Conspiracies of Dunces

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Arthur on 20 September 2007

I have to admit that I do this with some trepidation. I can already feel the assault on my inbox. But after a good long think about potential time and energy being lost by our entire community to senseless and ultimately inconsequential musings, I have to come out and say it: the alternative theories about 9-11 are wrong. Worse, the endless theorizing and speculation about trajectories, explosives, military tests, fake airplane parts and remote control navigation actually distracts some of our best potential activists from addressing the more substantive matters at hand.

Yes, I believe that 9-11 theorizing debilitates the counterculture. It robs us of some potentially creative thinkers. It replaces truly important questions with trivial ones. It marginalizes more constructive investigation of American participation in the development of Al Qaeda as well as its subsequent aggravation. And perhaps worst of all, it is precisely the sort of activity that government disinformation specialists would want us to be involved with.

9-11 theorists are unwittingly performing as the unpaid minions of the administration’s propaganda wing. (At least most of them are unpaid; no doubt, some of the loudest are working as contractors for the same agencies whose activities they pretend to deconstruct.) That’s why, instead of nodding along with their long-winded, preposterous yarns under the false belief that any critique is better than no critique, we—the informed, intelligent, and reasonable members of the war resistance—must instead disassociate ourselves from this drivel. In other words, we must draw the line between the kind of analysis done by Greg Palast and that done by Pilots for Truth. If we don’t apply discipline to our thinking, we risk falling into the trap that even some of our best intellectuals have—like Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, who on reading a bit too much 9-11 conspiracy, has concluded that it all has some merit.

I’m all for supposing. It’s how the best science fiction gets written, the best science gets speculated, the best innovations get developed, and the wildest thoughts get hatched. But forensics is a different beast. As any detective will tell you, the most straightforward solution is usually the right one. As one NYPD detective explained to me, “Nineteen hijackers took four planes and crashed them at different places: WTC 1, 2, the Pentagon and a field in PA. These accounts broadly correspond to all that was observed and heard that day, who was on the flight manifests, where they came from and what they claimed to want to do, and yet do not involve vast US government conspiracies and do not need the coordinated, perfect lying of tens of thousands of people about the mass murder of their fellow citizens and those they gave their oath to spend their careers protecting.”

True enough, these huge incidents have produced many unexpected details. The plane in Pennsylvania scattered its parts differently than we might have expected it to. Lamp posts near the Pentagon got knocked over when we wouldn’t have thought were vulnerable given the altitude of the approaching plane. Building number 7 fell hours later, even though it was never directly hit by a plane. Video photography of the collapses show the towers falling quite neatly, as if in a planned detonation.

But strange and unexpected details don’t necessarily point to the fallacy of the central premise—especially when the alternative involves the active coordination of thousands, if not tens of thousands of citizens in a conspiracy to attack the United States. We must look at what each intriguing detail or inconsistency actually says about how the crime took place. Again, in the words of my favorite member of the NYPD, “These explanations are principally based on the fatally flawed idea that any confusion or misinterpretation or differing accounts in times of crisis must be the product of purposeful lies. They neglect the idea that in crises, and when there is mass confusion, people do not have specific recollections, only general ones that are highly subjective, such as what direction a plane sounded like it was coming from. Their stories seek to poke holes in prevailing truth, yet offer no alternative that could be seen as remotely plausible.”

For example, the Pilots for 911 Truth website explains: “Why was Capt. Burlingame, a retired Military Officer with training in anti-terrorism, reported to have given up his airplane to 5 foot nothing. 100 and nothing Hani Hanjour holding a “boxcutter”. (Exaggeration added for size of Hani, he was tiny, lets just put it that way). We at feel the same as his family in that Capt. Burlingame would not have given up his airplane unlike what is reported in this linked article from CNN.”

What, exactly, is this supposed to mean? Was Captain Burlingame murdered? Or was he the willing participant in the government’s effort to sell the invasion of Iraq to America—so much so that he chose to enter into a suicidal pact? Or was the hijacker bigger than his passport suggests? Or is it implausible that a small dark man from an undeveloped country was able to overpower a big, trained, white man from a Superpower?

And that’s where I suspect all this theorizing really takes us: to the heart of a racist jingoism worse even than the triumphalism justifying our foreign policy to begin with. They can’t bring themselves to accept that our big bad government can really be so swiftly outfoxed by a dozen relatively untrained Arab guys. And rather than go there, they’d prefer to maintain the myth of American hegemony. On a certain level, it feels better to believe that we are only vulnerable by our leaders’ sick choice—not by our adversarsies’ increasing strength and prowess.

But maintaining this comforting illusion comes at a price. It paralyzes our ability to do the real work necessary to parse what is going on. I mean, on a certain level, what does it matter whether Osama Bin Laden, a CIA-trained former ally is currently acting on his own or as an operative of some covert semi-governmental organization or corporation? We can’t even begin to ask these questions when the people who might be most qualified to look into them are instead crippled by their own ethnocentrism.

The cultivation of a critically aware public is too important right now for us to entertain this silliness any longer. When a full 40 percent of the American public believes that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9-11, we can’t afford the luxury of this delusional behavior. We are the alternative to the FoxNews version of events, and we must strive to present a more responsible alternative to Karl Rove’s disinformation.

The war profiteers are absolutely delighted that so many of us are still distracted by this phantom menace. And they delight in our belief that the central government is really powerful enough to pull something like this off. I’ve been interacting with intelligence people for the past three years, going to conferences and writing articles promoting an open-source approach to national security. After these encounters, I can assure you—anyone who knows anything about our government knows that a conspiracy on this order is well beyond their capabilities. Hell, the administration couldn’t even “find” weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They can’t even reveal a Valerie Plame or fire the few remaining honest US attorneys without a complete backfire. Conspiracy is not what these folks are good at.

Our government excels at doing its really bad stuff out in the open. They break laws in order to spy on citizens, and refuse to acknowledge objections from lawmakers or justice. They take taxpayers money and give it to the companies they run. They acknowledge the many billions of dollars that go missing, and offer not even a shrug. They put the people who formerly lobbied on behalf of industries in positions running the agencies that are supposed to be regulating them.

By looking under the rug for what isn’t even there, we neglect the horror show that is in plain view. In the process, we make it even easier for the criminals running our government to perpetuate their illegal, unethical and un-American activities.

In fact, the most logical conclusion I can draw from the existing evidence is that 9-11 theorists are themselves covert government operatives, dedicated to confusing the public, distracting activists from their tasks, equating all dissent with the lunatic fringe, and provoking the counterculture’s misplaced belief in the competency of its foes.

That’s the real conspiracy.