Away from the gaze of mainstream media and politics, there is a vibrant subculture which holds these very institutions responsible for the most heinous acts of brutality and deceit. It is political movement that, in size, likely dwarfs anything that might traditionally be labelled ‘radical’. The numbers in its ranks are impossible to know, but the youtube videos through which it channels its messages receive hits in the millions, as do the multitude of websites around which it is organised. The level of popular acceptance of some of its key tenets are known however, and they are striking. An Ohio University poll in 2006 found that a third of American’s believed the events of 9/11 were in some way abetted by the federal government, about the same percentage of American’s that voted Bush in for his second term two years earlier. Amongst young adults polled, those believing the official account of what happened on 11th September 2001 were actually in the minority. The ‘Truther’ movement, as they call themselves, is an elephant in the halls of power; a mainstream radical movement.
For those who are used to occupying the fringes of political thought, these are astonishing figures. Truthers do not limit themselves solely to the events of one day in September either; under the New World Order (NWO) mantle they have assembled a dense scaffold of conspiracies encompassing all the major events of modern history, the current economic troubles included. The mainstream media’s unwillingness to report this phenomenon is perhaps understandable. Their discomfort in dealing with Truther groups should be no surprise, for Truthers hold dear assumptions that deny the media establishment its legitimacy. The reliance of the media on ‘official’ sources of information – politicians; security services; lobbyists; PR spokespersons – all are, by definition, rendered suspect by conspiracists. The media organisations themselves are too a part of this self-serving elite whose interest is not in justice or truth, but merely the promotion of the status quo.
In this, the Truther movement has much in common with other radical political movements, yet the radical should be careful of celebrating the success of it. Whenever one stops to consider the apparently concrete walls between the concepts by which we order society, one quickly finds the immutable to be nothing more solid than sand. Such is the case when separating the different systems thorough which we create, and act upon, knowledge. A religious church can quickly become a political movement; a political idea rapidly transformed into a scientific fact. Watching celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins, haranguing a Christian with fevered conviction as only a man witness to the One Truth can, one quickly beings to question who amongst the participants is the man of reason, and who the religious fanatic.
The appearance of the Truther cause as a political movement is similarly fluid. At the heart of all Truther accounts is, it seems, an overarching, invisible, omnipotent elite, engineering building collapses as easily as they engineer global economic collapse (of which they are also accused). These superhuman individuals appear to be gods in all but name. Truthers readily engage in scientific analyses of the events of 9/11, yet such is the power and reach of the controlling elites, that any evidence contradictory to the Truther can be dismissed as lies, its proponents mere pawns of the powerful. In light of these characteristics, the Truther movements appears more as a secular, scientific religion.
We live in a time when mainstream political ideology encompasses nothing more inspirational than ‘triangulation’ and the race for the middle ground. Radical politics, meanwhile, is hamstrung by the complexities demanded by the numerous challenges it finds itself in opposition against. This at least in part explains the refusal of the Occupy movement to elect spokespeople. The Truther movement is different however. The young, angry and inquisitive are easily drawn to revolutionary political movements, but here there is no abstract, nebulous ‘system’ tackle; no ghost to try and hurl one’s self against. Here, the bad guys are easily identifiable, for the secrecy in which they operate is paradoxically no barrier to their unmasking, whether it be the Bilderberg Group, Illuminati, Elders of Zion, or any of the other shadowy actors leading the march of the NWO. For such individuals, the Truther movement offers the authority of science and the certainty of religion to create a compelling ideology, and so its success in drawing activists away from more traditional radical movements is unsurprising. It has no need for the difficult questions of what should come instead of the status quo, for it only exists in opposition to what is. To offer answers to such questions would seem impossible, for the political and economic landscape which the traditional radical seeks to challenge is here rendered nothing more than a puppet show, a shadow on the cave wall. The true power is unseen. Furthermore, and of particular worry to the radical, in its invocation of adversaries of supernatural ability, it serves only to entrench the established order. How does an individual even begin to challenge a group capable of orchestrating what these elites are accused of, a group which exists outside the reality of mainstream culture, and so beyond its reach?
Truther accounts of 9/11 feed on any perceived coincidence, mistake or unknown. Why was the US airforce running war games on the day of the attacks which confused efforts to respond to the hijacks? Why did the towers fall as they did, and when no skyscrapers have previously collapsed due to fire? Why was so little debris visible at the Pentagon crash site? The key assumption underpinning these questions, as one might expect from a religious account, is that complete knowledge of an event is possible, and that everything happens for a reason. There is little sign here of postmodernism; of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, or of Chaos Theory’s irreducible complexity. Instead we have only the ordered execution of labyrinthine plans. That many Truther explanations are in themselves more incredible than any official version seems to go unremarked. Is an account in which the towers were secretly wired with explosives really more plausible than the version which holds the impact of jumbo jets laden with fuel responsible for the collapses?
The actual specifics of Truther claims of 9/11 are more multifarious than is possible to detail here. I myself cannot claim it impossible that elements of the US security services had foreknowledge of the attacks, and chose to let them happen to further their ideologies, or – more likely – mistakes were made that have since been covered up. This is, however, a world away from the idea of a fully orchestrated ‘inside job’, and the superhuman elite required to achieve such a feat. Regardless, I am more of the opinion stated by Chomsky: that in a sense it doesn’t really matter if 9/11 was an inside job. The conspiracy claims will never be satisfactorily answered, and merely distract from what we do know, which is that the Neo-Conservatives exploited the attacks to pursue their policies with lethal conviction for seven disastrous years, whilst a supine media did little more than flag-wave from the sidelines. Besides, as Adam Curtis’ Power of Nightmares shows so well, ultimately there is little more to separate Neo-Con statesman from Al-Qaeda operative than conventions of dress, and more comfortable living arrangements.
There is, however, one particular element of the 9/11 attacks that does stand out from all the smoke and debris of that day. Over a decade on from the attacks, we still await the release, by the US government, of footage showing the plane hitting the Pentagon. Given that this is one of the most secure facilities on Earth, one would imagine that such footage must exist. The 2006 decision to show the comically ambiguous two frames of footage from a nearby carpark security camera, which may or may not show the nose of Flight 77, only adds to the confusion. It may be that this is evidence, as Truthers state, that it was in fact a missile, not a plane, that struck the Pentagon. More likely, the US security establishment is unsold on the idea of showing the world its most potent symbol being struck a fearsome blow by a group of Muslim fanatics armed with Stanley Knives. If so though, why release even the peek-a-boo footage?
There is a third explanation for the non-appearance of these tapes, which brings us conveniently full circle. That some clear sighted individuals in the halls of power recognise that the Truther movement is a dead end, a useful sideshow with which to distract those most sure to be its critics. Truthers are of course no homogeneous entity – there is no single Truther account, and there is no archetypical adherent. The Ohio University poll found though that “Members of racial and ethnic minorities, people with only a high school education and Democrats were especially likely to suspect federal involvement in 9/11.” One more easily associates these groups with radical than Republican politics, so why not allow the disaffected to disenfranchise themselves? Hand them the means to convince themselves of the unerring control with which you orchestrate events, whilst you in truth ham-fistedly bumble from one crisis to the next.
We have then a conspiracist conspiracy, designed to both depoliticise potential radicals, and leave them so far outside the mainstream that they are considered untouchable. Indeed following the Iraq War we have already seen a similar process take place in the UK with Muslims, where for years the political and media establishments have sought to blur the boundary between radical politics and terrorism, the ‘Nottingham Two’ being just one example. A similar story can be told of environmental activists, and the surveillance of their democratic activities by police FIT units.
Unlike other theories, the conspiracist conspiracy does not require a God-like marshalling of events by the state security apparatus, only a breathtaking level of cynicism.
It’s still pretty farfetched, but hey, it’s more plausible than the missile theory.
Murray Goulden has a background in sociology and STS, and is a Research Fellow at the Horizon Institute, University of Nottingham. Having written his PhD on scientific and popular constructions of human ancestors (‘missing links’), his current (eminently more fundable) research interests concern energy and transport in the context of climate change and emerging digital technologies.