Take Off the 9/11 Tinfoil Hats
May 11th, 2006
One of the many eye-popping statements made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his letter to the President was a curious passage about 9/11 that has gone largely unnoticed by the press:
September eleven was not a simple operation. Could it be planned and executed without coordination with intelligence and security services – or their extensive infiltration? Of course this is just an educated guess. Why have the various aspects of the attacks been kept secret? Why are we not told who botched their responsibilities? And, why aren’t those responsible and the guilty parties identified and put on trial?
The messianic Iranian President is actually hinting at a conspiracy involving governmental “intelligence and security services.” Which government, he doesn’t say. But judging from statements made all over the world by characters as diverse as a former Bush Administration economist at the Department of Labor and a former German Defense Minister, the belief that the US government either had foreknowledge of 9/11 or directly participated in the events of that day is widespread and growing ever more popular.
There’s nothing new about conspiracy theories surrounding the events of September 11, 2001, other than the status of those embracing them. Within days of the attacks, Arab newspapers were discounting the mounting evidence which showed Osama bin Laden responsible, and were instead pointing darkly to a conspiracy involving the Israeli intelligence service Mossad and the CIA. This theory came complete with the rumor that no Jews died when the towers fell and that, in fact, the Israeli consulate called all the Jews who worked in the towers the night before the attack and told them to stay home from work the following day. A poll taken in Egypt a few months following the attack showed that only 19% believed al Qaeda was involved while 39% blamed Mossad. Other polls done in Arab countries show similar or even increased percentages of people who believe either Israeli or American intelligence (or both) perpetrated the attacks.
Then there is the case of the curious Frenchman Thierry Meyssan who wrote a bestselling book in Europe that posited the notion that 9/11 was some kind of “false-flag operation” – a type of intelligence campaign which, according to the tinfoil hat crowd, involves pulling off a covert action and blaming it on someone else. And what to make of the long running German TV murder mystery show that featured an episode that blamed George Bush and the CIA for the attacks?
In America, the conspiracy ball has been rolling quite nicely, thank you. Pushed along by Hollywood celebrities like Michael Moore and Charlie Sheen, as well as a very large, very vocal segment of left wing internet blogs, the theories all seem to have a couple of things in common; that the government knew about the attacks prior to 9/11 and did nothing about them and that the “whole story” of what really happened that day is being withheld from the American people.
And those are the sanest elements contained in those theories. Recently, a movie has been sweeping the internet that includes every cockamamie theory of government involvement in the attacks that has bubbled up from the fever swamps over the last few years. Loose Change would have us believe that the official report compiled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Society of Civil Engineers on why the Towers fell is utterly and completely wrong, that the reason the World Trade Center towers came down was because they were deliberately destroyed by government agents placing explosive charges at strategic points in the buildings and then detonating them in a controlled demolition.
The problem with debunking theories like those advanced in Loose Change as well as the numerous books and articles arguing for a conspiracy involving the US government, the CIA, secret societies, multi-national corporations, or the Bush family is one of time. It takes an enormous amount of time and effort to lay out the facts to refute these theories on a point by point basis.
Popular Mechanics published a notable piece in March of 2005 debunking many of the theories in Loose Change. And recently a website has been set up to specifically challenge statements and assertions in the film at odds with known facts. Another website, Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories, has links to dozens of reports, articles, and studies that directly answer most of questions raised by conspiracy theorists about the attack.
But this is just a drop in the bucket, inadequate to the tidal wave of conspiracy spittle flowing from the corners of nutjob mouths. A Zogby poll from August, 2004 revealed that nearly 50% of New Yorkers believe that the government had advance knowledge of 9/11 and “consciously failed to act.” Clearly, there is much work to do if the truth is to survive another generation concerning the real conspiracy involving Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the evil men who deliberately set out to execute a detailed plan to murder nearly 3,000 innocent Americans. Future generations will not understand who attacked us on 9/11 and why unless we do a better job of replacing fantasy with fact.
The recent release of the film United 93, which is enjoying modest success at the box office, shows that there is a hunger for the real story of what happened on 9/11 to become part of our national narrative. Hollywood is uniquely suited to this task as films like U-93 allow us to revisit history without the concomitant shock of experiencing the event for the first time. Not only does folding the story into our history remove the event somewhat from the realm of politics, it also allows for a kind of reflection and study that isn’t possible as long as the event is considered “news.”
Like other events that have loomed large in our past – such as the Battle of the Alamo or the Battle of Little Bighorn – a fair amount of myth-making will probably be passed down in the retelling of 9/11 stories. But the problem with 9/11 and all of the conspiracy theories being generated is that there is a real danger that myth will stand in for facts. The true nature of the evil done to America on that day will disappear down the rabbit hole.
Will it be important 50 years from now to remember the courage of the passengers of Flight #93 or will there still be debate about whether an Air Force jet shot her down?
The only comparably conspiracy-laden event to in recent history was the Kennedy assassination, an event almost as traumatic as 9/11 and one that has generated a $2 billion conspiracy industry of books, films, tapes, DVD’s, not to mention numerous seminars, forums, and even a conspiracy museum where for $10 a head you can take a tour through some truly bizarre postulates concerning the assassination. The event itself, fading from memory, has been memorialized by Hollywood in one of the strangest, most intellectually dishonest films ever made; Oliver Stone’s JFK.
Stone’s great skill as a film maker was used to combine a half dozen different conspiracy theories into one gigantic tissue of lies, half truths, misrepresentations of known facts, and a calumnious attack on President Johnson who was dead and hence unable to defend himself. Stone’s main character was New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, whose out of control investigation and trial of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw for the Kennedy assassination is one of the most bizarre chapters in the history of American jurisprudence. Garrison’s successor Harry Connick, Sr. called the Shaw probe
one of the grossest, most extreme miscarriages of justice in the annals of American judicial history.
Connick told this directly to Mr. Stone, but it did not deter him from making his film. In fact, Garrison himself played Chief Justice Earl Warren in the film, a truly macabre touch by the filmmaker.
The damage done by Stone and the other conspiracy muckrakers is that they make little or no effort to give any context to their theories. Hence, they can portray history any way they wish. If they want to show that Kennedy was killed because he was going to bring American troops home from Southeast Asia or because he was going to cut the defense budget, they can get away with it because few people today have the critical thinking skills or historical knowledge necessary to question those base suppositions.
And the truly alarming fact is that 70% of Americans under 30 years old believe that JFK gives a true representation of the facts surrounding the assassination. Conspiracy mongers like Stone can have a huge influence on people’s attitudes toward history. What do these younger Americans think when they read something that contradicts Stone’s fantasy? It would be interesting to interview someone who takes Stone’s movie as gospel after having them read William Manchester’s masterpiece Death of the President.
One could envision similar problems with the generations born after 9/11. The horror and tragedy of that day could end up being subsumed by questions about whether or not the buildings were sabotaged, or whether the Pentagon was damaged by a truck bomb, or if the entire incident was one gigantic government conspiracy to insure the re-election of George Bush.
We cannot let that happen. Considering that the War on Terror will probably be a generational conflict, we owe it to our children and grandchildren to keep what really happened on 9/11 from sliding away into the muck of conspiracy and fantasy. Otherwise, we run the risk of forgetting why we fight and why we must win this war.