the lives of others. This is standard operating practice for warriors, and makes them heroes in the eyes of those who sympathize with their cause. Considering the hatred that the United States — alongside Israel — has aroused in the Arab world, there is really nothing so amazing about the fact that a certain number of young Arabs would be willing to sacrifice themselves for such a spectacular act. Of course, we are no longer living in those archaic times when it was possible to respect the courage of even the worst enemy. Today we are living in Manichean times — our dualism matches theirs, and enemies can only be “pure evil”. Otherwise, we in the West might do well to drop the obsession with bin Laden and consider what moved those men to do what they did.
One of the conspiracy theories suggests that the planes were actually directed into the Twin Towers by U.S. military guidance systems. It is said that the Towers were too difficult a target for amateur pilots. This does not seem plausible to me: the Towers look like sitting ducks, and the vertical aim could be approximate — unlike an airport runway where both vertical and horizontal precision are necessary.
When the towers went down, it reminded viewers of deliberate building demolitions. That doesn’t prove anything. There are experts who explain why it must have been demolition, and experts who explain why the collapse was due to the structure of the buildings (especially their vertical design). The layman has no way to judge between these expert explanations — but neither do experts, since (as physicist Jean Bricmont points out) scientists cannot be sure of the cause of a single event that cannot be repeated experimentarily. So we are back to the question of plausibility and motivation.
As to plausibility, supposing the airliner attacks were really engineered by the Bushites, why add demolition? Since somebody would have to place explosives in the two towers, this would enlarge the circle of persons involved in the plot, making exposure more likely. And what is the dividend from demolition to make it worth the additional risk of disclosure?.
And why demolish yet another tower? How does that strengthen what is supposed to be the effect of the attacks: to frighten the American people and justify war?
The absence of jet fighter intervention.
Anyone who is familiar with the military knows that smooth operations are for political demonstrations to Congressmen and the media. In reality, foul-ups are the rule. But what could U.S. Air Force jets have done in this case? Shoot down loaded airliners over Manhattan — at a time when the hypothesis would have been hijacking rather than suicide attacks on the Twin Towers? It just may be that there was no standard operating defense against such an operation.
The argument, popularized by Thierry Meyssan, that the Pentagon was struck by a missile rather than by American Airlines flight 77, rests wholly on photographic evidence, or to be more precise, the absence of photographic evidence clearly showing the wreckage of the airliner embedded in the Pentagon. Because the Pentagon is flat, and outside the main Washington urban area, it is not the object of tourists taking amateur photos, especially not early in the morning. Once again, experts are called upon to explain why the projectile striking the Pentagon, could, or could not, have been an airliner. The fact that the appearance of a crash site is ambiguous is scarcely conclusive evidence of anything. And once again, the layman cannot easily judge these conflicting physical interpretations, but can quite well use common sense to question motives and plausibility.
Most superficially, there is the issue of eye witnesses. Thierry Meyssan maintained that the only people who claim to have seen an airliner crash into the Pentagon are not credible because employed by the Government. This is not correct. There were numerous non-governmental eye witnesses, mostly commuters on the highways which surround the otherwise rather bare area where the Pentagon is located. Many have described how they were first surprised to see the airliner flying in too low to reach nearby Reagan National Airport.
But on the other hand, how many eye witnesses say they saw a missile strike the Pentagon? Even more to the point, how many eye witnesses saw or heard a missile being fired at the Pentagon, if at short range, or traveling in that direction, if at long range?
But the real argument against the Pentagon hypothesis is that it makes no sense politically or practically. Why get rid of an entire airliner full of people, in order to make way for a missile to do the job attributed to the airliner? What is the point? I suppose somebody can come up with an answer, but does it make any sense? An airliner couldn’t hit the Pentagon, so a missile was required? But the Pentagon is a very large target, visible in an open space. It is sturdier than the Twin Towers, having been built to withstand military attack, so destroying it was harder, but hitting it was not such an extraordinary feat.
U.S. military officers may be reactionary, they may even be stupid (no more so than civilian politicians, however), but whatever their faults, they tend to be sincerely patriotic. A lot of them hate Donald Rumsfeld. It is really not credible that U.S. military personnel would follow orders to carry out such a ghastly mission — murder a civil airliner full of passenger, shoot a missile into the Pentagon — without somebody among them blowing the whistle. The United States is not a place where people keep secrets. “Let it all hang out” is the national attitude. In addition to patriotism, any one of the alleged conspirators could have been certain of millions of dollars in royalties for telling the story.
Then there are the anthrax attacks. But that is quite another story, since there is no indication that the clumsy anthrax attacks were anything but the attempt of some local biowar expert to get into the act. The anthrax attacks are even in total opposition to the 9/11 attacks, which were carried out by kamikaze warriors with paper cutters and commercial airliners — no “weapons of mass destruction” needed. And that in itself was a lesson that the U.S. administration refused to heed. September 11 illustrated the futility of WMD, unnecessary for attack, useless for defense. Instead, the administration, with its habitual illogic, exploited 9/11 to demand more WMD to fight against WMD. The anthrax attacks could very well be an inside job designed to bring public attention back to the “WMD threat” so dear to the administration.
Political attractiveness of the conspiracy theory.
It seems to me, on balance, that the evidence is so weak for this particular conspiracy theory that its popularity calls for a psychological explanation. After attacking those whom he calls “coincidence nuts” (who reject the conspiracy hypothesis) for “moral cowardice”, Andreas Kargar makes an interesting comment: “But aside from that moral cowardice, the traditional left has always preferred to deal in the abstract generalities of historical processes and concepts, rather than in tangible specifics like hard evidence that can be comprehended by the general public. Perhaps those are the two reasons for the state of disarray in which they find themselves today.”
Now, this is interesting because in this particular case, there is no “hard evidence”, but there is a simple story line that “can be comprehended by the general public”. The left that deals in “abstract generalities of historical processes and concepts” has indeed lost the attention of the general public (if they ever had it, which is most doubtful). But what are the preferences of that “general public”? Polls indicate that a quite considerable proportion of the American public believe in visits to earth by extraterrestrials. The acceptability of a narrative to the general public should not be a criterion of belief by people who are serious, honest and morally courageous.
Mr Kargar asked rather suspiciously “what political objectives” Alexander Cockburn was “trying to achieve by writing this piece?”
I can’t answer for somebody else, but I am quite ready to explain my own motives.
Defend conspiracy theory.
Personally, as mentioned above, I am quite open to reasonable hypotheses of conspiracy. In the case of the John F. Kennedy assassination, for example, I find the theory that it was organized by a conspiracy of anti-Castro fanatics and gangsters plausible both in terms of feasibility and in terms of motive .
I feel that the extreme version of the 9/11 conspiracy, complete with demolition and Pentagon missile, gives a bad name to conspiracy theory in general.
Even in the case of 9/11, there is what I would call a “soft” version of the conspiracy theory that deserves investigation, and that is the possible role of secret agents who may have infiltrated the al Qaeda plot enough to know what was afoot, but let it happen. Such an hypothesis involves only a few passive “conspirators”, who, especially if they were from Israeli Mossad, would have had a patriotic motive: to bring the United States fully to the side of Israel in the “war against terror”. But this is only a hypothesis. Of course, if the attacks were not really perpetrated by Arab student pilots, then the Mossad agents reportedly spying on them in Florida could not have known anything.
A full inquiry into this question is difficult for obvious political reasons. So perhaps it is easier, politically, to advance the far more complex and implausible version of an all-out U.S. administration role in staging the 9/11 attacks than to pinpoint a smaller, more plausible, but politically more sensitive target.
Against dualistic simplicity.
The most profound motive for criticizing the 9/11 conspiracy theory is that it partakes of the very sort of moral dualism advocated by the Bushites and neo-cons, but just turns it around. Instead of evil Arabs gratuitously attacking innocent Americans, all evil acts are committed by the villains in Washington. The Arabs are innocent of everything. However, I believe it is more intelligent, and more realistic, to acknowledge that Arabs in general are, on the one hand, innocent victims of U.S. and Israeli aggression, and, on the other hand, that some of them (for that very reason) want to strike back at the United States by any means possible. Israelis abuse Palestinians with a clear conscience because they have convinced themselves that all Jews are under perpetual threat of a new Holocaust. This chronic fear leads them to commit crimes. We are nearing a state of war of all against all, in which it is absolutely necessary for the sake of survival to keep a cool head and try to understand why people do the terrible things they do, in order to find solutions. The interaction of causal factors is complex, and often may not easily be “comprehended by the general public”. But the proper task of honest journalists is to try to guide the public through those complexities.
DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato, and Western Delusions published by Monthly Review Press. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Of course, one feature or conspiracy theories is to stress the connections between Osama bin Laden and the CIA. Their interests and activities converged in the war against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But Osama bin Laden’s fortune and connections put him out of reach of effective CIA control. And this would scarcely be the unique instance of a temporary collaboration turning into “backlash”.
2. A critic of Cockburn’s piece named Andreas Kargar writes that it is “Standing Operating Procedure” inside the intelligence community to “compartmentalize intelligence” so that a small group can manage a project that involves hundred of people, organized into small teams which know only exactly what they are supposed to be doing, without knowing anything about the overarching big picture. But if assigned to plant demolition explosives in the World Trade Center, even the most isolated operatives would soon catch onto the “big picture” — as would other hypothetical small teams assigned to steer the airliners into the Towers, fire a missile into the Pentagon, and — most delicate of all — dispose of the 58 passengers and crew of American Airlines flight AA77, and their Boeing 747, if it in fact it did not crash into the Pentagon.
3. As to the motive, I do not accept the Oliver Stone cinema version according to which JFK was assassinated because he was too good (wanting to end the war in Vietnam). Rather, I think it was because he wasn’t quite bad enough in the eyes of the Cuban mafia