As the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks passes the 9/11 conspiracy industry shows no sign of decline. While most adherents to the various conspiracy theories reside in the United States and the Middle East, the conspiracy circus – or “the 9/11 truth movement” as it styles itself – is an increasingly visible presence in the UK. Initially an internet based affair, the UK conspiracy advocates have developed national and local campaigning groups who organize public meetings, teach-ins and film showings and they have become a visible and vocal presence at anti-war demonstrations. Their most high-profile supporter and organizer in the UK is David Shayler, the former MI5 operative and recent converts to the cause include the journalist Robert Fisk and gay rights and anti-war activist Peter Tatchell.
As with most conspiracy theories of this type a wide range of scenarios regarding the events of September 11, 2001 are proposed (the most disturbing being an anti-semitic variant according to which Jewish employees at the WTC had prior knowledge of the attack and did not turn up to work on 9/11). The most popular theory and the one advocated by the “mainstream” of the 9/11 truth movement alleges that the attacks were perpetrated by the Bush administration in order to advance the imperial designs of the neo-con cabal. They allege that the planes that struck the towers were not sufficient to bring down the two towers, but that the towers were instead brought down by controlled explosions. They further claim that the Pentagon was not struck by American Airlines Flight 77, but was instead hit by a cruise missile launched by the American military. Putting to one side the fact that the theory appears to indicate a tremendous desire on the part of the conspirators to get caught red-handed (what kind of evil masterminds decide to vastly increase their chances of being found out by planting explosives in the twin towers and launching a missile in broad daylight at the Pentagon?), there is no serious evidence that contradicts the standard account of what occurred on September 11.
The advocacy works in the way standard to other such supposed conspiracies, (JFK, Bilderberg, the faked moon landings etc.) – by cherry picking evidence, elevating minority accounts that support the theory while completely ignoring the voluminous testimony that backs the standard picture, and lying about the credentials of the “experts” that support the conspiracy theory. To date there is not a single peer-reviewed study in any scientific or engineering journal that butresses the conspiracy theory. It is telling that doubters are usually not pointed in the direction of any scholarly work but instead towards a slickly produced home made video called “loose change”, which it is claimed has been watched by over 100 million people. The theory relies substantially on the “who benefits” question: the US government benefited tremendously from the attacks – therefore they must have carried it out themselves. But the Bush administration were hardly the only people to benefit from the attacks – the attacks were a gift to repressive regimes the world over. (Russia and China conspicuously used the attacks to justify clampdowns on their Muslim populations – were the attacks therefore a Sino-Russian conspiracy?)
The theorists are at a loss to explain how the Bush administration succeeded in covering up an operation that would have required the involvement of thousands of people when US governments have been unable to cover-up scandals of peripheral interest to the US population (Iran-Contra, Watergate, the “secret” bombing of Cambodia etc). Nor do they explain why, if it was indeed an inside job, the Bush administration so severely mis-managed the media side of the operation. Why in the immediate aftermath was George Bush scurrying from airbase to airbase rather than striking heroic poses like Mayor Giuliani? Nor do the theorists explain why, if the US administration was capable of carrying out and covering up such an elaborate plot, they did not bother with the relatively simple task of planting WMD in Iraq.
Many of the conspiracy theory advocates also believe the 7/7 London tube bombings to have been an “inside job”, and their reasoning is no better in this case. Doubt is cast on the perpetrators by pointing out that one of them was a teaching assistant and that the bombers were well thought of within their communities (in the same vein one could perhaps argue that Hitler could not have known what his armies were doing in eastern Europe in the 1940s, since he was a vegetarian who was known to be kind to animals and children). In the case of suicide bombers the conspiracy theorists happen to be in total agreement with the mainstream media in depicting suicide bombers as near-psychopathic monsters devoid of all humanity, motivated only by hatred and bereft of any legitimate grievances. In reality such authentic monsters are few and far between.
The various 9/11 and 7/7 conspiracies are so ludicrously devoid of sense that one has to consider a “psychological explanation”. George Monbiot has that the theory is in effect a displacement activity, a flight into fantasy by people too terrified to confront the myriad problems humanity faces:
“Faced with the mountainous challenge of the real issues we must confront, the chickens in the “truth” movement focus instead on a fairytale, knowing that nothing they do or say will count, knowing that because the perpetrators don’t exist, they can’t fight back. They demonstrate their courage by repeatedly bayoneting a scarecrow.”
Arguing against the suggestion that the public’s readiness to believe the 9/11 theories is in a sense rather hopeful – revealing as it does the public’s open contempt for elite figures and institutions Alexander Cockburn (“The 9/11 Conspiracists and the Decline of the Left.“) argues that:
“9/11 conspiracism stems from despair and political infantilism. There’s no worthwhile energy to transfer from such kookery. It’s like saying some lunatic shouting to himself on a street corner has the capacity to be a great orator.”
Manuel Garcia Jr (Physics of 9/11, Thermodynamics of 9/11, “Dark Fire“), who has done as much as anyone to rebut the conspiracy theories, takes Cockburn’s assessment to its logical conclusion (https://www.counterpunch.org/garcia08272007.html”:
“What I have come to realize from my entire 9/11 experience… is that the public is basically irrational…
“We are doomed. When I began writing for a public audience, my naive technical idea was that if people understood the facts, they would move out of superstition, and we ‘all’ could agree on the nature of ‘the problem’ and then it would be almost obvious what actions to take to fix it. But, people live for their superstitions. We are no better than the caricatures of natives in 1930s jungle movies, hopping about in crazed deadly frenzy because of our ‘ju-ju’.”
Cockburn is no doubt correct regarding the “political infantilism” of the 9/11 cult. The decline of orthodox marxism, while welcome in many ways, has unfortunately allowed the most extreme forms of irrationality to proliferate amongst the organised left. As with the rise the of the susperstitious grab bag of new age spiritualism following the decline of organized christianity, the gap left by orthodox marxism has to a large extent been filled by various paranoid creeds – in particular a primitivist form of lifestyle-anarchism (a trend in anarchist thought that would have been profoundly alien to the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists, say).
As for despair it is probably significant that the numbers of conspiracy advocates in the UK swelled following the invasion of Iraq. Many no doubt took the message (consciously or otherwise) from the failure of the February 15 demonstration and the subsequent demonstrations to stop the invasion that the public is politically impotent and incapable of derailing the so-called war on terror. Unlike Cockburn and Garcia, I can’t agree that the conspiracy theorists are simply irrational imbeciles incapable of valuable political action. It seems to me that while many left critics have been quick to criticize the conspiracy theorists, they have not asked how the saner sectors of the organized left have contributed to the rise of such paranoid fantasies. It is in fact hardly surprising that many took the message from the Iraq protests that the hard slog of political activism is a waste of time, since strategic and tactical issues are so rarely debated on the left, and the achievements of the anti-war movement and dissident activism more generally are so poorly articulated.
In Regime Unchanged, the writer and activist Milan Rai notes that just prior to the February 15 demonstration, the MOD, rattled by the scale of domestic opposition, hastily put together contingency plans for the withdrawal of British troops from the invasion force. How many of those who demonstrated are aware of this? How many of them are aware that while Britain’s involvement was not prevented, protest did work in other countries – most conspicuously in Turkey, usually a steadfast ally of the United States, but which refused to accede to US requests to allow an invasion of Northern Iraq from Turkish territory. How many of those demonstrators are aware that, while they did not prevent the invasion, the protests and the continuing dissidence since may have affected the way in which the war has been waged? The Iraq war has been monstrously brutal – hundreds of thousands of people, maybe more, have been killed, and the worst refugee crisis in the history of the middle east – even surpassing the flight of the Palestinians in 1948 – has been created. Nonetheless, despite the escalation of the air war the USAF have not resorted to carpet bombing urban centres (Fallujah excepted), as they did in Indo-China in the 1960s and 70s.
It is important to note that the worst bombing campaigns in history – against Cambodia, South Vietnam and Laos – occurred in large part because of the absence of public protest, which was mostly confined to the bombing of North Vietnam; the lesson being that when the public is exercising no control over the government, the brutality of the western powers is essentially limitless. For instance, it has recently been discovered that a greater tonnage of explosives was dropped by the USAF on the peasant society of Cambodia than were dropped by the western allies in all theatres during WWII including the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, making Cambodia perhaps the most heavily bombed country in history. Again how many are aware of these matters? How many are aware that there is good evidence that the American anti-war movement may well have averted the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam by the Nixon administration? How many understand that while tens of thousands may have been slaughtered by the US-backed Latin America terror states during the 1980s, that slaughter was nonetheless in a certain sense a victory, since the protest movements succeeded in preventing the US government from intevening with direct military force – which would have led to casualties on a par with Vietnam.
Most disturbingly, the concrete achievements of humanitarian dissidence are not only unknown to those new to activism (as a great many on the February 15th demonstration were) but also to many committed activists. A year after the invasion, frustrated by the failure to discuss such matters, I attempted to start a debate on the issue within the university anti-war group I was involved in. I began by asking other members of our group why we were still organizing, despite what was widely perceived to be our failure to stop the Iraq invasion. The answers I got were for the most part along the lines of “we have to make a stand – we have to be seen to be still protesting” and other variations on the “fight the good fight” theme. Few of us, it seemed, really believed we were going to effect meaningful change; few even were aware that we had achieved anything at all. It is hard to see how someone new to activism or someone disillusioned in the post-invasion period would be motivated by such sentiments, or inspired by people with so little faith in the possibility of retarding or halting war crimes. It is surely unsurprising that many drifted into the comforting arms of the 9/11 truth movement.
There is a more general point here. While much of the public is profoundly distrustful of the elite sectors of our society, their understanding of social realities is in many respects deeply distorted. In particular, though the public to a large extent perceives that it is lied to and manipulated, the methods of social control are not widely understood. An obvious example is the role of the mainstream media. There is deep distrust of the media in the UK – many are aware that the media was a handmaiden to the invasion of Iraq – continually accepting and boosting government assertions regarding Iraq’s imaginary WMD program. But while the public may be aware that they are lied to, the mechanics of the media’s institutionalized deceit largely elude them. The prime example regarding the media is the fact that the public for the most part totally misaprehends what the economic function of the commercial media is – believing as they do that the corporate press is in the business of selling newspapers to readers, when in reality they are in the business of selling audiences to other businesses.
Newspapers do not make their profits from their circulation – in fact they don’t even break even on sales alone – their profits are made from, and thus their orientation is towards, their advertisers. Knowing this factor – along with others – it becomes rather less surprising that a “free press” caters so obediently to the demands of power and privilege. But without such knowledge, it is not surprising that many instead grope towards other explanations – and the most obvious one that arises is the notion of powerful shadowy figures deciding amongst themselves what the press will say.
Another method of social control that the left does not do enough to expose is the manipulation and distortion of history. Mainstream historical narratives present history for the most part as the plane on which Great Men (and the occasional woman) decide the course of history. The nature of the dominant institutions of our society and the efforts of ordinary people to resist and change them is for the most part obscured; our culture instead reduces major historical change to a game of great personalities far removed from grassroots struggle (so Martin Luther King was the civil rights movement, Emily Pankhurst was the suffragete movement, etc). Of what little the public do learn about popular movements is a hopelessly distorted picture, the recent celebrations of the abolition of slavery being a conspicuous example – attention being focussed on famous individuals such as William Wilberforce rather than the countless participants in slave revolts and grassroots dissidence whose names we will for the most part never know. One might expect that one of the more important tasks of the left would be to counter mainstream narratives of this type. In reality, while the picture is complex, the left to a large extent reinforces this emphasis on prominent individuals. Most recently the anti-war movement has surely not done enough to emphasize the essential continuity of the Blair and Bush governments. The groups surrounding these two figures may have distinguished themselves by their extreme contempt for public opinion and international law, but again these are matters of degree – the Clinton and Major administrations, for instance, presided over the murderous sanctions regime against Iraq, which led to perhaps a million deaths above the normal; it is therefore only relatively recently that the Bush and Blair governments have approached the body count attributable to their more “reasonable” predecessors.
Britain’s imperial violence and internal failings are not the products of particular individuals – the internal structure of the dominant institutions of our society makes the appearance of murderous figures such as a Blair or a Thatcher an inevitablity, and these individuals are essentially interchangeable. Had Neil Kinnock or John Smith become prime minister, there would it is true have been discernible differences in the policies pursued – and given the power concentrated in the executive, even small differences can have profound consequences for those at the sharp end of government policy. Nonetheless, such differences remain a matter of emphasis. Regardless of who had won the 1992 election, Britain would have retained its neo-imperial foreign policy, maintaining the economic drain from the third world to the first (or rather, from the third world to a tiny minority in the first). Economically Britain would have remained a deeply unequal society, in thrall to the narrow sector of the population that is currently experiencing unheard of levels of wealth whilst one in four children are born into poverty -and as for notions of economic democracy and Self-management these would have seemed just as exotic and unlikely under a Smith or a Kinnock as under Blair and Brown. And yet despite the fact that the problems we face are fundamentally the problem of institutions that reward cruelty, dishonesty and violence, the left continues to focus its attention on the iniquities of specific individuals. If we persist in ascribing institutional violence and deceit to individual actors, we can hardly plead innocence if many, as in the case of 9/11, come to view history as the interplay of various shadowy conspiratorial cabals intriguing against the public.
ALEX DOHERTY is a member of the ukwatch.net collective, he has written for Z Magazine, Z Net and the New Standard. He is also a member of NASPIR – the Network of Activist Scholars of Politics and International Relation. He can be reached at email@example.com