Despite an instinctive skepticism about all official explanations and reports, I don’t believe a word of the extravagant 9/11 conspiracy theories currently breeding and mutating all over the Internet. The controlled demolitions. The missile instead of the plane hitting the Pentagon. The secret command center at 7 WTC that guided the planes into the towers and was later blown up with the whole building to destroy the evidence. The 19 Arab hijacker impersonators who are still alive someplace. And so forth. Refuting each conspiratorial point in detail is coals to Newcastle, since they are all being thrashed out on dozens of websites and they are all open to a general objection. They assume a mastery of elaborate planning and split-second timing, plus an ability to keep quiet about it, on the part of the Bush administration, which has otherwise been distinguished by its eminent incompetence, an almost uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot.
In all such fantasies, including those of Noam Chomsky, high-level government officials, or at least the shadowy masterminds who are secretly calling the shots, are incapable of miscalculation, self-deception, and blundering. There’s never a false step in the hegemonic master plan put together by our omniscient, omnipotent behind-the-scenes Svengalis. It’s really a kind of inverted patriotic self-congratulation. Our American ruling class is, like, so totally awesome. All the other imperial juggernauts, in the whole of human history, suck by comparison. Nobody’s as good at bad stuff as we are. We’re number one! USA rules!
But American foreign policy is what it’s always been, a mix of compulsive meddling, oblivious idealism, hallucination, hypocrisy, clumsy scheming and lurching, impatience and inertia. In the months before Sept. 11, 2001, Bush, Cheney, Rice, et al. were warned repeatedly by France, Russia, Jordan, and other foreign intelligence services, along with alert agents in the CIA and FBI, that al Qaeda was up to something, something big was about to happen, and they did nothing. Were they distracted, dismissive, deluded, dumb? Probably. Were they secretly hoping that something might happen, thinking it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as it turned out to be (but just as useful)? Possibly. (There’s the arguable precedent of FDR and Pearl Harbor.) Once the attacks occurred, did a zealous pro-war faction in the Bush administration make cynical and conspiratorial use of them to accomplish its own pre-existing agenda? Definitely. Was the pre-existing agenda (invasion and occupation of Iraq) then carried out with characteristic self-sabotaging cluelessness? Absolutely. And has the Bush regime’s whole Middle Eastern policy manifested a relentless simpleminded idiocy completely incompatible with the subtle, intricate conspiratorial genius attributed to it? Sure looks that way.
Conspiracy theories satisfy basic human cravings. Everyone likes to solve bafflingly complex puzzles and mysteries, picking up overlooked clues, noticing discrepancies, studying blurred photographs, outwitting the inept cops whose case is full of holes and who probably fingered the wrong suspect. That’s why detective novels are popular, and on Planet of the Conspiracies everybody gets to be the hero of one. Everybody equipped with a magnifying glass, a collection of newspaper clippings, and an obsession. So just when it looks to all concerned like the butler (or the jihadist) did it, you announce the gasp-inducing solution.
And every time history takes another wrong turn, it’s reassuring to think that some purely evil comic-book villain (or cabal of villains) is steering it. Conspiracy theories, labyrinthine in form, are simple in substance. Both the 9/11 conspiracy cranks and the Bush administration axis-of-evil neocon cranks illustrate the point. It’s like the mad Emperor Caligula wishing that all his rivals and enemies had one head, so he could just chop it off. The cranks try to grab hold of history hoping to slice off its head, but like the Hydra it just grows a couple more. History isn’t the movie that all the popcorn-eating conspiracy buffs want it to be. It isn’t a conspiracy suitable for unraveling. But it does contain a lot of unraveling conspiracy theories.