Tag Archives: conspiracy theories

Will We Ever See a New 9/11 Investigation?

In the five years since the 9/11 Commission released its studious but timid report, Americans of all political stripes have advocated for a new investigation into the attacks of September 11, 2001. Since Obama seems intent upon putatively pardoning the Bush Administration for all of its crimes and misdemenors, there is virtually no hope of such an investigation taking place at the federal level. 

An organization called the New York City Coalition for Accountability Now (NYC CAN), which describes itself as “a group comprising 9/11 family members, first responders, and survivors,” has been gathering signatures to place a referendum for a new 9/11 investigation on the November ballot in New York City. The effort passed one hurdle this week, as city lawyers conceded that the group had submitted the 30,000 valid signatures necessary for such a ballot measure. But New York City has a long history of blocking ballot initiatives on the grounds of legal technicalities.  In addition, the measure demands that certain specific people be appointed commissioners, and these include a fair number of pretty far-out conspiracists, as well as some more mainstream members—a fact that will undoubtedly put off some would-be supporters.

But believing that such an investigation is necessary and vital doesn’t require a subscription to any particular conspiracy theory about the attacks. In my 2006 book The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11: What the 9/11 Commission Report Failed to Tell Us, I focused on straightforward, even obvious questions: Why was the airline industry, with its army of well-connected lobbyists, permitted to resist safety regulations that could have saved lives? How did our foreign policy, and “allies” like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, help pave the way for the attacks? Why did a politically driven, Iraq-obsessed administration ignore repeated warnings of the coming danger? Who was in charge as the attacks unfolded?

rice 911Some of these questions ought to practically answer themselves. Yet in its 664-page report, the 9/11 Commission managed not to answer them—in many cases, by the simple means of not asking them in the first place. The Commissioners themselves announced their limited intentions in the report’s opening pages, where they wrote: “Our aim has not been to assign individual blame. Our aim has been to provided the fullest possible accounting of the events surrounding 9/11 and to identify lessons learned.” The contradiction inherent in these stated aims is obvious: without “blame,” there can be no true accountability, and without accountability, there is nothing to ensure that the “lessons” of 9/11 will be “learned.”

In a just-released book called Ground Truth, John Farmer, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission and now dean of Rutgers Law School, declares that at an early stage in its investigation, the Commission

discovered that what had occurred that morning — that is, what government and military officials had told Congress, the Commission, the media, and the public about who knew what when — was almost entirely, and inexplicably, untrue….At some level of the government, at some point in time … there was a decision not to tell the truth about what happened.

It should come as no surprise that the 9/11 Commission Report reflects these limitations. As I wrote in the conclusion to my own book, when it comes to the September 11 attacks and the lies and obfuscations that followed:

It is not necessary to search for hidden conspiracies, because the conspiracy is right in front of us and all around us, and the conspirators are running the country. Those in power in government and business share a tacit agreement that the system must be preserved at all costs, and institutions such as the 9/11 Commission, by their very existence, sign on to this agreement. Political power must be preserved. Economic and business interests must be protected. Allies who serve us by providing the United States with valuable resources like oil or with strategic positions in the world balance of power must be guarded. These things must be done at all costs, even if it means leaving unanswered questions about a catastrophic attack on the level 9/11, and even if it means leaving the American people vulnerable to another such attack in the future….

Yet, realistic as we are about the intractable power of the “system,” the idea remains that this time, things should have been different. Something as enormous as the 9/11 attacks should demand accountability from those who allowed it to happen. On the morning of September 11, thousands of Americans went to work in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in police stations and firehouses. Hundreds more boarded planes and began their quotidian journeys. Surely even the most skeptical among them must on some level have assumed that their government would protect them from the kind of attack that took place that day. And surely even the most cynical among us must believe that a betrayal of such magnitude should carry consequences. Without consequences, there is no justice for the dead, and no safety for the living. Why has no one been held accountable? This is the last unanswered question about 9/11.

Armies of the Right

Across the nation this summer, unknown numbers of people are hunkering down and arming up for what they believe is an imminent battle for the soul of America. Town halls and tea parties provide just a small glimpse of the rage, fear, and paranoia fomenting on front porches and in Internet chat rooms, in the conservative heartland and beyond. While the details may vary, the visions in such forums share a common theme: In one way or another, a fight to the death is coming, and coming soon.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user theonetruebix used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user theonetruebix used under a Creative Commons license.

These deep-seated fears explain at least some of the vitriol, the violent scuffles, and death threats bubbling up in town hall protests against health care reform. It’s all too easy for certain right-wing activists to accept that the president’s plan will create death panels or mandate taxpayer-funded abortions. Because some of these people don’t just believe that Obama wants to destroy capitalism and kill their granny and their unborn child—they believe he wants to kill them, too.

At a town hall meeting with Democratic Senator Ben Cardin in Hagerstown, Maryland, on August 12, one attendee carried a sign that read “Death to Obama,” and “Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids.” Another sign at the same event compared Obama to Hitler. At least some of the Obama-Hitler iconography originates from followers of perennial whack-job Lyndon LaRouche, but the comparison has been disseminated by Rush Limbaugh to a wider audience of hardline conservatives.

That’s not the only insidious comparison making the rounds: One protester who attended a raucous town hall with Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter told a Village Voice reporter that Obama was a “21st-century Marxist” who would adopt the same methods Hugo Chavez used to take power in Venezuela: “infiltration of the education system, political correctness, class warfare ideology, voter fraud, brainwashing through the mainstream media.” 

As the town halls have become more heated, the hints of violence have become increasingly overt. One man showed up outside the president’s town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with a hand gun strapped to his thigh; on August 17, another brought an assault rifle to a demonstration at the site of Obama’s speech to veterans in Phoenix. It emerged that the latter’s presence at the meeting had been coordinated with a former member of the Viper Militia, whose adherents were convicted of weapons and conspiracy charges in the 1990s and were accused of plotting to blow up federal buildings. 

Clearly, this is about far more than health care policy. Instead, it’s just one sign out of many heralding a resurgence of the extreme right wing. It’s been widely reported that extremist groups are growing, in numbers and membership, since Obama launched his presidential campaign. As in the past, some of the ideas espoused by these groups are working their way further toward the political core with the help of right-wing politicians and media figures. 

For instance, take Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) claim that expanding AmeriCorps would result in liberal “re-education camps.” This statement has now morphed into rumors that the young community service volunteers are being armed to take over the country—possibly with some help from the New Black Panther Party.

Similarly, Dick Armey, the former House majority leader and lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, is predicting an October surprise from Obama in the form of “a hyped-up outbreak of the swine flu, which they’ll say is as bad as the bubonic plague to scare the bed-wetters to vote for health care reform.”

The assertion may sound ludicrous, but it dovetails nicely with a view among conspiracy theorists that a sweeping and deadly plot lurks behind the swine flu pandemic. Influenced by the work of a whacked-out Austrian “journalist” named Jane Bürgermeister, some on the far right believe the virus was manufactured by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the rest of the black helicopter crowd’s usual suspects, as “part of a long-term plan by the syndicate, who have built large numbers of FEMA concentration camps with incinerators and prepared mass graves in states such as Indiana and in New York to quarantine people and dispose of the bodies of the people who are killed by the bioweapons attack.” This “depopulation” scheme has in turn been linked by conspiracy theorists to the Obama administration’s plans for a “global planetary regime to enforce forced abortion” and sterilizing the population through the water supply.

Among liberals, the dominant take on all of this seems to be ridicule and derision, or else impotent hand-wringing about the demise of “civil discourse.” It’s as if they’d forgotten that many of these so-called loonies just happen to own guns—and while liberals go on chattering, these folks are stocking up on ammunition. And right-wing radicals have an advantage when it comes to ideological fervor. Obama and the Democrats in Congress quickly frittered away any populist energy that might have come out of the recession, the fiasco of the Bush years, or the 2008 election. All that’s left are the compromises on top of compromises that they call policymaking, for which no one can muster much enthusiasm. Right-wing zealots, on the other hand, think they are fighting for their lives by standing fast against communism, or the anti-Christ, or both; they’re not only doing God’s work, but also fulfilling their destiny as true American patriots.

Indeed, the right-wing revival is infused with the words and imagery of the American Revolution. The gun-toting protestor at Obama’s New Hampshire health care town hall was also carrying a sign that read, “It Is Time To Water The Tree Of Liberty”—a clear reference to a quote from Thomas Jefferson that the “tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” (Because he had a permit and wasn’t in shooting range of the tyrant, the patriot was allowed to keep his gun.) On a website also called The Tree of Liberty, members exchange Obama insults and apocalyptic visions in a forum called Committees of Correspondence, named for assemblies in colonial America that protested tyrannical British policies.

The denizens of these gatherings and websites, the tea parties and the raucous town halls, represent a long-standing force in the country’s political culture: American nativism. This oft-ignored strain draws its central impulse from an opposition to anything that challenges the vision of America as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation. Nativists have taken aim at Catholics, Jews, freed slaves, and successive waves of immigrants, beginning with the Irish fleeing the potato famine in the 1840s and continuing through to present-day immigrants from Latin America. They call for a closing of US borders and support strict adherence to the Constitution in its most literal sense, shorn of equivocating amendments, as a remedy for unwanted social change. And they have been inextricably linked to racist right-wing movements, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Militias to the Minutemen who now “guard” the border. (In the current debate over health care reform, one of the most powerful myths is that it will extend free coverage to illegal immigrants at the expense of “real” Americans.)

Many followers of modern extremist right-wing groups also adhere to the doctrine of Christian Identity, which teaches that white men are the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, who traced their lineage back to Adam and Eve. The black and yellow people, they believe, are of lesser stature, likened by some to a bad first copy made by God in his fashioning of the Garden of Eden. They are not real people, the thinking goes, and should be cast down as “mud people.” The American Founding Fathers were among the true sovereigns, and the white patriots of today are their descendants. Even before Obama’s election, many believed that the nation’s political and economic systems had been taken over by the Zionist Occupied Government. Jews, according to them, are not true white people, and are bent upon world domination, with the aid of their henchmen, the racial minorities.

That’s why the election of Barack Obama adds even more fuel to nativist rage: The president is a black man, child of an interracial union, the son of a foreigner who bears a foreign name. According to some, he is not even an American citizen. “[T]he face of the federal government—the enemy that almost all parts of the extreme right see as the primary threat to freedom—is now black,” says a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups. “And the fact that the president is an African American has injected a strong racial element into even those parts of the radical right, like the militias, that in the past were not primarily motivated by race hate.”

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Fear in the Heartland

The health care “debate” has been transformed into a confusing screaming match fueled by wild nativist fears. As Senator Chuck Grassley has found out at town meetings in Iowa, health care really is not the issue that’s on the minds of many. Instead, it’s all about the nation’s economic turmoil: People are hurting, and don’t see the stimulus plan helping them. From there, its a short leap to attacking the Federal Reserve, and what many perceive as a threatening, directionless federal government that is bent on controlling their daily lives.  And Grassley appears to be ready to capitalize on the anger:

Not everyone is coming to the town hall meetings because of health care. It’s kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Grassley said. “They’re seeing the stimulus not working. They’re seeing the Federal Reserve shoving money out of the airplane not working. They’re seeing big increases in the deficit coming. Then they see a trillion-dollar health-care bill, and they think it’s not good for the country.”

The anger and paranoia directed at the government in general, and Obama in particular, that can be glimpsed at the tea parties and town hall meetings are ugly and often racist, depicting the president as everything from a socialist granny-killer to the anti-Christ himself. They’re also downright frightening, considering the fact that so many of these people own guns. But they are based on genuine fear, and sometimes on real suffering. 

These fears remind me of the fears that ran through the Midwest more than 20 years ago, during the 1984 presidential election. Back then Walter Mondale was vainly fighting Ronald Reagan, against a backdrop of farm foreclosures,bank crackdowns, penny auctions, and fight back by rural people in the heartland. Then as now, people showed up in angry knots–not unlike today’s town meetings–at foreclosure s to shout down the auctioneers, trying to save a farm. The gun of choice at that time was the semi-automatic mini 14, which was held by some in the same esteem as the Colt 45 did back in the day. Some turned to the Bible, watched the skies for Soviet bombers, dug themselves into bunkers.

All in all, then as now, what we faced was an outpouring of nativism–fears of the unknown, of the foreigner coming across our borders, of a sinister hegemonic government, of things going out of control. This was the desperate response of people who had lost farms that had been in their families for generations, had lost their way of life, and were scared and angry and looking for someone or something to blame–and who found no viable populist alternative on the left.

If you can’t remember those days, rent Country starring Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard and written in part by Shepard, who knows this world well.  It was shot in Iowa in 1984, and showed a couple struggling to save their family farm, against greedy banks and government policies that paved the way for a takeover by large agribusinesses.  At that time Reagan said the film “was a blatant propaganda message against our agri programs.” The film’s tag line was “In this country, when the land is your life…you fight for your life.”

Progressives then waited anxiously for the movie’s release, hoping it could channel the nativist far right politics into a constructive force. Things didn’t quite work out that way: Folks in the heartland stuck, literally, to their guns. They aren’t likely to work out any better now.