“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.