Conspiracy Theory As Received Wisdom

by Stephen Gowans

March 25, 2002


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One person's terrorist is another's guerilla, and still another's patriot.

One person's battle for liberation is another's struggle against occupation, and another's terrorism.

And one person's conspiracy theory is another's statement of the facts.

These days it's fashionable to take shots at conspiracy theories, and to make statements like, "I don't hold with these conspiracy theorists, but..."

David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, says he's irritated by conspiracy theories linking Washington to 9/11. They're absurd, he concludes. "The spies and special agents are not good enough, evil enough, or gutsy enough to mount this operation." (1)

Corn adds: "Such a plot is far beyond the skill level of U.S. intelligence. It would require dozens (or scores or hundreds) of individuals to attempt such a scheme. They would have to work together, and trust one another not to blow their part or reveal the conspiracy."

This is a standard argument against conspiracy theories, and it's compelling. A small group of conspirators hasn't enough control of large groups of people to make something like 9/11 work, and the sheer number of people that would have to be involved makes the conspiracy's exposure all but certain.

But the argument, interestingly, works just as strongly against the alternative view: that 9/11 was masterminded by Osama bin Laden. And while never admitted, it's clear this view has all the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory. It involves a small cabal, indeed, a single individual, masterminding a large chain of complex events.

Strange that Corn's irritation with conspiracy theories hasn't led him to go after the bin Laden as mastermind theory.

One of the reasons 9/11 conspiracy theories abound is because the view that the largest terrorist attack in history (apart from the much larger terrorist attacks organized by governments under the rubrics "war," and "humanitarian intervention") could be orchestrated by a "mastermind" operating out of a desperately poor country in Central Asia defies belief. Where the official conspiracy theory is so bad, other conspiracy theories rush in to fill the void.

And there's no compelling proof of bin Laden's involvement.

Go back over the videotapes said to implicate the al-Qaeda leader and find one self-incriminating statement that would stand up in a court of law. And while you're at it, explain how it is that a grainy videotape of inferior audio quality is accepted as a bin Laden confession, when a videotape of better quality showing Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai discussing the elimination of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is dismissed out of hand. Views that are sympathetic to the foreign policy of Washington are treated as compelling, while hostile views are ridiculed and are summarily dismissed (even by Corn and other members of the so-called dissident US press.)

And the hostile views circulate on the margins. The friendly conspiracy theories are presented uncritically in the mass media. And they're never called conspiracy theories.

If the 9/11 chain of events was so complex as to rule out US operatives "who aren't good enough," and couldn't be expected to "work together, and trust one another not to blow their part or reveal the conspiracy" how can we believe that a far-flung, loosely organized band of terrorists trained in caves in Afghanistan is good enough, where the more richly endowed US intelligence apparatus is not? And how is it that US intelligence operatives can't be expected to work together, while al-Qaeda operatives can? Which isn't to say that the theories that point fingers at US operatives are cogent, but the theories that point to bin Laden are as unconvincing, for the same reasons.

But Corn has another reason we should be skeptical of Washington-unfriendly conspiracy theories: "Would George W. Bush take the chance of being branded the most evil president of all time by countenancing such wrongdoing?"

Would Richard Nixon take the chance of being branded the most corrupt president of all time by arranging a break-in at the Watergate Hotel? Would he take the chance of being branded the biggest liar of all time by secretly bombing Cambodia? Would Ronald Reagan take the chance of being branded a criminal by countenancing the arms for contras deal? Would US General Curtis LeMay, who was responsible for the 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo, take the chance of being branded a war criminal? (LeMay said, "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side.") (2)

This is just plain silly. If all wrongdoing was avoided for fear of being caught there would be no murders, no armed robberies, no rape, no crime. There would be no wrongdoing. But that there is means that plenty of people took a risk, including past presidents. Why is George W. Bush different?

Imagine Corn as a defense lawyer.

"Your honor, do you really believe my client would commit this murder? Would he take the chance of being branded a criminal, a vile murderer, by committing this crime? No, your honor. This is an absurd conspiracy theory, concocted by the prosecution."

Corn's reasons for dismissing conspiracy theories Washington dislikes are a warm and reassuring bath of absurdities. Washington would never conspire to kill Americans. No, of course not. And Washington would never send 55,000 American G.I.'s to an early grave, in a stupid pointless war in Indochina.

Nor would the government allow 15,000 Americans to die from the effects of above ground nuclear weapons testing (the estimated number of Americans who have died from related cancers.) (3)

The president would never run the risk of being caught. No, of course not. And presidents have never broken the law, or lied, or have become embroiled in scandal, because they too would never run the risk of being caught.

And the US intelligence apparatus is too stupid, too incapable of working together to have carried out 9/11, but a ragtag band of Islamists, guided by a single individual, was able to carry the whole thing off.

Conspiracy theories linking Washington to 9/11 may have a whole lot of holes, but the arguments on the other side look like they were fashioned by people who ought to give up their day jobs of peering through rose colored glasses.



1.  http://www.zmag.org/content/TerrorWar/cornterror.cfm  (back)
2.  Paul Fussell. Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) p. 152  (back)
3.  USA Today, Feb. 28, 2002, http://www.usatoday.com/usatonline/20020228/3901179s.htm  (back)



       Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stephen Gowans 2002. All rights reserved.

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Published March 25, 2002
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