While you here do snoring lie
His time doth take.
~ William Shakespeare, The Tempest
I have lost my sense of humor to indulge those who reflexively deny the role of conspiracies in human affairs. In the months following 9/11 — and most strenuously in the days leading up to the fifth anniversary of this event — conventional thinking has dictated that commentaries on that atrocity carry the disclaimer u201CI am not suggesting a conspiracy.u201D It seems to be understood that entrance to the temples of respectable journalism, academic scholarship, or polite society would be denied anyone who transgressed this canon.
It is not that a speaker must refrain from expressing any particular conspiracy theory to explain troublesome occurrences: one must avoid the implication that any form of human behavior might be directed or influenced by conspiratorial forces. To even consider the possibility that a given event might have been produced by a conspiracy, is to run the risk of being labeled a u201Cparanoidu201D or a u201Cwacko.u201D As we have no desire to appear foolish in the eyes of others, we give in to such intimidation and preface our opinions with the aforesaid mantra.
How easily most of us sell out our intellectual integrity, and at distress-sale prices. Even men and women with excellent minds who should know better have collapsed in the face of such a charge. Do we have such a fear of our own minds that we can no longer stand up to the epistemological inquiry that is at the base of our character and intelligence: how do we know what we know? Upon what basis do we form our opinions about the world: the consensus of our neighbors, or our independent judgments?
Any intellectually respectable opinion must be well-grounded in empirical fact and rational analysis. I have no use for those who spin conspiratorial theories out of little more than fantasy, wishful thinking, or the failure to distinguish a temporal relationship from a causal one. The assumption that because event u201CXu201D occurred, and was followed by event u201CY,u201D a causal connection has been established, is among the shabbiest forms of reasoning. One might just as well argue for the proposition that wet sidewalks cause rain. In fact, I have no use for conspiracy theories at all, preferring — as my late friend, Chris Tame, so well stated it — to focus attention on the facts of conspiracies! As annoying as those are who offer lazy, simple-minded explanations for complex events, I am far more aggravated by those otherwise intelligent souls who help to man the barricades of ignorance against honest and empirically-based inquiries into topics they have been told are beyond rightful questioning.
As the events of 9/11 continue — like a monster movie — to provide us with fear-ridden entertainment, let me use them to illustrate my point. There have been numerous DVDs, articles, books, and other works that challenge the government’s u201Cofficialu201D explanations for these attacks. While some of these presentations test one’s credulity, others have provided purported evidence which, if true, would lead intelligent minds to demand further investigation. To say this, however, is not to give credence to any particular theory that one might offer as a counter-explanation to the u201Cofficialu201D one. It is only to suggest that a further examination might be merited.
To ask empirically based questions is not to make an accusation, but only to pursue the u201Ccui bono?u201D question as a point of departure for uncovering wrongdoing. When a government official was murdered in ancient Rome, it was customary to begin the investigation with that question: u201Cwho benefited?u201D My wife and I are fans of the Inspector Morse television mysteries produced by the BBC. In a recent rerun, a man was murdered, and the first question out of Morse’s mouth was u201Cwho stood to benefit from this man’s death?u201D
The answer to the u201Ccui bonou201D question does not necessarily identify the culprit, but it is a very rational place from which to begin asking questions. To be a suspect is not to be accused. If a woman is found murdered, her husband will probably be the first one interviewed by the police in an effort to find her killer. If the victim had a one-million dollar insurance policy on her life, with her husband as the beneficiary, this will add to the intensity of the investigation. This does not, of course, prove that the husband was responsible for his wife’s death, only that it is sensible for the police to intensify their inquiry as to him.
I spoke to a young college student the other day. He informed me that he had asked his political science professor whether he thought it possible that persons within the United States government might have been involved in the 9/11 attacks. His professor adamantly denied even the possibility, saying that American government officials were too decent to ever do such a thing. Is this what passes for u201Cscienceu201D in the study of government?
If this academician is prepared to be disabused of his delusions of faith in political systems, he might want to go to u201CGoogle,u201D and enter the phrase u201COperation Northwoods.u201D Numerous entries will appear, with the first one — from Wikipedia — providing, perhaps, the greatest amount of information on this 1962 scheme by leading Defense Department officials. The plan was to have terrorist acts committed in various American cities — including Washington, D.C. — in which people would be shot; bombings would take place and planes hijacked; while u201Cevidenceu201D would be fabricated implicating the Castro regime with such acts. One proposal in the plan called for the destruction of an empty drone plane — which, people would be told, carried American college students on a holiday. All of these contrived u201Cattacksu201D would then be used as a justification for an attack on Cuba. This plan had the written support of all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including its chairman.
That top U.S. government officials could concoct such a deadly plan as a pretext for war in no way proves that 9/11 was a similarly contrived event. What it does do, however, is strip away some of the high-school civics class veneer of the state that leads most Americans, including the aforesaid political science professor, to dismiss in knee-jerk fashion and without any felt need to examine the evidence, the idea that their government could engage in such calculated wrongdoing. In light of the lies, forgeries, cover-ups, and other deceptions leading to a u201Cwaru201D in Iraq, how can any intellectually honest person categorically deny the possibility of the involvement of American political interests in 9/11?
I want to emphasize, again, that I am not even suggesting that persons other than Al Qaeda operatives were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. I know of no evidence sufficient to sustain such an accusation. I am, however, suggesting that a number of critics of the u201Cofficialu201D explanation have offered enough thoughtful evidence and factual analysis to warrant a thorough investigation of these events. The inquiry should be conducted by competent men and women with no preconceived agenda — whether as defenders or critics of governmental behavior — and without fear of asking any and all empirically related questions. Were he not a fictional character, I would insist that Inspector Morse — with his u201Ccui bono?u201D disposition — be made chairman of the investigatory group.
For such an inquiry to have meaning, it must be accompanied by a widespread change in current attitudes that make most Americans unwilling to consider the possibility of u201Cconspiraciesu201D directing events. Such a nave mindset reflects an ignorance of so much of human history as to be embarrassing. The role of the u201Cagent provocateuru201D — which found expression in the Operation Northwoods plan — is much better known to Europeans, whose political histories are replete with well-established in-house scheming.
To help my American neighbors get beyond this anti-conspiratorial brain-lock, I proclaim that the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were, indeed, brought about by a conspiracy. Any who deny this are invited to explain why the World Trade Center buildings no longer appear on the New York City skyline! Unless one is to offer the state’s favorite u201Cone-lone-nut-with-two-commandeered-airplanesu201D as the causal explanation, it seems quite evident that these attacks were brought about by at least two persons, thus constituting a u201Cconspiracy.u201D The next question is whether the conspirators were of Al Qaeda or other as-yet undisclosed origins or, perhaps, a combination thereof. One could contend that these occurrences were the products of nothing more than random accidents; a bad day for airline pilots who could not keep from plowing their planes into buildings. But even such a far-fetched explanation implicates a conspiracy, as many persons in both the government and the media went to great lengths to inform us that these were planned attacks.
What forces were responsible for the crimes of 9/11? Admittedly, I do not know, nor am I prepared to transform my skepticisms into accusations. Perhaps it is the lawyer in me that has this strange attraction to evidence as the basis for my empirical judgments. In employing the u201Ccui bono?u201D test as a point of departure, I find only two groups which, in Inspector Morse’s question, seem to have benefited from these attacks: (1) Al Qaeda, and (2) the United States government. Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden have become a major political force in the world, in large part due to the Bush administration’s violent reaction to 9/11. But the American government — with its expanded police and military powers, increased military spending and the creation of new weapons, and the popular acceptance of the idea that people can be held, indefinitely, without trial — has benefited from this event by greatly expanding its powers. 9/11 was the product of a conspiracy, the only question being: who were the conspirators?
But as with a murder investigation, that one has benefited from a crime does not prove one’s causal role in it. It is important that this critical distinction continue to be made. Suspicion and guilt are not synonymous words. At the same time, however, intellectually respectable thinking demands a willingness to pursue any inquiry wherever it may lead. There is far too much at stake in our world for any of us to take comfort in our institutionally-certified ignorance by pulling the blankets up over our heads so that we not see the bogeyman.
But there is another factor — what I call u201Cexistential courageu201D — that must remain at the forefront of our efforts to live as human beings, rather than as servo-mechanisms to the institutional order. What kind of people are we that we should lay our liberties, property, and lives — including the lives of our children — at the feet of rulers, to be disposed of in any manner that suits their momentary temperaments? What have we become that we regard any questioning of this arrangement as the products of u201Cirresponsibleu201D or u201Cparanoidu201D minds? Why should free and energized minds be fearful of asking any questions, particularly those we have been told it is improper to ask?
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.