Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories

“If we are on the outside, we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme….A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It’s the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us. We are the flawed ones, the innocents, trying to make some rough sense of the daily jostle. Conspirators have a logic and a daring beyond our reach. All conspiracies are the same taut story of men who find coherence in some criminal act.”
—Don DeLillo, Libra, p. 440.

Extraordinary events, especially when government institutions and officials are involved, tend to provide rich material for those who would conjure up conspiracy theories, and enough complexity and conflicting interpretations to make them persuasive enough to many people. Ludicrous claims, such as that Israel carried out the attacks after having first warned the Jews who worked in the World Trade Center towers to stay home that day, or the charge that the highest American officials brought the horrors of 9/11 on America to bolster their popularity, surfaced soon after 9/11. Then there was the overreaction by the media over Ward Churchill, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He claimed, in a word, that the U.S. was responsible for 9/11, that is to say, that the terrorist attacks were "the inevitable result of a U.S. foreign policy that desregards the rule of law and results in massive death and destruction abroad."

The claims both of the conspiracy theories and of Ward Churchill are slanderous and preposterous. The appropriate response is to dismiss such views as beyond the pale of reasonable debate. Those who, in the context of America's war against terrorism, insist that America attacked herself on 9/11, through a list of foreign policy "failures" or whatever, only spread "inflammatory madness" which "festers...in the fever swamps of conspiracy theory."

Besides the more recent Ward Churchill affair, the foregoing examples and quotations are from Jean Bethke Elshtain's thoughtful defense of America's war against terror in her book Just War Against Terror (2003). Elshtain is particularly weary of those who trade in conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories aren't just harmless balderdash, they are part of the problem: "Those immersed in conspiracy theories are unmoved by empirical evidence or counterevidence, and they have a ready answer to every query or quandry. Because conspiracy theories proliferate on the Internet, such views gain a currency and pseudolegitimacy heretofore impossible. This too is part of the challenge we face."

"When I claim," Elshtain writes, "that changes in our policies would not satisfy Islamists, the reason is quite basic: They loathe us because of who we are and what our society represents." She calls this "basic" because it alone fits the facts: in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and his followers, Americans are "pagans," "infidels," or worse, a scourge that must be eliminated by any means necessary. To be sure, the terrorists justify their actions with reference to specific U.S. actions. But Americans would be fools to think, and President Bush, I think, is right to warn against the belief, that changes in U.S. foreign policy would cool the zeal of America's enemies. "It is reasonable to argue," Elshtain adds, "that certain changes in U.S. foreign policy might reduce the attraction of radical Islamism to many young men. It is unreasonable to assume that changes in U.S. foreign policy would disarm radical Islamism."

Elshtain's views are all the more insightful and prudent when one considers that she wrote her book well before even the threat of war on Iraq, as the American people were facing the immediate issue of Afghanistan: "Will the U.S. presence in Afghanistan suffice to prevent it from sliding back into tribal warfare or a resurgence of Islamist extremism? We do not know." In retrospect, this much anguish and uncertainty over Afghanistan may look too academic in the light of the great success the U.S. has achieved there. But in the light of the relentless insurgency in Iraq, such humility is praiseworthy.


Anti-Everything said...

Whether or not conspiracy theories have any relevance is a debate that I don’t wish to get into. But I strongly disagree when you argue that Ward Churchill’s comments concerning US foreign policy “are slanderous and preposterous” and that you grouped them in with the notion of conspiracy theories concerning 9/11.

I realize that the people who carried out the acts of 9/11 are extremists and that even massive change in US foreign policy would not change their beliefs, much like it would be difficult to change the beliefs of terrorists dead set on blowing up abortion clinics or the Oklahoma City Federal Building. But to dismiss Churchill as “slanderous and preposterous” is a great mistake.

Although changing US foreign policy would not change the willingness of extreme terrorists to do harm to Americans, a different foreign policy would have made it much less likely that a terrorist group such as Al Qaeda would have the means to do harm. I don’t think that you can deny that if the US and Saudi Arabia had not funneled between $8 and $12 billion dollars to the Mujahedeen (which later became known as Al Qaeda) in the 80’s, then Al Qaeda would probably not have had the global reach and resources that it did prior to 9/11. I feel that this is a very blatant example of how US foreign policy directly resulted in terrorist groups becoming more powerful, and when you align yourself with terrorist groups (because they happen to be killing innocent people you don’t like) then it is only a matter of time before their extreme views will come back to bite you in the ass.

Now I think that looking at examples of how a belligerent foreign policy resulted in the funding of terrorists is important, but I think that it is even more important to look at a much broader view of US foreign policy. Love it or hate it America is the sole superpower left in the world, and with this power comes a great amount of influence across the globe. The analogy can be made that the United State’s influence around the globe is similar to the influence that a parent has over a child. And much like that influence it is imperative to lead by example and not simply by rhetoric.

If, for example, a husband beats his wife, it would then be very difficult for that parent to say to his children that it is important to be peaceful and non-violent when dealing with others. When the words don’t match the actions then the words can never be seen as credible. That is very much how US foreign policy affects the rest of the world. US foreign policy talks about democracy, freedom and peace, yet look at our actions and the consistent use of violence in our policies.

One could look no further than our support for brutal and violent dictatorships and governments across the world such as Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, numerous Central American countries, and so on, or also look at our direct use of violence in places such as Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, etc. It is rather obvious that although we speak about freedom on a consistent basis our foreign policy only supports the ideal of freedom when it is convenient and beneficial to the United States; if that is not the case then we support some of the worst human rights violators across the globe.

My argument is that if US policy was consistent and the US actually practiced what it preached, then it would make it virtually impossible for terrorist groups to get as big or harbor the support worldwide that they currently do. In order for terrorists groups to receive the resources and funding they need to operate they need to have sympathy for their cause across the globe and it is my argument that finding sympathy for groups advocating the use of violence would be very difficult if the US foreign policy did not either directly or indirectly advocate the use of violence.

The best way I have heard this argument summarized was when I attended a lecture by journalist Amy Goodman. She was explaining her experience in covering the slaughter of over 250,000 people in East Timor by the Indonesian government over the past three decades. She was referring to the military funding and support the US government provided to Indonesia and how those weapons were used to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

She explained that throughout her experiences she found that there were two main views of the United States and its policies in the region and throughout the world. One was that of the “shield”, meaning that they saw the United States as having the influence to protect them from violent governments who wished to oppress them and cause them harm. The example that she used was how powerful herself and her cameraman were because since they were Americans they could stand in the way of an aggressive Indonesian military and protect them. And that this protection could be utilized throughout US foreign policy.

The other view was that of the “sword”, meaning that the world viewed us as a country that provides the means for violent governments or groups to do harm or that the United States directly causes harm through our repeated military actions across the globe.

I would argue that by drastically changing US foreign policy so that we are viewed as the “shield” as opposed to the “sword”, that this would go very far to advance the cause of world peace across the globe, and thus protect the US for terrorist attacks. And that this option would be much more favorable than our current system of reciprocating violence with more violence. By changing US foreign policy to reflect the “shield” we would be putting a halt to the endless cycle of violence that we are currently so engrossed in.

Ilya said...

In lieu of a more complete reply, let me say the following in defense of my position. You state that your chief argument is that the terrorists groups which we are now fighting would not have become as well-funded and harbored as they have “if the US foreign policy did not either directly or indirectly advocate the use of violence.” Conversely, it is the U.S.’s deployment of violence abroad that has created a violent backlash in the form of suicide bombers, etc.

There would be a grain of truth in this observation if you had made a critical distinction between terrorist methods and the methods the U.S. employs in exerting its strength abroad, as well as critical distinctions between the very different obligations under which a liberal-democratic State and its terrorist enemies stand in order to justify their actions. If you had made such distinctions, rather than just slanderously equating terrorist violence with U.S. violence, then you could have argued rightly that State complicity with terrorist methods is an important reason why terrorism continues, and therefore the best policy for States to adopt is to refuse to lend support to any group that uses terrorism. But since you didn’t make any critical distinctions, I won’t pursue this line further, but simply conclude with the words of Michael Ignatieff, from his book “The Lesser Evil”: “Yes, states can be guilty of acts of terror, but it is false to equate these with the acts of terrorists.”

As for Ward Churchill’s philosophy, which you seem to endorse, according to which (to paraphrase) “those you push will push back,” it is similarly devoid of critical distinctions. Of course terrorists have grievances against the U.S., maybe even legitimate ones. And yet, to quote Ignatieff again, “It remains essential, however, to distinguish between conceding the legitimacy of terrorism and conceding the legitimacy of grievances. One can refuse the first premise while accepting the second….[saying] that injustice prevails in the Arab states where terrorists find their recruits…is not to say that violent struggle against such injustice is justified.” There are critical questions that must be asked in assessing the morality of political violence. Without going over the evidence here, suffice it to say that the distinctive kind of terrorism represented by Al Qaeda doesn’t meet any of the ethical criteria, which is why they cannot be engaged politically and must instead be defeated militarily. Theirs is barbarism, a violence without limits, where there are no innocent civilians, no distinctions between armed combatants and defenseless women and children.