July 21, 2008
Earlier this week Charlie Brooker generated the largest number of online responses to an article in the history of Comment is free. His theme was conspiracy theory in general and the 9/11 conspiracy theories in particular – and it collected more than 1,700 comments. Brooker thinks conspiracy theories console those who find reality too dull and complicated without the garnish of a hidden agenda: “Embrace a conspiracy theory and suddenly you’re part of a gang sharing privileged information; your sense of power and dignity rises a smidgeon and this troublesome world makes more sense, for a time.”
Brooker’s line belongs to a mini-genre of attempts to explain the public’s willingness to entertain conspiracy theories in psychological terms. Indeed he is very close to that stern rationalist Melanie Phillips, who has decided that, in the absence of religion, conspiracy theories satisfy “our desperate need to make order out of chaos”.
The conspiratorial world view does have its consolations. But so does Brooker’s. There’s a certain pleasure and drama in declaring that the world is driven by incompetence and error, and that things are more or less as they seem. You can preen yourself on how well-adjusted you are, how you haven’t fallen for that stuff about lizards, or Illuminati. You have learned to live without magic. You’re saying “I don’t believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories”, but you are signalling that you are sceptical and rational and that you don’t have personal hygiene issues. There’s a psychological pay-off for both the cock-up and the conspiracy theory of history.
Our willingness to entertain conspiracy theories is doubtless influenced by our life experiences. A man in his 20s with time on his hands is more likely to be drawn to the wilderness of mirrors that surrounds that death of John Kennedy than a successful columnist in his 30s.
But this is beside the point. Wide-ranging conspiracies do take place, whether we are inclined to believe that they do or not. It might well be consoling to believe that the CIA plots the overthrow of unhelpful foreign regimes. But it is also true. To insist that, say, the CIA had nothing to do with the fall of Guatemalan leader Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, or the overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973 might feel terrifically sensible and sane – we can’t always be seeing the hidden hand of the CIA, there’s no call for reductionism. It is also, you know, wrong.
What happened on 9/11 is, in the end, a matter of fact – whatever our worldview might incline us to consider plausible or possible. The true authorship of the attacks is as difficult to establish as anything else about the world of international terrorism and espionage.
For myself, I have no idea what happened, because I have no more idea of how the business-intelligence-political nexus works than I have about what chess grandmasters are up to when they are staring at the board, looking all thoughtful.
The attacks on the US on September 11 2001 were part of a web of events that interconnect with oil, drugs, money, organised crime, imperialism, existing institutions and us. And religion, and a lot more money.
It might feel wise and sensible to declare that any explanation that differs from the official account requires hundreds of impossibly tight-lipped bureaucratic killers. But that presupposes that we know how the world works, and we don’t.
Maybe the 9/11 attacks were all about a small team of terrorists who managed to hold it together in a world otherwise characterised by crossed wires and blundering incompetence. But I don’t know, and nor does Charlie Brooker.
The most important conspiracy theory about 9/11 rarely gets mentioned by writers like Brooker and Phillips. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq the White House made every effort to link Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida. Far from being a production of what commentators like to call the tinfoil hat brigade, this particular paranoid fantasy emerged from the work of a highly focused and skilled group of people.
They worked in secret to manipulate the American and the global public and we can trace the impact of the efforts over time. So here is a (true) conspiracy to promote a (false) conspiracy theory. The White House’s psy-war operatives were doubtless a professional and measured lot. I am sure that they knew how to behave in socially appropriate ways and enjoyed their work. They also helped pave the way for an illegal war in which more than half a million people have died. There’s a 9/11 conspiracy theory hard at work, right there. It doesn’t matter what sort of person you are, whether you are coolly rational or groping around for meaning in an indifferent world, America’s spooks conspired to stampede the public into war on a false prospectus.
Some of the same people are now working hard to convince us that Iran poses an unacceptable threat to the peace-loving nations of the world. If they can they will use conspiracy theories of various kinds to do it, all the while acting conspiratorially. So it is hardly surprising that people – intelligent, level-headed people – are willing to believe that sophisticated conspiracies exist and that they are sometimes extremely important drivers of events. Given that they demonstrably do exist.
And while elements in the American state angle for another war in the Middle East, Melanie Phillips and Charlie Brooker will doubtless continue to heap scorn on an irrational public. Which seems a little, well, paranoid, under the circumstances.