Looking beyond ‘pluralistic consensus’[i] while avoiding the ‘Paranoid Style’[ii].
It is all too easy to write off as ‘conspiracy theorists’ those who question their government and mainstream media explanations of historical events, particularly when they conflict with the current interests of the government. Control and influence over the sources of evidence mean many who question the ‘official’ explanations need to resort to circumstantial or other less than first class evidence.
It is problematic for historians and political scientists in the academic world to resort to this kind of evidence. To develop an argument with anything less than first class substantiating evidence is unacceptable by any scholarly standards – especially when such argument is likely to change the perspective and interpretation of an historical event. Rather than risk ridicule, the academic is more likely to either go along with the official line, particularly if it has become one enjoying pluralistic consensus, and construct an argument that is confined within the available ‘evidence’ or simply avoid debate and argument until such time as first class evidence does become available. Until such time, evidence, which consists of official government statements or explanations, and the argument of qualified commentators, are all that the historian or political scientist has to work with.
The problem here, of course, is that the official government explanation of an event, or series of events, may, for usually political purposes, be an untruth. Everything that is construed from it, after accepting it as being a wholesome truth, will become irrelevant after it has been discovered to be an untruth. Its very irrelevance, however, then becomes relevant to the academic because then the question must be asked, why the fabrication in the first place?
We live almost daily with the media telling us about ‘cover-ups’ and ‘lies’ by government, businesses and all manner of other institutions. But there is still an all but blind acceptance of what we are told as being wholesome truth until it is proved otherwise. For the historian and political scientist, even when there is doubt, intuitive or otherwise, about a government-endorsed official version of events, there seems to be little alternative but to accept it as a truth until such time as it is proved otherwise. When the government-endorsed official version of events is backed by what we are told is evidence, though that evidence cannot be produced, for example, for ‘security’ reasons, the academic is almost obliged to accept it as ipso facto – the evidence does exist though we are not allowed to actually see it. Wily intuition based on years of experience is only useful for journalists who can, and often do, take a small step outside of the square of pluralistic consensus without fear of ridicule. The journalist, by virtue of the profession, does not have the same constraints as the professional academic. The professional academic must remain within the constraints of available evidence. To do otherwise steps outside the square and into those areas fraught with danger.
The problem for the academic is compounded by the fact that the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has mutated into a derogatory form. To be called a ‘conspiracy theorist’ today is verging on being insulted. Yet, in the main, such derogatory use of the term is confined to those who are either defending the expounding of the original line or who vigorously support it. Those that expound the official story are those most likely to use the term in a derogatory fashion. For example, the opening line in the ‘Concluding Observations’ of the ‘Government Members Report of the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident’, the government’s report into the ‘children overboard affair’, is: “Conspiracy theories will always hold a morbid fascination for some. The truth is almost invariably more prosaic.”[iii] And this, with far more rhetoric negativity, from President George W. Bush in his radio address to the American people on 10 November 2001: “We expect nations to speak the truth about terror. They shouldn’t encourage malicious lies and outrageous conspiracy theories concerning the attacks of September the 11th. No government should promote the propaganda of terrorists.”[iv] The message was similarly reinforced later the same day as he addressed the UN General Assembly when, in his maiden speech as US President at the UN, he told the world: “We must speak the truth about terror. Let us never tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories concerning the attacks of September the 11th; malicious lies that attempt to shift the blame away from the terrorists, themselves, away from the guilty.”[v]
The President’s comments, made only some eight weeks after the events of 11 September and coupled with the prevailing climate of shock and anger, set up the pluralistic consensus of the official explanation for the those events. In the US, only the very brave would suggest alternative explanations for the events of 11 September. To do so would be regarded as un-American, unpatriotic, and even treasonous; such was the strength and extent of pluralistic consensus accepting the official line.
Yet now, during the first months of 2003, the then unaskable questions are being asked. The initial anger and shock has subsided. The images of that horrific day have become distorted and vague, except when we are occasionally reminded of them on the TV and even then there is a certain ‘unrealness’ about them. When we first saw those images, the questions we asked were understandably highly subjective – How? Why? Who? Today, however, many are asking the same questions, the difference being that they are being asked objectively and with an expectation of objective answers.
However, the kind of questions we can ask now still need to be framed within that pluralistic consensus that dictates the extent or level of debate. Some feel there is still a degree of political correctness that needs to be carefully observed. One needs to be aware of other’s sensibilities. There is a wish to avoid offence. For academics, while the ‘square’ may have enlarged, there is still the need to remain within it.
We need to start by asking how the ‘square’ was enlarged. How was the enlargement initiated and by who? Will debate within the enlarged ‘square’ offer potential for further enlargement? Then, will the process repeat itself until such time that debate becomes completely open and the ‘square’ that framed the original consensus all but disappears?
For the initial, and most subsequent enlargements of the ‘square’, academics almost invariably need to rely on journalists to get the debate going, particularly those within the mainstream media. Once it is in such a public forum, academics can commence open debate freely and without fear of ridicule, provided it remains within the square enlarged by the journalists’ comments.
For the sake of the argument presented in this paper, the events of 11 September and some of the theories that have evolved from them will be used to demonstrate the way in which academics could deal with such theories in order to arrive at objective conclusions that may be contrary to pluralistic consensus. 11 September, for most people, was an attack out of the blue, both literally and metaphorically. It was massive, spectacular, terrifying, hugely destructive and demoralising. The initial shock of the attacks reverberated around the world almost as it was happening. Within hours, the world was told that this act had been committed by extremist Muslims, masterminded by Osama bin Laden and carried out by members of his al Qaeda terrorist organization. An enraged western world was quick to seize the official line. Anger, particularly in the US, needed to be vented. Vengeance was called for and the ‘war on terrorism’ was quickly declared. Many nations joined with President Bush in his new war and soon offered their support. But, in the midst of angst and the rush to get on Bush’s ‘war against terrorism’ bandwagon, the questions of ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘who’ were never fully explained. Once the world had been told ‘who’, the ‘why’ part of the question was taken for granted. For most, the explanations as to ‘how’ - because the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ components had become fait accompli - became incidental and was only relevant for purposes of prevention of similar acts in the future. The fog that dampened forbidden whisperings of anything that remotely smacked of divergence from the official line soon drifted and spread from the US and permeated around the Western World. Debate was “…censored by governments, muffled by a compliant media and accepted by numbed, distracted and acquiescent societies.”[vi] Blame had been apportioned and action was being taken against those blamed.
It seemed all so tragically straightforward. But it was not to be. There are those who will risk ridicule and who persist in questioning the generally accepted pluralistic consensual version of events. It was not long before the ‘conspiracy theorists’ began to churn out their ideas on the Internet. Their ideas hit massive audiences instantly. Outrageous conspiracy theories indeed there were. Most would fall within Hofstadter’s ‘paranoid style’ frame of conspiracy theories. Others, however, contained an element of plausibility.
In the main, most of the post-11 September conspiracy theories relate to the ulterior motives of the Bush administration. It is now emerging that the agenda of the old Reaganite neoconservatives have found a champion in George W. Bush. Many of them, including Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams and John Ashcroft, now occupy, or have occupied, very senior and highly influential positions in the Bush administration. Many of the ideas that these people were espousing in the immediate post cold war period and during the Clinton administration about the potential of US global hegemony have now become official US foreign policy. Much of the new foreign policy relates to the security of US energy requirements and influence over global energy resources. For example, the idea of stabilising the political situation in Afghanistan, for the purposes of building a pipeline from the Caspian Sea oil and gas fields across Afghanistan and through Pakistan, was on the table long before 11 September. On 12 February 1998, John J. Maresca of Unocal Corporation told the House Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific:
"The country has been involved in bitter warfare for almost two decades. The territory across which the pipeline would extend is controlled by the Taliban, an Islamic movement that is not recognised as a government by most other nations. From the outset, we have made it clear that construction of our proposed pipeline cannot begin until a recognised government is in place that has the confidence of governments, lenders and our company." [vii]
According to reliable reports, plans were in place to attack and replace the Taliban regime in Afghanistan by at least July 2001[viii], four months before 11 September, and possibly as early as March 2001[ix]. It was hoped that such operations would also lead to the death or capture of Osama bin Laden, whose al Qaeda organization supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.[x] After the events of 11 September 2001, the finger of blame was quickly pointed at al Qaeda, a little too quickly it seemed for many conspiracy theorists. It just seemed far too convenient. The US knew just the place to find the perpetrators and in October 2001 they invade Afghanistan. For the academic, the problem is obvious. It could well be argued that al Qaeda were aware of such an impending US attack on Afghanistan and simply attempted to either thwart it, by mounting a massive attack on the US homeland, or get in first with a defiant and devastating blow, knowing that the might of the US could easily put an end to the Taliban government and disperse al Qaeda. Proving this though would be next to impossible. Al Qaeda may well have planned such an attack for all sorts of reasons. But for the conspiracy theorists this explanation is not enough.
The theories range from the quite credible to the ridiculous. This paper will concern itself, however, only with the credible. The most credible theory is that al Qaeda did plan and carry out the attack and that the US security organizations were aware of the impending attack, but chose not to inform the President, knowing what the outcome of the attack would be and that it would provide the ideal excuse for the US to attack Afghanistan and later any other nation it considered a ‘terrorist’ state, like Iraq or Iran. The next step up in the theory is that the President was actually aware of the impending attack. This is supported to a certain extent by some circumstantial evidence. Theorists point to the way that the President reacted to the news of the second airliner flying into the World Trade Centre. At the time he was in a classroom, sitting in on a children’s lesson. Andy Card came in and whispered the news of the event into the President’s ear. The theorists infer – the incident was captured on video – that the President’s reaction was indicative of a person who was not overly surprised by the news, thus, they argue, demonstrating prior knowledge. The potency of this claim was compounded on 4 December 2001 when the President, at a public meeting in Orange County, Florida, said in response to a child’s question,
"Thank you Jordan. Well Jordan, you are not going to believe what state I was in when I heard about the terrorist attack. I was in Florida. And my Chief of Staff, Andy Card – actually I was in a classroom talking about a reading programme that actually works. I was sitting outside the classroom waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower – the TV was obviously on. And I used to fly, myself, and I said, well there’s one terrible pilot. I said it must have been a horrible accident." [xi]
The problem here is that the President could not have seen the first airplane fly into the World Trade Centre. Video of the first airliner hitting the tower did not get its first airing until the afternoon – some five hours after it occurred. With the horrendous events that had occurred, the immense strain the President would obviously have been under and the fact that he had probably seen video of the aircraft flying into the WTC as many times as the rest of the world had by that time, one could argue that the President, quite understandably, may have been confused. However, some four weeks later, the President repeated the story, with only little variation, at another public meeting, this time in Ontario, California.[xii] After the first faux pas one would perhaps have thought that the President’s advisors would have picked the President up on it, so that such an incident was not repeated. They plainly did not and the theorists were quick to jump on it, pointing to it as further evidence of prior knowledge. One of three conclusions can be drawn from this circumstantial but substantive evidence. One, the President was simply mistaken and had become confused. Two, the President was lying, in which case one needs to ask why. Or three, the President was neither confused nor lying, meaning he did see the first airliner go in to the WTC, but this means that he could only have done so via Closed Circuit TV. One can only imagine the implications of that scenario, but again, one needs to ask why.
For the sake of this paper, we will leave the question of whether or not the President was complicit or had prior knowledge there, because to take the issue any further will require several other papers beyond the scope of this one. The point of this paper is not to argue whether the President was complicit or not. The evidence that raises questions about the President’s complicity is raised here only to demonstrate how conspiracy theories evolve and to demonstrate that there are legitimate questions that require explanation. But one can now see how, if this otherwise minor indiscretion by the President were to be taken seriously in say ten or twenty years time, a major controversy would evolve which could end by altering the whole interpretation of the by then historical events of 11 September and its repercussions. If such a controversy was to be taken up now, however, and the President was subsequently found to be complicit, it would almost certainly alter the course of history. Impeachment would be more than likely and even criminal charges laid. But with a compliant mainstream media and a judiciary now totally subservient to the Administration, this is unlikely at this stage.
So how does the academic resolve the problem of dealing with so-called conspiracies? Firstly, one needs to be aware that a conspiracy theory is only a conspiracy theory because someone of seeming authority has said that it is. It is only a theory because, they assume, there is no hard evidence to otherwise give it credibility. In the case of the events of 11 September, however, there is also no hard evidence to support the official version of events. For some, the ‘official’ story is as much a conspiracy theory as any other that has been put forward. Gerard Holmgren, for example, a fairly influential conspiracy theorist at a website called 911-strike.com, observes almost cynically:
"…the conspiracy theorists stick doggedly to a silly story about 19 Arab hijackers somehow managing to commandeer 4 planes simultaneously and fly them around US airspace for nearly two hours, crashing them into important buildings, without the US intelligence services having any idea that it was coming, and without the Air Force knowing what to do." [xiii]
Here Holmgren is clearly trying to belittle the idea that the event was as the government had espoused, by framing it within an apparent absurdity. But he also hints at a number of questions that seriously need answering. How did the US intelligence services fail to detect the planning of this highly successful and almost flawless military operation? And, indeed, where was the Air Force while four airliners spent nearly two hours in airspace that they were not supposed to be in? It is not the intention to answer them here. They are mentioned because they are legitimate questions. But why can’t academics ask these questions? It is at this point when one needs to question the prowess of academics if they find themselves unable to ask these quite legitimate questions. In the research for this paper, not one scholar could be found who had asked these questions in scholarly works.
Academics have a responsibility to ask legitimate questions in these matters. There may well come a time when many academics will regret not having asked these questions when they had the opportunity – a time when ultimately the truth, one way or the other, will be revealed. It is perhaps unfortunate that academics, particularly historians, have traditionally been very conservative in the time they take to evaluate and interpret events in history, especially when questions of the credibility of the so-called evidence stare them in the face at the time the events take place. Yet still, many are unable or unwilling to confront them. The philosopher, Steve Clarke, goes some way to providing an explanation for this.
"No doubt history plays its part in explaining the hostility of intellectuals towards conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theorising has long been favoured by Populists, who are almost invariably anti-elitist, and therefore generally anti-intellectual as well. Some intellectuals may dismiss conspiracy theories simply on the basis of guilt by association with anti-intellectual Populism." [xiv]
But today the role of the academic in the social sciences has changed. The pace of the twenty-first century demands immediate answers. There is a need to confront all legitimate questions regardless of the subjective consensus, for that is all it is, and to do this requires complete and total objectivity, an objectivity that examines all of the evidence. This requires complete detachment from political, geographical and cultural constraints and the questions need to be examined on a plane that is absolutely remote from these constraints.
Success in establishing the facts of any given event, however, comes from evidence. Unlike a court of law, that evidence must not be selective. All the evidence must be examined, not just evidence selected to prove one’s argument. It is the duty, particularly of the historian, as distasteful, contrary and unpalatable as it may be to the individual’s own personal view, to be able to undertake this sometimes thankless, even reward less, task. In this age of Information Technology, it is not enough to simply accept that evidence exists but cannot be shown. Where circumstantial evidence exists in such abundance as to cast doubt about the explanations for which we are told that evidence does exist but cannot be shown, it is the duty of the appropriate academic to pursue the circumstantial evidence in order to discover and force the revelation of the truth. In a global society where the monumental events of the Twenty-First century effect almost everyone and every nation at some level or another, the urgency of knowing how these events occurred and the full and proper truth behind those events and the motivations of those responsible has become essential. It should no longer be acceptable for the academic, especially those who teach, to simply sit back and wait for evidence to come to them. If, by teaching and writing, the academic takes on the responsibility of passing on knowledge to future generations, he or she has a responsibility to reach out and grasp the truth of the past in order that future generations are able to learn from it. History, after all, is nothing unless the future can learn from it. For the academic, this means taking on new and often bold challenges that may conflict with consensus. But if that challenge is met with scrupulous care in regard to the scrutiny and testing of the credibility of all of the evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, then who could ridicule it accept those who would have much to lose by the revelation of such truths?
For some academics, following the stepping-stones of contemporary history could well be too much to ask. One slip could be disastrous. Careers need to be considered and one needs to ponder the repercussions of ones deliberations and conclusions. Some may opt for the safety of staying within the consensual academic square because it conforms with the attributes of the institution or institutions that they are associated with. Others may feel confident enough to be able to at least put a foot on the first stepping-stone outside of the square, provided the other foot remains firmly on the well-established rock of consensual opinion. There are, however, some academics who are willing to take several steps outside of the square and meet the challenge. Noam Chomsky is one who has met the challenge head on, although his challenge is more politically motivated and he has no interest in what his peers think of him – yet he commands a very large audience. Another earlier and much respected historian who was willing to step outside of the academic square was Charles Beard. With his career and reputation already well founded, Beard challenged the accepted historical version of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, arguing that, far from it coming as a complete surprise to the US, the Japanese were manoeuvred into firing the first shot by President Roosevelt.[xv] While no one disputed Beard’s findings, his assertions were frowned upon by a society that now viewed the consensually accepted version of the attack on Pearl Harbour as one of the great defining moments in American history. In 1948, when Beard asserted his view of this particular piece of history, America was in no mood to accept it. It was simply ignored and thus the myth of Japanese pre-emption continued to be perpetuated. Even the recently released McCollum memos,[xvi] that entirely vindicate Beard’s assertions, have failed to promote much more than a ripple in the academic world through fear of upsetting the status quo of consensual opinion.
Stepping outside of the academic square is not for the feint-hearted, but those who are willing to battle consensual opinion in the search for the truth will earn the gratitude of future generations. The barriers that place conspiracy theories in the ‘no-go’ area for academics will eventually be pulled down. But, in order to achieve this, one needs to move on from discussing the theory of conspiracy theories, where actual conspiracy theories are only examined as an incidental and secondary feature within a framework of social science philosophy, to a position where real world events, complete with all of the evidence, are aired in full and open debate. This can only be achieved when one is prepared to be utterly objective, free from all preconceptions and with a willingness to abandon all personal political bias, and armed only with totally irrefutable evidence. That totally irrefutable evidence is the academics’ safety net.
[i] Essentially, a consensually accepted explanation of events and circumstances within a pluralistic society as outlined in Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. pp. 3-8.
[ii] ‘Paranoid Style’ refers generally to the more extreme nature of rejection of explanations of events and circumstances by certain groupings within a society based on fears and beliefs held by the grouping rather than individuals that have irrational or paranoid notions of a more clinical nature. The expression ‘Paranoid Style’ was coined and defined by Richard Hofstadter in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and other Essays, New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1967. pp. 3-6.
[iii] Chapter III, ‘Concluding Observations’ in ‘Government Members Report of the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident’, Commonwealth of Australia, 2002. p. 529.
[iv] Bush, George W., ‘Radio Address by the President to the Nation’, Office of the Press Secretary, 10 November 2001. (available online)
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011110.html Accessed 20 January 2003.
[v] George W. Bush, ‘President Bush Speaks to the United Nations’, Office of the Press Secretary, 10 November 2001. (available online)
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011110-3.html Accessed 21 January 2003.
[vi] Adams, Phillip, ‘And finally: Be alarmed!’, The Australian, 1 February 2003. (available online)
http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/printpage/0,5942,5916383,00.html Accessed 4 February 2003.
[vii] ‘Testimony of John J. Maresca, Vice-President, International Relations, Unocal Corporation to House Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific’, Washington, DC, 12 February 1998. (available online) http://www.house.gov/international_relations/105th/ap/wsap212982.htm
accessed 9 February 2003.
[viii] Arney, George, ‘US planned attack on Taleban’. BBC News, 18 September 2001. para. 2. (available online)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/1550366.stm accessed 24 March 2003.
[ix] Bedi, Rahul, ‘India joins anti-Taliban coalition’. Janes International Security News, 15 March 2001. (available online) http://www.janes.com/security/international_security/news/jir/jir010315_1_n.shtml accessed 24 March 2003.
[x] Arney, ‘US planned attack on Taleban’. para. 4.
[xi] George W. Bush, ‘Remarks by the President in town hall meeting, Orange County Convention Centre, Orlando, Florida’. Office of the Press Secretary, 4 December 2001. (available online)
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/12/20011204-17.html accessed 5 September 2002.
[xii] Bush, George W., ‘Remarks by the President in town hall meeting with the citizens of Ontario, Ontario Convention Centre, California’. Office of the Press Secretary, 5 January 2002. (available online)
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/01/20020105-3.html accessed 5 September 2002.
[xiii] Holmgren, Gerard, ‘Debunking conspiracy theorists’ paranoid fantasies about Sept. 11’. January 2003. (available online) http://www.911-strike.com/debunking.htm accessed 5 April 2003.
[xiv] Clarke, Steve, ‘Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorising’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 32, no. 2. June 2002. pp. 131-150.
[xv] Beard, Charles, President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Reality. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948. Chapter XVII, ‘Manoeuvring the Japanese into Firing the First Shot’.
[xvi] The McCollum Memo, 7 October 1940. Available online in PDF form of the scanned original document at http://www.whatreallyhappened.com/McCollum/ Accessed 21 April 2003.