By Jefferson Flanders

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that we—Americans—are not the only ones who must now confront conspiracy theories about terrorist attacks.

About a third of the Spanish public disbelieves the “official version” of the March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid, just as a dismayingly sizeable number of Americans think that they haven’t been told the truth about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

In Spain, the 3/11 conspiracy theories are produced by the Right: the claim is that the Spanish Socialist government is covering up evidence that ETA, the Basque separatist movement, colluded with radical Muslims in the bombings. (The right-of-center Popular Party government had initially, and wrongly, blamed ETA in the first hours after the event.) The evidence strongly points to a small-scale conspiracy by a radical Islamic cell, largely North African in composition, seeking to both emulate Al Qaeda and punish the Popular Party prime minister Jose Maria Aznar for his support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The Associated Press reports that the ETA theories “are kept alive by Popular Party leaders and the country’s most influential right-wing newspaper, El Mundo, which has run a series of articles casting doubt on the government’s case” and notes that they have proven resilient:

“It’s extraordinary how these conspiracy theories have survived, and if anything have expanded and contaminated people’s minds,” said Charles Powell, a political scientist at San Pablo-CEU University in Madrid. “One has to remember that the March 11 attacks were the first time a Spanish government has been brought down as a result of a terror attack … and that has proved extremely disconcerting, particularly to conservative voters.”

In the United States it is predominately the Left providing the foot soldiers for the 9/11 Denial Movement, although there are a few fringe Right proponents (such as talk-radio host Alex Jones). This despite ample evidence that 9/11 was an Al Qaeda operation (I’ve previously explored the fantasies of the 9/11 Truth Movement).

Why conspiracy theories persist

So why do these grand conspiracy theories persist? There are several possible explanations.

Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” that those with extreme political views—true believers—often embrace conspiracy theories as a way to explain why others have failed to support their extremism. They cannot accept that their political marginalization might be due to their own unappealing ideology; only a powerful conspiracy can explain why they are not in power.

I think there may be a global conspiracy meme at work as well. Years of movies and television programs that suggest hidden elites, secret societies and intelligence agencies control our destiny, from the X Files to Bourne Conspiracy to the DaVinci Code to Syriana, must have had some impact. This made-in-the-USA fiction has been widely exported and we can only guess at whether it has pre-conditioned global audiences to assume governments always lie (particularly the U.S. government) and that conspiracies underlie any significant political event.

It is true that government officials lie—they often do—but state-sanctioned conspiracies involving large numbers of people have proven exceedingly difficult to pull off. Conspiracy theorists must assume that thousands of government conspirators will stay silent over long periods of time about monstrous acts—a dubious proposition in democratic societies like Spain and the U.S.

Yet, there is something perversely reassuring about a grand government conspiracy: it suggests that the world is a rational place, that there is a reason for the disappointments and evils encountered in life. If only the conspiracists can be exposed and routed, a New Age of peace and harmony can be inaugurated, this thinking goes.

The world, however, is messy, confusing, unpredictable and contradictory. The events on 9/11 were triggered by a small-scale conspiracy—the Al Qaeda cells involved in the planning and execution of the attacks—but the U.S, government’s pre- and post-attack response was marked by over-confidence, incompetence, sloppiness, and in some aspects, negligence. What 9/11 conspiracy advocates see as signs of collusion or conspiracy, looks more like the FUBAR fumbling familiar to those who have experienced the “fog of war.”

The impact of the “Bush Lied” campaign

There is another factor in play, at least in the United States. Relentless criticism of George W. Bush, suggesting that he and his Administration “lied” the U.S. into the war in Iraq, has deepened the paranoia and increased suspicion of the government.

Some leftists, such as David Corn, Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hayes, have decried the looniness of the 9/11 Deniers and have publicly worried that these evidence-free conspiracy theories would sidetrack the Left from more central concerns.

Hayes further argues in The Nation (December 2006) that a credulous media—too eager to swallow and parrot the Bush Administration line—is responsible for the growth of the paranoid theories, because mainstream journalists “posit a world of good intentions and face-value pronouncements, one in which the suggestion that a government would mislead or abuse its citizens for its own gains or the gains of its benefactors is on its face absurd.” The consequence, Hayes argues, is that people gravitate to conspiracy theories as they abandon the government-approved pablum they believe they are being fed by the media. Hayes believes a skeptical, and aggressive, press is the antidote.

Yet I think we already have seen that press skepticism in action. As the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the focus has been on why the U.S. invaded in the first place. No question has consumed the media more over the past three years. When the Democrats ran their 2006 congressional campaign asserting that Bush had misled the country into war, they found the theme resonated with voters.

If anything, the idea that Bush deliberately lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) has become conventional wisdom in much of the mainstream media. Frank Rich’s recent New York Times column, in which he mused about the “secret machinations” of the White House Iraq Group, and “covert administration schemes” and “its lies in fomenting the war,” is an example of the full-throttle questioning of the Bush Administration’s integrity and motives.

It requires no great leap of logic to jump from “Bush conspired to lie and mislead to justify a war in Iraq, indifferent to the potential loss of life,” to “Bush conspired to stage (or allow) the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to justify war in Afghanistan and later Iraq, indifferent to the potential loss of life.” Once you postulate that Bush is a cynical manipulator, willing to lie and fabricate, and to callously sacrifice American soldiers for his own ends, it is easier to believe the 9/11 theories, which require accepting a level of monstrous complicity on the part of the President, and all around him.

A quick glance at public opinon polls over the past several years supports this connection. As more Americans began to believe that Bush deliberately misled the country about WMDs in Iraq (from 31% in June 2003 to 53% in January 2006), more Americans also began to believe that the U.S. government either assisted or took no action to prevent the 9/11 attacks.

There are alternative explanations for the mess in Iraq—that a Bush Administration bent on deposing Saddam Hussein made a series of ill-considered and short-sighted decisions, accepting sketchy WMD intelligence, slighting any option short of war, and ignoring the advice of top military officials, diplomats, and allies. Many argue (and I am in this camp) that these decisions were simply wrong-headed from the start—but did not involve sinister manipulation or deliberate lying. Those who maintain otherwise, who argue “Bush lied us into Iraq,” should not be surprised at the unintended consequences—the grassroots paranoia and extremism—of how the public has reacted.

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

Copyright 2007 Jefferson Flanders

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