by Omar Ali
This is not a post about the great tragedy of 9-11 or the great tragedies that followed 9-11. These are just some random thoughts about some arguments that show up around this topic and that I, as a regular blogger and commentator on the intertubes, have taken part in over the years. Since most of my friends and interlocutors are westernized liberals or leftists, this is necessarily focused on arguments common in the westernized liberal world. By saying this, I hope to deflect the inevitable argument that I am “missing” or ignoring the awful, bone-chilling, sickening racism and islamophobia that is rampant on the Western right wing; or that I am ignoring the awful, bone-chilling, sickening anti-semitism and islamofascism that is rampant in the Islamist world or, for that matter, the awful, scary, racist nationalism that bubbles through sections of the Chinese intertubes. I am going to give those a miss, even though I am vaguely aware of their existence. This post is not going to be fair and balanced; It is about our pathologies (or my pathologies, as the case may be). And many of the sentences in this article are copied from previous comments and past posts.
Truthers: In some ways, the existence of the 9-11 truth movement should be completely unsurprising. Every world historical event generates conspiracy theories (and some of them are even true) and it is no surprise that the largest terrorist atrocity in US history, followed by two wars (at least one on completely false pretenses) and massive domestic spying and other illegalities, would generate many conspiracy theories. But the way otherwise intelligent and sensible people argue in support of outlandish and completely irrational theories about controlled demolitions and remote-controlled aircraft has still been a surprise and a learning experience. This is not about the claims themselves (which have been debunked in great detail on hundreds of occasions) but rather about what I have learned from arguing about them.
In no particular order:
Some (mostly white) conspiracy theorists are sincere in their beliefs. Their beliefs may seem stupid to us, but they are not malicious. They sincerely believe that some traitors in the US government planted explosives in 3 buildings in the WTC complex (why 3, why not 4 or even 7?), then arranged for 19 Arab hijackers to hijack planes and fly them into two of those buildings but not the third, then blew up the buildings AFTER most people had a chance to escape (it was nice of them to do so; they could have set off the nanothermite earlier and killed many more people, but I guess they wanted to make sure the Jews got out); they also arranged to hijack another plane to fly into the Pentagon, but then changed their mind and used a cruise missile instead. That plane was subsequently vaporized using HAARP technology in order to hide the evidence. A fourth plane was hijacked, but then, instead of flying it into a building, they decided to shoot it down in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania. After that, for whatever reason, they decided not to reveal the shoot-down. It’s all very complicated. They also made sure the non-traitor parts of the US government never got wind of the whole complicated plot. And of course, they managed to get some Arab to take credit for this atrocity and then went and shot him in Abbottabad without a trial. And the desired end result of all this planning? Trillions wasted in two wars, hundreds of thousands killed, and America weaker in the world and at home than it was in 2001. Whose interests were served and in what way? Only the elect can know the answers to such questions.
But what I want to note is that a lot of intelligent and well-informed people sincerely believe some version of this goofy account. And it does not seem goofy to them. And, to complete the homage to irony, these true believers are the very people who like to think that large sections of humanity are “sheeple”; blind, irrational “followers” who lack the ability to think critically about events. What does that teach us about human nature and rationality (not just their nature and rationality, but OUR nature and rationality)? Some people already knew, but even for us ordinary mortals, “has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker?”
But it is good to remember that in addition to the sincere believers there are also many people who genuinely consider themselves at war with America and its system of government (and economics). Such people can repeat conspiracy theories even if they know there is no evidence to support them or very little evidence to support them; these are ideologues fighting for a cause (sometimes a poorly thought out and self-destructive cause, but still, a cause). In many ways, their existence is less depressing than the existence of sincere believers who regard “loose change” as an actual documentary . These are people at war, and propaganda is an essential element of war. Whether we agree with their crusade or not, at least they have a reason to make up stories about the CIA and Mossad.
Just to be clear, here is my theory: There are several interlinked Jihadi terrorist organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan that have declared war on the US and its allies (real and imagined). This war is, in their own view, a justified response to US imperialism and support for Israeli occupation. They have the motivation to carry out terrorist attacks and have tried various smaller terrorist attacks before and after 9-11, with varying degrees of success. They arranged for 19 Arab hijackers to hijack four airliners and fly them into 3 targets and one field in PA. The operation was a team effort, put together by people including Bin Laden, KSM and so on. And I am willing to consider some additional possibilities: that some intelligence service (CIA? Mossad? ISI? all of them?) may have had (very likely did have) some links with one or more of the terrorists. That there may be more to the plan than we know. Again, I have no doubt that true-believer jihadis were involved in hijacking planes and flying them into the towers, but am open to the possibility that higher up in the scheme, there may be wheels within wheels. It’s also possible that some details about the day itself (like exactly what happened in the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania?) may turn out to be different from the official story. For the rest, I find the official narrative of the day quite plausible, right down to Bush reading the pet goat and disappearing for a day instead of presenting the heroic speech he might have prepared if Cheney had told him about the plot in advance.
And I should add that I do think that legitimate opposition to US actions abroad and at home is undermined by junk like “loose change”. The truthers have helped to delegitimize rational and valid objections to the loss of civil liberties and the rush to war.
Pakistan: The other topic that figures prominently amongst my friends is the role of Pakistan in this affair and its aftermath. The main argument here is that we are innocent victims of America’s “so-called war on terror”. This narrative also draws upon liberals in the West who have their own suspicions about their own ruling elite and serve as a rich source of talking points for the Islamist’s favorite propagandists in Pakistan.
This narrative of “we are fighting America’s war” cleverly excludes any mention of our own role in bringing this menace to our shores. That America (and not just America) may have picked on Pakistan because Pakistan’s own armed forces had worked hard to make Pakistan the world headquarters of jihadist terrorism is not accepted as a possibility. Instead, it is all entirely America’s fault. They brought the jihadis here, they dumped them on us and they left. And they are now using the same jihadis as an excuse to attack us unfairly and with mala fide intent. The “mala fide intent” is usually presented as an American desire to “steal our nuclear arsenal”, but other theories like “imposing Indian hegemony” or “protecting Israeli interests” (the last being an activity that the US has long performed at great cost to itself, so it is not a claim without foundation) is also cited.
This narrative has some elements of truth, but also misses some significant points (and is awash in the same soft racism that is found in the Western liberal view (shared by westoxicated liberals in the East) of Brown people as helpless children, being led to good and evil by their superiors in the Western world). First of all, the jihadi project was indeed a CIA project, but it was also our project from the very beginning. America wanted Russia humbled in Afghanistan, but we wanted that humbling to be done by Islamist jihadis under our control. Our leaders (specifically Zia and Akhtar Abdul Rahman) also had the “vision” to see in this an opportunity to settle scores with India and plant the seeds of a wider area of influence in Central Asia.
Second, after the CIA finished its dirty business in Afghanistan and left, “we” multiplied the jihadi infrastructure by 10. We redirected it to Kashmir and spread it throughout Pakistan. Of course the Westoxicated middle class had very little awareness of all this. These were serious things, handled by serious people in the security establishment, not shared with the rest of the country except on a “need to know basis”. But it is disingenuous to think that the multiplication of jihadi militias throughout the nineties was also America’s fault (though the US did ignore it, perhaps because they were busy with other things). Then, after 9-11 “we” (the Pakistani security services) protected good jihadis and failed to go after their indoctrination and finance pipelines, either because “we” wanted the infrastructure kept alive for future use against India or because we lack the ability or the vocabulary to challenge the Jihadists. In short, I am not buying the idea that we are simply helpless victims in this mess.
Since some of my statements above are likely to be attacked as “pro-American”, I would like to clarify that as an American, I think the US should get out of the entire region as soon as possible. Let the Chinese police Afghanistan and get their Dari-speaking special forces killed while trying to provide security for Shenyang mining corporation number 9. They, and not the US, are likely to be the main beneficiaries of any successful imposition of the neoliberal world order in that region. The American people are not going to get any tangible benefit out of this late imperial adventure and the expensive and half-hearted “nation-building” project that has been tacked on to it. Where I do not agree with many liberal friends is in my belief that if the war in Afghanistan does not fit the simple schema of imperialist invasion/popular resistance, and if US does leave soon (without stabilizing the current Afghan regime) they will leave behind a much more violent civil war and the possibility of a larger regional war as India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China try to sort out who gets what in the aftermath. In short, I don’t buy the notion that the US is a God-like entity and bears sole responsibility for everything that happens in the Universe.
Finally, the last lesson I learned from all this (already known to many intelligent people, but brought home more forcefully by experience) is that we live in a Bayesian mental universe, where our estimate of posterior probability depends to some extent on our estimate of the prior probability of this or that event. When two people start with very different priors, they can reach very different predictions. Of course, the priors are themselves subject to verification. Events will tell us what view was closer to the truth. But until then (and human nature being what it is, probably even after that) we can look at the same events and draw very different conclusions. There is no way around this. We are not all going to agree, and it is not about our knowledge of nanothermite or “national security directive X”, it is about our prior view of the world and history and human nature. We disagree because we inhabit different mental worlds, not just because we have different information about a particular event. If we keep this in mind, we can at least save ourselves much of the heartburn that results from frustration at why X refuses to see what is so obvious to me, and vice versa.