1) The Post-Millennial Grassy Knoll
The four things that have made me laugh the most this summer were parodies of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists. Just a coincidence? I don’t think so. I think it indicates two things. First, conspiracy theory-apparently embedded in the collective unconscious of the culture like a smoldering information virus-has flared up again. The hot new development is 9/11 conspiracy theory, specifically Complicity Theory-the belief the Bush White House was in league with or behind the 9/11
But even J.F.K. theory is back in the news. Did you see that New York Times story (Aug. 3, 2004) about some new computerized analysis of a Dallas police Dictaphone tape made in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963? “About a year from now,” The Times said, “one of the most vexing mysteries in American history may finally be solved: Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone?”
Which makes it sound as if the official position of the Newspaper of Record is that the J.F.K. murder case is still not quite solved. Fascinating, whatever you believe. (For the record, I’ve come to lean toward believing Oswald acted alone; I’d argue that the real grassy knoll, the iconic site of doubt, is inside Oswald’s mind, you might say-the unsolved mystery of his motive.)
I think it was on the same day The Times published the news of the new J.F.K. inquiry that I read about Stephen Hawking’s remarkable turnaround: the renunciation by the esteemed physicist of the most radical contention of his original theory of black holes. Mr. Hawking used to believe that no information escaped a black hole. Like the roaches in the Roach Motel ad, information checks in, it just doesn’t check out. But now Mr. Hawking seems to believe (to oversimplify things) that some information may emerge, although it may not exactly check out: Information may emerge damaged in some complicated way. It’s beginning to seem that the J.F.K. assassination is just such a black hole, from which only damaged information emerges.
Damaged information-a good way of describing our era: the Age of Damaged Information. Alternate name: the Age of Bad Intelligence. Still, in the face of conspiracy theories, these Weapons of Mass Deconstruction, we must subject them to skeptical investigation. The truth is not relative, even if it is elusive or even irretrievable, and conspiracy theories-particularly, now, 9/11 conspiracy theories-have begun to reach the point where they’ve generated parodies because they’ve passed the point of self-parody.
The first and sharpest parody I came upon this summer was Henry Beard’s book-length, drop-dead-funny send up, The Dick Cheney Code , which cleverly makes the connection between the Da Vinci Code craze and Bush-era conspiracy theories. The hero of Mr. Beard’s mock-novel is a hack author of Da Vinci Code knock-offs with such titles as The Pompeii Perplexity , The Rosicrucian Cryptogram , The Soros Palindrome and The Kennedy Doublecrostic .
In The Dick Cheney Code , he stumbles into a tangled web woven in part by Skull and Bones (my favorite overinflated conspiracy-theory target-see my most recent thoughts on the problem in The Observer , March 22, 2004). It seems the Yale secret society (which counts George Bush and John Kerry as members) is in league with the Bush White House to conceal a shocking secret about the origin of the Republic.
And then there’s the shrewd parody by Jeff Alexander and Tom Bissell, in the McSweeney’s humor anthology ( Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans ), that purports to be a transcript of commentary-from the “Platinum Series Extended Edition” DVD* of The Lord of the Rings -by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Sample dialogue:
CHOMSKY: This episode in Bree should cause us to ask, too, how much Frodo knows about the conspiracy … I think at first he’s an unwitting participant, fooled by Gandalf’s propaganda.
ZINN: I’m much more suspicious of Frodo than you are ….
Third parody moment: Gore Vidal’s hilariously, obliviously self-parodic appearance on Da Ali G. Show , in which nascent conspiracy theorist Vidal (who informed the world in October 2002 that he had “evidence” of the Bush White House’s complicity in the 9/11 attacks-evidence the 9/11 commission investigation somehow failed to find) is completely taken in by the ridiculously fake hip-hop interviewer act of Ali G. One would expect that someone with the sagacity to see through the whole 9/11 cover-up to the evil conspiracy beneath would be able to see through Ali G.’s deliberately preposterous guise. But no …. Not even when Ali G. pretends he’s mistaken Mr. Vidal for Vidal Sassoon and starts asking him questions about haircuts. (More about Mr. Vidal’s “evidence” later.)
In recent months, 9/11 Complicity Theory-once the province of subterranean Internet babble-has broken out and virtually been mainstreamed. “Why did Bush knock down the Towers?”: a line from a No. 1 album this summer. “Only a metaphor,” says Jadakiss, the rapper who wrote it, and no doubt this is true for him. But for a growing number of Complicity Theorists, it’s no longer a metaphor. The Bush White House was complicit with those who murdered 3,000 or so people on 9/11. According to some versions of the theory, they weren’t just in complicity, didn’t just know 9/11 was coming and deliberately let it happen, as Weak Complicity Theory has it (the F.D.R.-foreknowledge-of-Pearl-Harbor allegation model). Rather, in the Strong Version (I’m using “Weak” and “Strong” in the way physicists discuss Weak and Strong Versions of the Anthropic Principle, say), the White House was in on it from the beginning: 9/11 was an inside job. The World Trade Center has become the post-millennial grassy knoll.
2) Roswell-Level Claims
Although it shares some characteristics (lack of evidence, for one) with the Clinton conspiracy theories of fond recall, Bush complicity conspiracy theories have taken things a quantum leap further. After all, Bill Clinton only murdered a few dozen people, tops. There’s Vince Foster, of course, and the witnesses to Vince Foster’s murder, and the guys who snuffed the witnesses to Vince Foster’s murder, who later had to be snuffed to cover up the snuffing, and maybe some of the snuffer snuffers-I haven’t followed the Great Chain of Snuffing as closely as I should have. But even if you add in the handful of people Mr. Clinton had killed to cover up his coke-smuggling ring in Arkansas, you still don’t break into three figures. What a wuss! Mr. Bush killed more than 3,000 in one day.
Complicity Theory is insinuating itself into quite respectable places these days. Mr. Vidal’s theory that someone (guess who?) must have issued “stand-down orders” to ground the interceptor jets allegedly able to have stopped the hijacked planes from destroying their targets on 9/11 is now available in bookstores.
And The Nation found room for one of its valued contributors to commend a book called The New Pearl Harbor by David Ray Griffin, a new compendium of 9/11 theories which breaks new ground in Complicity Theory culture and makes some truly extreme Complicity Theory claims. Roswell-level claims.
The one about Flight 77, for instance. That’s the one YOU thought (and THEY wanted to you to think) crashed into the Pentagon. Turns out Flight 77 (the one Barbara Olsen called from) didn’t hit the Pentagon at all! The Pentagon was probably hit by a “missile” fired by an unmarked jet. And Flight 77-you know, the one that DIDN’T crash into the Pentagon? Well, it seems that it may have crashed somewhere else, maybe “in Kentucky.” (The fact that no remains of the missing airline have been found testifies to a truly effective clean-up operation.) But it might also be true that it didn’t crash, it was “diverted”-the passengers were kidnapped, in effect, and are being held someplace (Area 51?), presumably forever, so they can’t talk about not dying in the Pentagon crash. ( The New Pearl Harbor is undecided on the Question of the Missing Passengers, conceding admirably that it poses a “problem” for the Strong Complicity Theory. Maybe the missing passengers are being held in reserve to vote in Florida this November if things look close.)
And, oh yes, the big breakthrough of The New Pearl Harbor -the centerpiece of the Strong Complicity Theory, what you might call the Unified Field Complicity Theory-is the “proof” that the World Trade Center towers didn’t collapse because they were hit by the planes anyway. Again, that’s what THEY want YOU to think. The W.T.C. towers collapsed because each tower was extensively wired with explosives by demolition teams who apparently swarmed all over the buildings planting girder-melting explosives unobserved by any living (or unsnuffed) witnesses. The argument here is that the cabal behind the 9/11 attacks knew that the planes alone couldn’t cause the towers to fall. (Which raises the question: Why use the planes at all if wiring the towers for demolition alone would do the trick? Oh, wait-because the planes were needed to blame it on the “patsies.” Osama was the blameless Oswald of 9/11. And, by the way, the plane that “crashed” in Pennsylvania was actually shot down because the passengers found out about the conspiracy when they took over the plane and thus had to be snuffed.)
3) O.J.’s “Real Killers” Revealed
All those Clintonistas who demanded-rightly-that people like Jerry Falwell stop lending respectability to Clinton murder-conspiracy theories have of course spoken out against this stupidity, right? Not exactly. (Although 9/11 conspiracy theorists are now denouncing leftists and left publications for not speaking out in favor of their 9/11 theories.) Fortunately, Chip Berlet-tireless conspiracy-theory debunker for the left-minded Political Research Associates (publiceye.org)-has taken on the “evidence” for The New Pearl Harbor in an extremely thorough and persuasive refutation for anyone who takes them seriously, and The Nation ‘s David Corn has discredited a key pillar of Gore Vidal’s silly speculations. (See my critique of Mr. Vidal’s theory in these pages, Nov. 11, 2002.) I recommend you read the transcript of the debate between Mr. Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor ‘s author, and Mr. Berlet on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now Web site (www.democracynow.org), and the exchange between the two on Mr. Berlet’s publiceye.org Web site (search under The New Pearl Harbor ). Pay attention to Mr. Griffin’s contention that no one witnessed an actual airliner crash into the Pentagon (so it must have been a missile), and especially the part where Mr. Griffin defends the idea that an A.P. reporter who supposedly did witness the airliner does not exist-and Mr. Berlet proves the guy does exist. Sad.
But if you spend some time on the Web sites of 9/11 conspiracy theorists, you find a sad and angry subculture of damaged information-one that has floated so far from reality that it’s reached the point where people say anything “just because they can,” as Bill Clinton might put it. And speaking of Mr. Clinton, one of my favorite 9/11 conspiracy sites-in addition to entertaining debate over whether the W.T.C. too was not really hit by planes, but by missiles and some kind of destructive death-ray “hologram”-wanders afield to solve the O.J. murders. And at the end of a long chain of links, I learned that the “real killers” O.J. has so assiduously been seeking were hired by none other than Hillary Clinton ! Apparently the then First Lady arranged the murder of O.J.’s wife to distract attention from Ms. Clinton’s upcoming Whitewater grand-jury appearance. Good thinking, Hillary! And a milestone of sorts in conspiracy theory: the moment when Clinton and Bush conspiracy theories meet and marry.
As a longtime student of conspiracy theory, it’s been fascinating to watch the growth and embellishment of these flights into fantasy, and to speculate about what needs they serve. If one were to form a timeline, one might have to begin with the false dawn, as it were, that arose in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: the Myth of the Missing Four Thousand.
You know about them, right? The 4,000 Israelis-or was it 4,000 Jews?-who worked at the W.T.C. and were warned by the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service (which was behind the whole 9/11 plan, of course), to stay home on 9/11. It’s true that it’s been thoroughly discredited, and it’s not technically a Bush Complicity Theory, except for those-and there are more than a few-who believe that Mr. Bush is merely a zombie slave of Z.O.G., the “Zionist Occupied Government” that many conspiracy theorists seem to believe in.
The Myth of the Missing Four Thousand seemed to die down, but it has survived on the Internet and has spiked again with the McGreevey scandal, when someone named Andy Martin-who identified himself (in a press release I found on the valuable Memeorandum site) as “America’s most respected foreign-policy/intelligence analyst”-declared that the McGreevey affair was a Mossad operation somehow designed to counter the fact that “since 9/11 there has been barely suppressed anger at the fact that Israeli intelligence knew about the [9/11] hijackers and said nothing.” This is, of course, Weak Mossad Theory. Strong Mossad Theory, modeled on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion , has Israel behind it all , although I recently came across an article that advocated what you might call Super-Strong Israeli Theory, which is that the REAL MASTERMINDS want us to see through the first level of deception and point the finger at the Israelis, who are merely red-herring PATSIES to conceal the Hidden Hand of the True Conspirators. Of course, even this could be a clever Israeli plot to throw us off the Mossad trail, and so we’re back to the Missing Four Thousand.
Sometimes it’s useful to attempt to read the tea leaves of conspiracy-theory subculture for some connection to something real and hidden in the larger culture. Consider the Missing Passengers from Flight 77 and the Missing Four Thousand from the W.T.C. This fascination with Missingness. And now the Missing 4,400: I don’t know if you’ve seen that USA Network miniseries that debuted in July, The 4400 . It’s about 4,400 humans who were abducted from earth by aliens over the past half-century and have been missing for periods ranging from months to decades. Suddenly all 4,400 (any significance to that number, do you think?) are returned to earth, returned to their previous lives with no memory at all of their missing period.
Missingness: I like the concept. (That’s what conspiracy theories do, isn’t it-supply Missing Links?) We all miss someone, we all long to be missed, we all feel we’ve missed something in life. I’m misting up at the very thought of Missingness. Or perhaps the Missing narratives are secularized versions of the apocalyptic Rapture.
Needless to say, there’s a sinister as well as a sentimental side to it: The Myth of the Missing Four Thousand (Jews) is, in fact, a kind of downsized version of Holocaust denial-they are like the allegedly Missing Six Million victims of Hitler in the denier’s sick imagination.
In any event, the next milestone in the post-9/11 conspiracy-theory time line would probably be Thierry Meyssan’s L’Effroyable Imposture ( 9/11: The Big Lie , in its English translation), published in March 2002 in Paris, which first advanced the Pentagon rocket-hit theory. Mr. Meyssan’s book didn’t make much of an impression in America, although it was taken very seriously the world over, a kind of respectable successor to the Mossad-did-it theory: Bush did it. It became the dark underside of Bush-hating.
The next step was Gore Vidal’s London Observer piece, which appeared in October 2002 and gave the Great Man’s mantle of respectability to Meyssan’s “Bush did it” claims. Some Vidal sycophants who couldn’t bear any criticism of the Master didn’t understand either the logical fallacies of his argument or the focus of my critique. Of course Mr. Vidal has every right to criticize the Bush government and intelligence agencies (in my Observer piece on Mr. Vidal, I said the many incompetents in the intelligence agencies should be fired), but he’s actually doing something else: He’s accusing the White House of complicity in mass murder on 9/11. Here are his words: “Obviously somebody had ordered the Air Force to make no move to intercept those hijackings until … what?” And yet Mr. Vidal’s sycophants don’t understand either the radical nature of his charge or the lack of proof he offers.
I’m thinking of one blogger in particular who tried to hijack the reputation of Edmund S. Morgan to use it in support of Mr. Vidal’s complicity theory-and against those, including myself, who dared to criticize Mr. Vidal. The blogger left the impression that Mr. Morgan, emeritus professor of American history at Yale (I took his lecture course-a brilliant scholar who deserves better), had endorsed Mr. Vidal’s complicity theory. This is either disingenuous or a failure of reading-comprehension skills.
What Professor Morgan said in a review of some of Vidal’s fiction and nonfiction in The New York Review of Books was that Mr. Vidal offered “evidence” for his theories. But evidence is not the same as proof. As Professor Morgan was compelled to point out for those who misread or deliberately distorted his words: “I was reporting Vidal’s views, not endorsing them” (letter in the March 11, 2004, issue of the NYRB ). How embarrassing for the blogger (who failed to acknowledge it). It was like that moment in Annie Hall when Marshall McLuhan steps up to some movie-line pseud talking about him and says, “You know nothing of my work.”
The point is that not all evidence is equal; some evidence is false, some is conflicting, and some is true but misleading. And negative evidence, such as that which Mr. Vidal and conspiracy theorists like the author of The New Pearl Harbor offer us (the hijacked jets should have been shot down; because they weren’t, it wasn’t incompetence-someone must have ordered them not to be) can be the most misleading of them all.
5) The Real Story Behind Christmas in Cambodia
In part because of the absolute lack of any positive evidence for the mass-murder charge that Mr. Vidal and others were insinuating, Complicity Theory went into hibernation for nearly a year and a half, until Michael Moore reinsinuated it into the culture. While Mr. Moore was too shrewd to make as big a fool of himself as Mr. Vidal did on this issue, a subtle strain of-at the very least-Weak Complicity Theory frames his entire narrative of 9/11. Makes it seem as if the mass murder that day was something the Bush White House would have welcomed because it rejuvenated it politically. Mr. Moore begins with the cloud of illegitimacy left behind by Florida, then talks about the way everything was going bad for Mr. Bush by the time 9/11 came around. And offers the Afghan Pipeline Theory of the whole affair. Mr. Bush-or his evil associates-were happy about 9/11, if not behind it, because it allowed them to install a regime in Afghanistan that would be more cooperative than the Taliban in building a natural-gas pipeline. (So their thinking was: We want a pipeline, let’s get some Saudis to knock down the W.T.C. and destroy the White House and the Pentagon, O.K.?)
Afghan Pipeline Theory has long been a feature of 9/11 Complicity Theory, as has something else Mr. Moore focuses on ominously: Mr. Bush’s remaining in the grade-school classroom for several minutes after being notified of the second plane hitting the towers. It feeds into Complicity Theory certainty that Mr. Bush didn’t have to move, or didn’t WANT to take action, because he knew he was safe and didn’t want to interfere with The Plan. (Mr. Moore doesn’t draw this conclusion himself, but the clip he shows is cited by Complicity Theorists as “evidence.”)
Mr. Moore prepared the ground for-and has not, to my knowledge disavowed- The New Pearl Harbor , which in turn sums up and extends the work of previous Complicity Theorists, especially the French fantasist Thierry Meyssan, who pioneered the idea that a missile rather than a jetliner hit the Pentagon.
I want to make clear that I do not believe that conspiracy theories should be rejected a priori merely because they posit conspiracies. History is full of conspiracies-Julius Caesar’s and Abraham Lincoln’s assassinations, to cite two.
But it comes down to the quality of evidence. When the disparity between the absence of evidence and the magnitude and certainty of the claims based on that absence becomes so great, it becomes legitimate to speculate about the appeal of such theories. One is entitled to ask: Why the appeal of Complicity Theory?
I’d venture a conjecture here that fear has something to do with Complicity Theory-but not just fear, something well-intentioned as well. The actual people who committed mass murder on 9/11, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, are scary and committed to doing it again and again. Whatever the terror-alert color code is, our lives are not likely to return to “normal” for decades. It doesn’t take many terrorists to terrorize. This is a bitter, tragic truth about the way the world changed for everyone in America after 9/11.
Nobody likes hard, bitter truths that condemn one to a lifetime of unease, if not terror. However large and dark the conspiracy that Complicity Theory posits, one thing it means is that we don’t REALLY have to fear “terrorists” at all: We did it to ourselves. We can even vote the culprits out of office (unless they pull another 9/11 to cancel the election). Evil as George Bush may be, he’s not as scary on some level; “Bush did it” is comforting.
Another comforting aspect of Complicity Theory, at least on the left, is that if Osama and Al Qaeda didn’t do it, one doesn’t have to be hostile to a Third World person. In addition, one doesn’t have to implicate oneself in the ethically complex acts of exacting vengeance on the mass murderers. One doesn’t have to become Hamlet; one just has to get Bush out of office. A sense of ethical complexity is noble, although, as Hamlet demonstrates, it can also be paralyzing.
My friend Mark Horowitz, the magazine editor, has a theory about Bush hatred that was recently given some exposure on Virginia Postrel’s blog (www.dynamist.com). Essentially, it suggests that a certain kind of Bush hatred (not Bush criticism, but frothing, obsessive hatred) stems from a kind of sublimated fear, especially here in New York City, still traumatized by the wounds of the 9/11 attack, still targeted for the next one. A fear so unbearable that it must somehow be transferred, projected upon someone more under our control: the Daddy who didn’t protect us. If we vote Mr. Bush out of office, we can be nicer to the terrorists and they won’t interrupt our beautiful lives.
Unless, of course, Mr. Kerry’s in on it, too. In the comments section of some blog, I saw someone point out the similarities between the narrative of the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and The Manchurian Candidate . Mr. Kerry is set up as a war hero by his crew-but only by the crew of that one boat that went into Cambodia, who are fanatically devoted to him. Meanwhile, another veteran doggedly tries to prove that Mr. Kerry’s a pawn of the Communists (with Teresa Heinz Kerry as the Angela Lansbury/Meryl Streep controller). Maybe now we know why the illusory “Christmas in Cambodia” is “seared” into his memory. That was when he and all the men on his boat were captured and hypnotized, and came back hailing him as a war hero. Tracks perfectly. “Christmas in Cambodia” is only a screen memory, so to speak. Just a theory. No real evidence. But, that hasn’t stopped Complicity Theorists.