Who Really Downed the Twin Towers? Was 11 September Actually the Work of the CIA? Why Is No Plane Visible on Photos Taken Seconds before the Pentagon Was Hit? Johann Hari Reports on the Vogue for Conspiracy Theories
Hari, Johann, New Statesman (1996)
Conspiracy theories might seem to be the preserve of internet geeks and Oliver Stone fans, but they are no longer a cultural phenomenon that can be dismissed easily. International polls have found in the past few months that an extraordinary number of people believe that secret, conspiratorial forces lie behind world events.
To list just a few of the more widespread theories: a near-majority of the Arab world believes that Jews were warned away from the World Trade center on 11 September; an actual majority believes that Diana, Princess of Wales, was murdered because of her involvement with a Muslim man; more than half of all black Americans believe that the CIA makes drugs easily available in their communities to keep them quiescent, and one-fifth believe that it deliberately introduced the Aids epidemic; 80 per cent of all Americans believe that the US government is conspiring to withhold information about Gulf war syndrome; and a bestseller in France claims that Osama Bin Laden was a US agent who was used by President Bush to destroy secret CIA offices in the twin towers.
The events of 11 September were a gift to budding Mulders and Scullys everywhere. David Corn, a writer for the left-leaning independent website AlterNet.org which seeks to expose corruption and secrecy, has been bombarded, to his growing horror, with e-mails purporting to disclose "what really happened". He explains the most popular theories circulating at the moment. "There are e-mails about a fellow imprisoned in Canada who claims to be a former US intelligence officer and who supposedly passed advance warning of the attack to jail guards in mid-August. And there are others citing an Italian newspaper report that, last July, Bin Laden was treated for kidney disease in Dubai and met a CIA official."
The most common theories of all, however, derive from Thierry Meyssan's bestselling book L'effroyable imposture (The Frightening Fraud). Meyssan is the director of the Voltaire Network, a prominent left-wing think-tank, and it is hard to overestimate the impact of his book in France. It were as though Matthew Taylor of the IPPR or Mark Leonard of the Foreign Policy Centre had suddenly announced that the US government was involved in the 11 September attacks. Central to Meyssan's thesis is the argument that the Pentagon was not struck by a plane at all, but rather that a carefully planned truck bombing or missile strike was setup by the US government to look like a plane crash. He believes that the government plotted the whole affair, in part to control rogue agents within the security services.
To justify these claims, Meyssan points to discrepancies in eyewitness statements, the lack of footage of any plane wreckage, and images from CCTV cameras across Washington which seem to show that there was no plane approaching the Pentagon. These theories have been popularised in the English-speaking world by cult websites ("Hunt the Boeing!" at www.asile.org/citoyens/numero13/pentagone/erreurs_en.htm).
But Meyssan's theories are often circumlocutory and warped. They contain huge gaps: to give one example, if no plane smashed into the Pentagon, there's a stray Boeing out there carrying Barbara Olsen of CNN and a few hundred others. Where is it?
The French press have almost unanimously denounced the book and retaliated by publishing various pieces of evidence, including photographs, which show that the Pentagon was indeed hit by a plane. Eyewitnesses to the attack, such as the US journalist James S Robbins, have written eloquently about their anger at what they regard as tacit accusations that they are liars. George Bush felt the need to denounce the theory when he spoke to the UN General Assembly last October about the "malicious lies that attempt to shift the blame away from the terrorists themselves".
The Guardian columnist George Monbiot caused outrage when he seemed to imply that the US government might have had a role in the "convenient" anthrax attacks which followed 11 September. …