Sunday, July 18, 2010

Truthers, meet Ockham ... Ockham, meet Truthers. Ockham, go nuts with that razor of yours.

OK, fair warning: this post is a lot longer than I had planned it to be, but it sort of ended up providing an outlet for thoughts I've had a long time.

This morning I watched a Fifth Estate mini-doc about the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement. Of course, their arguments and theories are nothing new to me—having devoted much time and a doctoral dissertation to the subject of conspiracy and paranoia in contemporary America, the tenacious conspiracy theories surrounding the events of September 11th, 2001 are naturally something I pay attention to. However, I did watch this TV show this morning, and it did give occasion for me to work through my own thoughts on the topic (again) ... and so, as so often happens in such an instance, you poor readers of my blog are subjected to my online airing of whatever happens to be pissing me off today.

In almost every way, the brain trust of the 9/11 Truth Movement—or "Truthers"—conform perfectly to Richard Hofstadter's classic depiction of the "paranoid spokesman," who is "overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression" and who as a group "illustrate the central preconception of the paranoid style—the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character."

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last nine years, you know that the Truthers believe that 9/11 was an inside job—that the U.S. government was directly responsible for the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon and the destruction of United 93. There is a range of beliefs under this umbrella, from the less pernicious suggestion that the Bush Administration merely deliberately ignored intelligence warning of the attacks, to the full-fledged accusations that the attacks were entirely planned and executed by U.S. black ops in order to give the government license to clamp down on civil liberties at home and invade Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like all good conspiracy theories, the devil is in the details.nThe Fifth Estate did a good job of outlining the arguments that have become the Truthers' staple objections to the official story.

  1. The collapse of the twin towers was too perfect: they both descended "at free fall speed" directly into the buildings' own footprints, something that could only have occurred by way of a controlled detonation. Therefore, the planes were flown into the building and then the buildings were brought down from without.

  2. It is implausible that there was not an immediate and overwhelming air force presence in the skies about New York and Washington the moment the hijackings became known. The lack of fighter planes in the air suggests that they were ordered to stand down, or never scrambled to begin with.

  3. The damage at the Pentagon was too minimal to have been caused by a jumbo jet, and photographs taken immediately afterward show no debris from a destroyed airplane. The damage must have been caused from explosives set off internally, or by a missile fired from a military plane.

  4. Cell phones lose service once airplanes are above a few thousand feet in the air. However, the timeline of events on 9/11 has been established in part by phone calls made by passengers and crew from the hijacked airplanes, some from cell phones, some from the in-air phones passengers can buy time on. This suggests that the calls were staged by actors using voice alteration software to fool family members into thinking they were speaking with their loved ones.

  5. Building Seven at the WTC site also collapsed, some six hours or so after the north and south towers came down, ostensibly because it had caught fire from the initial destruction. The spontaneous collapse of a 47-story building seems unlikely simply because of fire damage; ergo, it too was brought down by planned, controlled explosions.

That covers the gist of it. There are numerous iterations of these issues, but they tend to be variations on these five themes. Like all good conspiracy theorists, the Truthers subject film and photography from the day to minute analysis, picking out whatever grainy screen captures appear to support their claims. Again to quote Hofstadter, "The plausibility of the paranoid style has for those who find it plausible lies, in good measure, in this appearance of the most careful, conscientious, and seemingly coherent application to detail, the laborious accumulation of what can be taken as convincing evidence for the most fantastic conclusions, the careful preparation for the big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable."

To put it another way, nobody fetishizes documentation and scholarship like a conspiracist.

Whatever the technical and mechanical issues raised by the Truthers, I am myself not an architect or engineer and not, by any means, qualified to debunk them. Fortunately, many other people are, and Popular Mechanics devoted a special issue to that very topic. I will leave that wrangling to the experts, and content myself with observing that, to the best of my knowledge, there have been no technical objections by Truthers that have not been answered.

Which always brings me back to what I think is the key question: why? Why would the Bush Administration, or rogue elements within it (depending on whose theory you listen to) cold-bloodedly murder some three thousand of their own citizens in order to gain political capital to pursue their domestic and foreign policy objectives? It's not that I don't think there are those in American corridors of power ruthless and sociopathic enough to sacrifice American lives for a strategic objective (just go back and read the Cold War arguments rationalizing an American nuclear first strike on the U.S.S.R.), but for something ostensibly minutely stage-managed from the start, 9/11 was a pretty sloppy operation. So to ask the question a different way, why do it the way they supposedly did?

This is where my old friend William of Ockham comes in for me. The fourteenth-century English logician gave us the commonsensical logical rule we now call "Ockham's Razor," which basically states that in choosing between two explanations for something, the simplest one is most frequently the answer. Well, that's the colloquial phrasing: Ockham gave us pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate ("plurality should not be posited without necessity"), or, conversely, entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem ("entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity"). But the bottom line is that when you find yourself constantly adding new assumptions to a theory, you're probably in the logical weeds and should start over.

This is why I believe that if, in the final estimation, Bush et al bear any culpability for 9/11, it lies on their inaction with available intelligence. Were there indications of an impending attack? Yes—we now definitively know this. Did they not act on it? They did not. Was there a deliberate choice to allow 9/11 to happen? If so, we may never know. I rather think not.

But stage-managing a faux terrorist attack from the ground up in a massive plot that involved planting vast amounts of explosives in the WTC and Pentagon and staging phone calls from passengers and crew, all without any word of it ever leaking? One theory claims that the original airplanes were secretly landed, and their passengers and crew loaded on to United 93, which was then deliberately crashed to kill the witnesses. One theory claims the Pentagon was struck not by a plane, but a missile; another says a truck bomb; another, that the explosion came from within the Pentagon.

And why? Well, here the theorists tend to be in agreement: so the Bush Administration could carry out a domestic and foreign policy agenda that ratcheted back civil rights at home and invade Afghanistan and Iraq abroad. Though here, again, Ockham's razor comes into play on several fronts. And it can answer each of the five main Truther arguments enumerated above.

  1. Those arguing that the WTC was brought down by a controlled series of demolition charges have to claim that the explosives—which would have had to have been set on most, if not all of the floors—were snuck in beforehand and affixed to the main structural support beams. Even on weekends, the World Trade Center was a beehive of activity. How feasible is it for that many charges to have been set without it being noticed? Even if it didn't pass as suspicious behaviour at the time, would none of the thousands of workers who survived the attacks have thought to mention it afterward?

  2. The idea that the U.S. military can react in seconds to any threat is, in the words of the editor of Popular Mechanics, "the myth of hyper-competence." Transcripts from the day recording conversations between air-traffic controllers, municipal and civil authorities, NORAD, and the host of others trying to get a grip on what was happening reflect utter chaos. (For one of the best breakdowns of the day's timeline, and a thorough debunking of the military's ability to respond instantaneously, see Elaine Scarry's essay "Citizenship in Emergency"). No-one knew what was going on, and the number of planes in the air was in the thousands; at best, they knew there was a hijacking, which until 9/11 always meant the plane would land somewhere and exchange hostages for demands. It was only when the second tower was hit that everything became clear.

  3. For this one, all I can ask is: why fly planes into the WTC, and then pretend to fly one into the Pentagon?

  4. To be fair, the cell phones objection is the only one that really gives me pause; but then, the alternative of employing voice actors with sophisticated software to mimic passengers and crew to loved ones—which would have entailed a significant amount of intelligence gathering and profiling beforehand so as it pick up on their conversational tics and habits, to say nothing of knowing well in advance that they would be flying—is really one of the more absurd things suggested by Truthers.

  5. Why demolish Building seven 6-7 hours after the main event? Hypothetically granting the Truther thesis, you've just carried out the most spectacular destruction of an American landmark ever. What was to be gained bringing down a much smaller building as an afterthought?

There are two assumptions made by the Truther theses that Ockham more or less puts paid to. One is the myth of hyper-competence, which is a phrase I like so much I am hereby appropriating for my own uses. We've really become so indoctrinated by way of popular culture with the idea that the American military is uniformly elite, that lines of communication are instantaneous and infallible, and that government agencies can field well nigh omnipotent and omniscient responses to crises that when incompetence or simple confusion is manifest, the suspicion that it must somehow be deliberate is hard to avoid. We can well imagine the 24 response to 9/11: instant satellite images of the hijacked planes, running commentary from terrified passengers as Jack Bauer talks them through response measures, and a veritable armada of fighter jets surrounding the terrorists. It's discomforting to know that the sheer number of people involved at all levels creates a communicational Gordian knot.

On top of all that, we now have eight years of evidence for just how incompetent the Bush Administration was. If there was a single event that, to my mind, disproves the Truther theses, it was the response to Hurricane Katrina.

The other assumption is the main motive—that the Bush Administration staged 9/11, killing thousands of Americans in the process, in order to justify an invasion of Iraq. Here's the main problem here: 9/11 did not justify an invasion of Iraq. We know now that Cheney and Rumsfeld were already talking about taking out Saddam on Sept. 12th, but there was a long and torturous (and, alas, altogether too successful), propaganda campaign necessary to make Iraq a target. The Bush Administration, or at least its most militant neocon elements, had no interest in Afghanistan; but Afghanistan had to come first, militarily, because its involvement with al-Qaeda and 9/11 was inescapable.

Now, if you were orchestrating a faux terrorist attack to justify invading Iraq, would you not make a point of manufacturing evidence that explicitly implicated Saddam Hussein? Would you not leave a trail of breadcrumbs so blatant that your entire country would rise up with one voice demanding his blood—much as it did for Osama bin Laden's?

Finally, the nature of the attacks as a whole bespeak not a group of conspirators with an understanding of the American society of the spectacle, but a group of conspirators who wish to make symbolic attacks and devise a plan with a series of redundancies built into it. To phrase it another way: when we think of 9/11, we think of (1) the planes hitting the towers, (2) the towers aflame, and (3) the towers coming down. These are the iconic images. The saga of United 93 enters the picture as a narrative of heroism and resistance, but lacks the images of the burning towers. The attack on the Pentagon—and I do not mean to diminish the suffering and deaths that occurred there—has become something of an afterthought in the mythos of the day. If we ascribe to the nebulous American plotters the kind of hyper-competence conspiracy theory always bestows on its bad guys, the attacks becomes sloppy and excessive, with everything but the main target of the twin towers becoming more or less extraneous. The destruction of the WTC as a traumatic spectacle in part because it had been imagined many times before in dozens of disaster films—it was a Hollywood nightmare made flesh, something American conspirators would have known. Why bother with anything else?

In the end, my beef with Trutherism is not the challenging of the public record, which is something that needs to be done constantly, but the hamfisted and paranoid way in which they do it. Toward the end of The Fifth Estate, they showed an interview with actor Daniel Sunjata from the show Rescue Me. He plays a Truther on the show, and in researching the role became convinced by what he read. In the interview he asks "What's the price of not asking these questions? What's the price of just accepting what we've been told?"

My answer to that is that it is the same price conspiracists always pay: in the desperation to project a seamless and cohesive order on a very messy reality, the nuances of that reality get lost, and the important questions don't get asked.


Jon Parsons said...

Wondering if you've read Blowback by Chalmers Johnson? Seems to de-mystify some of the fog around this event for me. Also find some interesting ideas in the Derrida/Habermas book Philosophy in a Time of Terror. Some of what Derrida said in this dialog convinced me my suspicions were correct and that he wasn't such a relativist as many seem to think...

In terms of conspiracies, I must say that I'm mostly in line with your analysis. I usually tend to first ask questions about who benefits, who are the victims, and whether a particular "event" has anything to do with power, economics, or class. I also wonder if a good conspiracy doesn't belay asking the next obvious question: WHY? For this question, I certainly don't buy into the simplistic answer, "Those folks over there are bad guys and we should freedom the shit out of them".

Fred said...

Chris, you forgot to analyse the question of American culture and American conspiracy. For some Americans these go hand in hand. American culture, such as visited on us by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party focuses on a nexus of beliefs concerning individualism, moralism and societal independence. Anything which seems to take away from this is perceived as a threat and un-American. Granted situations like Wacco and Ruby Ridge have a patina of ultra-conservative written across them, and even I would wonder why Truthers would be suspicious of a neo-conservative administration, but this distrust of government is so ingrained it doesn't matter what political views the government has, it is always held in distrust. (I've wondered if many of the Truthers are the lunatic fringe of the left wing).

Nevertheless, there is a history in American culture of groups finding exceptional events as hallmarks of conspiracy by the government. From a sociological perspective this almost takes on a parallel development akin to religious cults trying to strengthen their position in society. Firstly, by resisting "government" as conspiratorial, they solidify their own identity. They are what they are against (their position upholds a sense of moral codes which government reacts against through its actions). Resistance also provides them with a script (a holy text) which is never questioned but constantly refered to. Secondly, by standing out in this way it invites reaction from government (or others such as yourself) which only confirms their position--not by argument but by "martyrs." They present themselves as identifying with the poor souls lost on later planes, and through their own candidates attacked in the press, academic journals etc. What I do find interesting is the affective associationalism between Truthers and the victims. Thirdly, it presents a narrative of a divide between "truth" and "lies," an either-or which is couched in assumptions of "how else could it be?" It is tempting to see the reduction of reality's complexity (as you point out) as being a confrontation with modernity--as if the complexities of modernity, which are always being re-invented and modified, must be challenged, and traumatic events which encompass such icons of present modernity become focal points on which to enscribe a belief in a golden age/society.

This is not limited to 9/11 conspiracies, but also includes the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbour or vaccination conspiracies. The trouble is there are enough real conspiracies perpetrated by government, business and even individuals to warrant extrapolating such occurences to other events.

Anonymous said...

You build strawmen to knock down and you have misled yourself by doing that.

Here is some responsible criticism of the 9/11 Commission Report and the "official story."

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility. I welcome it.
- John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address Jan. 20, 1961

Anonymous said...

Good points i personally do not believe any of the conspiracy nonsense. as to the cell phone issue though. Cell phones do not work in jets as they fly at 30,000 feet or more. However airplane gps systems aren't like those in cars, to find the towers and hit them you would need to fly below the clouds at about 2000, to 6000 feet, and then decend 800 feet to hit them. Cellphones work fine when flying that low. As to the BS claim of a bomb at the bottom of the WTC, that is totally wrong.
how do i know? well unlike you i was 1/8th mile north of the north tower when it collapsed. there was no flash boom or bang the building just made a defining rumble as it fell. and lived in there shadow for 3 years before 9/11, my family's grocery's came from there. also my grandfather was one of the foremen on the south towers construction he explained that the buildings were designed to collapse vertically. i find this idiotic conspiracy to be very insulting, as they point to photos and blurry pictures for evidence, while i had been in the building in excess of 500 times, had relatives who built it and saw it fall in person.

Chris in NF said...

Fred: Actually, I have analyzed the question of American culture and conspiracy, to the tune of about 300+ pages in my doctoral thesis. The role of conspiracy theory is germane here, obviously ... but then this post clocked in at 2500 words as it is, and I didn't want to belabor things more than I already was. Don't worry -- I will definitely post more about conspiracy in the future. ;-)

Anonymous#1: The "straw men" I am knocking down are the standard Truther arguments. I've seen that website you sent me to -- it does the typical conspiracist job of muddying the waters with legions of (often contradictory) testimonials, theories, conjectures and assumptions in the name of building an alternative set of events, but simply does not satisfactorily answer the question of why.

Anonymous #2: This bullshit is galling enough to me -- it must drive you absolutely stark raving mad having to listen to it. Keep strong.

Anonymous said...

two more links to add on to anon 1 (the first the how [the hand is quicker than the eye], the second the why):

also, you might like Lisa Moore's Alligator (and especially the part where Frank seems to be the Falling Man) for a NFLD spin on "events"