This Is Not Your Father's Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theories have been around for centuries, if not millennia. Conspiracy theories offer explanatory models of complex events to large audiences of the unsophisticated and under-educated. [1]  In the past these conspiracy theories gave us rather fascinating alternative explanations of reality or seeming realities that proved entertaining and interesting but ultimately, with a few exceptions, harmless. [2]  That cannot be said of our present era. 

September 11 conspiracy theories undermine our democratic nation's war against the theocratic forces of radical, Jihadi-driven Islam, and could prove extremely dangerous in the long run.  It is these particular conspiracy theories I wish to criticize as well as argue that they are in many ways different from most of the preceding ones. 

Like many of their predecessors, 9/11 conspiracy theorists claim a special insight into the events of that day. However, these 9/11 conspiracy theorists also say they suffer the slings and arrows of mainstream academia and media, institutions that suppress their insights by ridiculing and marginalizing them.  Of course, according to the 9/11 conspiracy theory advocates, this is no accident but rather a predictable outcome due to the extent that conspiratorial power elites control academia and the media.  Professor Michael Barkun, whose book A Culture of Conspiracy was a major source for this commentary, argues that this shunning of crackpot theories and those that promote them leads to a sense of "stigmatized knowledge" among conspiracy theorists. 

But a sense of bearing the burden of stigmatized knowledge is not the only response conspiracy theorists have in reaction to their critics.   Many simply claim that their detractors are part of the wider conspiracy, and thus like ripples in a pond, the concentric circles of a particular conspiracy widen to include more persons and institutions until nearly everyone, save for the conspiracist and his followers, is implicated.

At the risk of being implicated in this paranoid fantasy of the ever-expanding conspiracy, I shall entertain a broad, critical evaluation of the September 11, 2001 conspiracists' claims.

The charge that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were the workings of the Bush Administration, an inside job, that the World Trade Center Towers were brought down by a "controlled demolition" ( while the Pentagon was hit by a missile,  might have a lethal impact on American society in the near future.  After all, the undercurrent of the subculture of conspiracy theory runs deep, and the argument can be made that since the decline of public confidence in government that began during the Vietnam-Watergate era, many Americans have turned to alternative explanatory models, including conspiracy theory. 

The 9/11 conspiracy theories, however, are not your father's conspiracy theories in that they have occurred during a time of war in which the very future of the United States, indeed Western civilization, faces a serious challenge.  These virulently anti-American conspiracy charges are leveled against the very government entrusted to defend our nation that remains under the threat of attack from radical Islam.  And they are potentially dangerous in that many do not acknowledge the threat posed by radical Islam; in fact, many deny such a threat even exists.

The closest predecessor to the potentially dangerous 9/11 conspiracy theories is the still viable, though increasingly irrelevant conspiracy theories on President Kennedy's assassination.  Even though the JFK-assassination conspiracy theories also emerged during a period of conflict, namely the Cold War, there were so many variations, only one which blamed the American government, that the potentially seditious impact was dissipated.  JFK-assassination aficionados were and remain divided over a set of conspirators that range from the late Jimmy Hoffa to organized crime to Fidel Castro to Soviet agents to right-wing Cubans and rogue CIA officers and finally, not unexpectedly, to then Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson and military-industrial complex elites. 

9/11 conspiracy theories not only differ in their near singular, unified conviction that the attacks were self-inflicted by a venal U.S. administration, but also in their claim that America itself is hopelessly tainted by an irredeemable past and corrupted by a cabalistic power elite.  September 11 conspiracy theorists, unlike the JFK assassination ones, are virulently anti-American and often found among an eclectic mixture of extreme right-wingers, neo-fascists, anti-Semites, unreconstructed Confederates, and various types of left-wingers, New Age-thinkers, and youthful, counter-cultural hipsters both of the 1970s-era UFO-cults and the later Internet generation. 

Another example of how 9/11 conspiracy theorists differ from those of our fathers and grandfathers: Consider the charge made by American isolationists and anti-internationalist "conservatives" that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew in advance of Japan's intentions to attack the fleet at Pearl Harbor, but chose not to prevent the attack.  Note that these conspirators do not deny that the Japanese Imperial Navy's aircraft bombed Pearl Harbor.  I know of no Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory that purports the outrageous idea that American military aircraft, disguised as Japanese, actually bombed Pearl Harbor. 

Yet this is precisely what the 9/11 conspirators have done with our generation's Pearl Harbor.  Their claim that Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden were not responsible for the 9/11 attacks, but rather that the Bush Administration used explosives and military high-tech weaponry to destroy the WTC and damage the Pentagon respectively, would be laughable were it not so dangerous. Our contemporary 9/11 conspiracy theorists cannot even bring themselves to at least acknowledge the role played by young, radicalized Muslim men in the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Instead, according to the conspiracy-mongers, it was the CIA, the military, the Masons, the Illuminati, Israeli agents, and the Bush Administration that all played a role in the 9/11 attacks.  Radical Jihadis are completely absolved of any responsibility for 9/11, and in some cases, portrayed as fictional creations of globalization schemers hell-bent on establishing a New World Order, according to conspiracists.

Among the initial 9-11 conspiracy arguments were those put forth by left-wing French author Thierry Meyssan, whose L'Effroyable imposture (9-11: The Big Lie) proposes an alternate theory about what actually hit the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.  According to Thierry Meyssan, either a truck bomb or missile stuck the Pentagon.  His ridiculous account is easily refuted  by anyone not predisposed to a viscerally anti-American perspective. 

Other 9/11 conspiracy theories however, have not been so easily refuted.  They have thorough, scientifically solid refutations
that indicate among the refuters a compelling need to prevent a dangerous, crackpot theory from achieving mainstream respectability. [3]Yet these 9/11 conspiracy theories, almost all of which share the belief that the United States is a force for evil, not only persist, but flourish in the blogosphere and the Internet. Recently, a highly controversial (some say disreputable) poll of 1,010 Americans

"found that 36 percent suspect the U.S. government promoted the attacks or intentionally sat on its hands. Sixteen percent believe explosives brought down the towers. Twelve percent believe a cruise missile hit the Pentagon." [4] 
One of the more cynical conspiracists is youthful filmmaker Dylan Avery, whose website Loose Change  and Internet film, "Loose Change: 2nd Edition, an 82-minute film that can be downloaded or watched free online" [5] have made him a hero among the 9/11 conspiracy movement.  He is part of the mainstream of 9/11 conspiracy thinkers.  The WTC ultimately was brought down by explosives that had been placed inside the Towers prior to the aircraft assault, the so-called "controlled demolition" argument, and the Pentagon was hit by a missile, not a jetliner, according to this current of conspiracy thinking.  The claim that 9/11 was an inside job has eclipsed earlier 9/11 conspiracy theories that stressed the role of Israeli Mossad agents.  These initial theories argued that Israeli agents had monitored the 9/11 terrorists and were aware of an impending attack but chose to keep the U.S. government in the dark because a broader U.S.-led war against both Arab-Muslim and secular-Arab nations (Iraq for example) was in Israel's best interest. [6]
Many are perplexed by how and why these conspiracy theories have resonated with so many Americans.  While psychological motives can be considered alongside an American penchant for conspiracy theory rooted in our religious history (the Puritans, the Millenarians, certain modern-day evangelicals), the primary cause lies with the public's disenchantment with the Iraq War.  University of Florida Professor Mark Fenster, "an expert on conspiracy theory movements" cited this grievance as the motivation for many a conspiracy believer. 

Another culprit of course is the unregulated, often unaccountable Internet-blogosphere, where virtually unfettered free speech has produced a downside, namely, an opening for every conceivable crackpot writer.  In the past, such writers and their theories often were relegated to coffeehouses, salons, and obscure, dilapidated radical bookstores commonly found in college towns and or near major university campuses.  They were a fringe relegated to relative obscurity.  Today, thanks to the Internet's incredible freedom as well as reach, no toiler is condemned to obscurity but on the contrary, with some talent, hard work, and catchy writing, he can reach audiences that may range in the millions.

Like Holocaust Denial literature and websites, many of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists have generated articles, books, documentary films and websites that have the appearance of scholarly research.  They are a creative, at times ingeniously entertaining bunch, but ultimately confused, paranoid, and prone to simple explanatory modalities in which the thought of randomness frightens them. While visceral anti-Americanism motivates many of the 9/11 conspiracists, a few of the more prominent ones are driven by other motives.  Take Dylan Avery, who ultimately admits that his main goal is to become a successful filmmaker.  In the August 2006 issue of Vanity Fair, he gave this rather revealing insight into the mindset of a conspiracist:
"I started researching 9/11 and I found an article on the World Trade Center-someone had posted a picture of the World Trade Center collapsing.  And I was like, Wow, O.K.  And then you find one article and that article links to 10 others, and before you know it you're up until six in the morning.  It's crazy, the information takes over.
It wasn't supposed to be true.  And then I started realizing that, you know, we were lied to. ... You have to be a skeptic.  You can't believe anything someone tells you just because they told you to.  Especially your government, and especially your media-the two institutions that are put there to control you.  And you're going to tell me you're going to take their word for everything?  I don't think so." 
[When asked what might be the public's reaction to his 9/11 film, Mr. Avery gave this incoherent, profanity-laden, juvenile response]: 

"Second American revolution.  I really think there's going to be anger.  There's going to be a lot of anger.  I think a lot of people are really pissed off and I think that the people that aren't pissed off are going to be even more pissed off than the people that already are.  Because when it becomes irrefutable public record [sic] that 9/11 was done by our government the shit is gonna hit the fan.  People are going to get upset.  You can't stop it.  People say, Aw, we need a peaceful revolution.  We need to peacefully change things.  Trust me, that's a great idea-I'm all for it.  But Americans are violent, especially when they've been lied to, especially over something like this. So much has been lost because of 9/11-I mean, families have been shattered.  There's so much pain.  So many people have got-fucked.  It's the only way to put it." [7]
One might be tempted to call this ahistorical and hysterical rant a veiled threat.  One would be wrong.  Mr. Avery's views reflect those of the disempowered and confused, the restless youth; a film purporting to uncover a U.S. government conspiracy behind 9/11 serves as a pressure valve.  Notice his belief in hidden forces, that the media is somehow serving an ulterior end, namely mind-control on behalf of a nefarious government.  Also absent is any consideration that Al-Qaeda and the threat from radical Islam are real. San Francisco writer Cinnamon Stillwell  opined on the psychological impetus behind conspiracists' thinking:

"The underlying factors likely have more to do with psychology. Indeed, it is often said that conspiracy theories are born out of a sense of powerlessness. In the wake of Sept. 11 and the emergence of the nihilistic threat of Islamic terrorism, feelings of impotence and vulnerability were all too natural. All Americans were affected by such fears. But instead of facing the daunting truth, the Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists chose the path of denial.
Immersed in a political belief system in which the United States (and Israel) is always the bad guy and never the victim, adherents refuse to give credence to any development that does not fit this narrative. So rather than blaming the perpetrators, they fall back on familiar demons. After all, an enemy one can grapple with is much more appealing than the unknown. Such beliefs offer the tantalizing possibility that there's an explanation for a reality that all too often seems incomprehensible." [Emphasis added]
The danger to America does not stem from a "Second American revolution" as Mr. Avery speculated but in a growing public cynicism that may lead more Americans, particularly the young, to withdraw their allegiance to their country.  When so-called scholars charge their government with complicity in an enormous crime that then leads to war overseas, the stage is set either for their dismissal as crackpots or an increasing erosion of public trust in the national leadership and institutions.  In the latter, such cynicism ultimately leads to indifference, inaction, and a general decline in patriotism.  During peacetime, this might be reflected in a reduction in civic participation and voter apathy.  In wartime, this could be the difference between victory and defeat.

Notes and addendum

[1] Professor Michael Barkun argues that the essence of belief in conspiracy or what he terms conspiracy beliefs is an "attempt to delineate and explain evil ... a worldview characterized by a sharp division between the realms of good and evil."  He goes on to specify in his work, A Culture of Conspiracy, that for the purposes of clarification, "conspiracy belief is the belief that an organization made up of individuals or groups is acting covertly to achieve some malevolent end... [a] conspiracist worldview implies a universe governed by design rather than randomness." (All quotes from A Culture of Conspiracy, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, p. 3.  Emphasis in the original.)  These conspiracy theories have common themes that run throughout the ages: a belief that dark, sinister forces control the destiny of nations, peoples, and epochs; the suspicion that alliances forged between supernatural and/or extraterrestrial forces that include blood-drinking lizards from outer space, reptilian-human hybrids and normal human beings have occurred in every age; the conviction that the end time is at hand and that either it cannot be forestalled or it could be if the public were made aware of the grand conspiracy and conspirators. Proponents of conspiracy theories initially were theocratic in their collective outlook.  Satan was at the control panel of just about every conspiracy up until about the period of the Enlightenment.  Beginning around the 1700s, secular and quasi-religious-based conspiracy theories began to take root.  Their primary targets were Free Masons, the Illuminati, emancipated European Jews, especially in the aftermath of the French Revolution and Napoleonic reforms, and of course, emerging industrial capitalists and financiers. Like the ancient conspiracy theorists, contemporary ones suspect that evil forces are at work, that nothing is ever random, and that elites conspire to suppress their insights and prevent the general public from realizing the truths they have to offer.

[2] The most obvious cases of conspiracy theories that have indeed generated great harm are the anti-Semitic ones, particularly those centered on the fraudulent work, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.

[3] Perhaps the most famous of these refutations was produced in March 2005 by Popular Mechanics in a feature-length piece that later evolved into a book.  Even the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) felt compelled to issue a Web "fact sheet"  debunking the conspiracists' claims.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I once lived adjacent to NIST's main facility and research park in Gaithersburg, Maryland.  I can only imagine the conspiracists' spin: "Of course he's writing a rebuttal of our theories.  He's a paid hack of NIST!"

[4] Michael Powell, "9/11 conspiracy theorists multiply: Many Americans suspect U.S. government involvement or complicity."

[5] Will Sullivan, "Viewing 9/11 From A Grassy Knoll and "BYU takes on 9/11 conspiracy professor."

[6] This is in keeping with 9/11 conspiracy codes like LIHOP, which means "let it happen on purpose."  Others who claim the U.S. was complicit in the 9/11 attacks as part of a broader neo-conservative conspiracy and/or pro-Israeli agenda include British writer Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, whose book The War on Freedom: How and Why America Was Attacked, September 11, 2001 was well-received among the anti-American crowd and religious writer David Ray Griffin, whose The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11 has sold more than 100,000 copies.

[7] Nancy Jo Sales, "Click Here For Conspiracy," Vanity Fair, August 2006, p. 118.  It never occurs to Mr. Avery that the ones responsible for the pain and shattered lives were the Al-Qaeda and Islamist enemies that attacked America on September 11, 2001.  Such an acknowledgment would require confronting the reality of a committed existential foe, not some imaginary conspiracy which asks otherwise intelligent people to entertain the absurd idea that hundreds, perhaps thousands of pounds of explosives, wiring, and detonators were placed undetected in the World Trade Center with the intent to bring down the structures after their being struck by jetliners.  It is beyond reason to believe that somewhere along the chain of command and operation, not a single soul experienced a change of heart or perhaps leaked information pertaining to the plot.  Not one person has since 9/11 come forward and admitted he or she placed demolitions in the WTC.  If the conspiracy were true, by now someone would have come forward or been discovered by forensic investigators, unless of course the investigations into what brought down the Towers are part of the conspiracy.

Another point: The operational execution and secrecy of the conspiratorial plotters required for an attack of this magnitude is beyond the realm of fiction.  Such a conspiracy involving scores, perhaps hundreds of operatives has never been done without a single leak, defection, or early detection.  In fact, the historical record of nearly every conspiracy, especially those carried out either by the State or by individuals working against the State has witnessed the uncovering of the plot, often by leaks, betrayal, change of heart among the plotters, and pure luck by those targeted for assassination and such.  No actual conspiracy, from Guy Fawkes to Pearl Harbor (Japanese mini-sub was detected and sunk just shortly before the attack) to Watergate to even the 9/11 attacks has ever gone completely undetected or been so perfectly concealed that detection was impossible.  It was the folly of men in the cases of Pearl Harbor and September 11, 2001 that allowed the attacks to occur.  Had slightly more attention been given to reports of an enemy mini-sub being sunk by a US destroyer or of blips on the radar screen of an Army radar outpost just outside Pearl Harbor respectively, it is quite possible that USAAF and Naval aircraft could have intercepted the incoming first wave of Japanese aircraft that December morning.   Had the FBI and CIA been allowed under the law to share intelligence, had more attention been given to reports of young Arab men taking flying lessons, it is possible that the 9/11 plotters could have been stopped.  The point here is that a perfect conspiratorial operation is a near total impossibility.  To believe that something as massive as a conspiracy to bring down enormous buildings, first by staging a passenger plane assault and then following that feat with a perfectly timed, controlled demolition of those same buildings, is to believe in the tooth fairy, trolls, and hobgoblins.

Michael Lopez-Calderon lives near Washington, D.C.  His website is Calderon's Call
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