Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Is This Not Ideology At Its Purest?

I gotta stop doing this: taking the bait on someone else's blog by responding to someone far over my political horizon, hijacking the comments thread and generally being a bloviating bore. But man, did I blow it this time - I raised the hackles of a 9/11 Truth evangelist. Yeah, one of these guys. And now my keyboard is paying for it in exponential wear 'n' tear.

I've never thought the narrative offered by the US government was entirely satisfactory; I'll even hazard there was actionable intelligence about the terrorist plot that was deliberately neglected by the Machiavellian vampires in PNAC. (Condi could probably back up such a claim.) But every alternate telling of the event - including though not limited to controlled demolition, squibs, stand-down orders, missiles, remote-controlled drones, and, of course, the Jews did it - is equally pockmarked by inconsistency, pseudoscience, and circumstantial evidence. Not that this dulls the fervor of the 9/11 Truth crowd, no sir! The great irony of the "Truthers" is that, as much cross-examination to which they subject the official account, they never betray the slightest doubt about their own conclusions. The last time I saw someone so brassbound of his own convictions, it was, uh... that retarded cowboy fellow who's been running the country for the past eight years.

I can't discuss the 9/11 Truth movement without hearing Slavoj Žižek's de facto motto ringing in my ears: Is that not ideology at its purest? The 9/11 Truth weltanschaaung is a meticulously fantastic, all-encompassing construction to which exceptions or contradictions only prove the rule, which in turn denies the exceptions or contradictions as being such. It's as impregnable and self-affirming as any other ideology, from Adorno's miserablist Marxism to Catholicism to Scientology. In short, it's fucking impossible to entrust with even a modicum of self-skepticism.

So why am I giving more airtime to this armchair-CSI lunacy? Well, I originally intended to use this space to continue the demagogic ping-pong match without co-opting any more of Jodi Dean's comment thread. But I'll save my breath and instead refer you to the article that kicked off this whole melee: the Biblically-long debate between Matt Taibbi and David Ray Griffin hosted by Alternet. Grab a cup of coffee, 'cuz it's over thirty pages long (though the fur doesn't really start flying until Part II). Almost any argument that was made at Dean's blog (or could be made here) is covered somewhere within the article, so give at least a little of your time.

I'll admit my bias out of the gate: Taibbi is one of the most thorough and viciously funny journalists on the beat, though his increasingly frenzied, nouveau-gonzo style reveals (as Tim Krieder noted) "a man whom coverage of national politics has driven to the brink of utter and irredeemable loathing of mankind." But I also have to give Griffin his due: he presented himself as diplomatic, patient, and attentive, ditching histrionics for investigative scrutiny. This is in stark contrast to the usual spittle-hail and witch-hunt hysterics through which Truthers deliver their arguments. Perhaps the 9/11 Truth community might make more headway if their massaged their PR a bit. The hectoring tone, juvenile monitions to "wake the fuck up!", and smug sighing over having to thanklessly point out "the blindingly obvious" aren't exactly endearing.

The mistake Truthers make is like confusing Bush with Batman: the forensic microscopy and fanciful dot-connecting ignores the complete picture. The day the WTC was destroyed, that very afternoon, I was already more terrified about what Bush's response would be. I'll borrow some words from Žižek to avoid sounding monstrously callous:
The U.S. just got the taste of what goes on around the world on a daily basis, from Sarajevo to Grozny, from Rwanda and Congo to Sierra Leone. If one adds to the situation in New York snipers and gang rapes, one gets an idea about what Sarajevo was a decade ago.
The attacks were like punching a gorilla in the nose: an irrationally bold gesture of defiance that would temporarily stun the beast, but then set its blood to boil. Run to the hills, motherfuckers.

Bringing this back to my initial point on Jodi Dean's blog, it's not as though any of the various 9/11 conspiracy theories need be proven true to indict the Bush (and Blair) administrations for their heinous offenses. The whole of the American & British cabinets could be dragged into the Hague right now and receive the same charge dispensed at the Nuremberg Trials: planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace. This is without considering the plethora of other disgusting transgressions that are sufficiently well-documented that I needn't recount them all here.

The question might become one of priorities: do we want BushCo. punished for being the amoral, imperialist hegemons they are, or do we want to bicker endlessly over incomplete and corrupt evidence? From a legal standpoint, a 9/11 Truth prosecution of the Bush Administration is unfeasible: in the Taibbi/Griffin article, Griffin's courtroom analogy posits himself as a defense attorney, who needs only establish the shadow of a doubt, which the official 9/11 narrative is certainly not beyond. But then neither is the 9/11 Truth version of the event.

Dismayingly, I suspect the real question at the root of this interminably dull argument is: what do we care about more, 2751 dead in New York City, or (as of today) 4180 Americans, 314 other coalition members, and an estimated 1,273,378 Iraqis? Do we care more about our fellow middle-class Starbucks customers, or a bunch of gun-toting pseudo-barbarians fighting over a beige wasteland? Are we more disturbed by a traumatic schism in our quotidian Western comfort, which we must fill with whatever fragmented fantasy we can possibly cobble together from material scraps, or by an ongoing, slow-burning slaughter of colossal scale that nonetheless is out of our empathic view?

I don't particularly want the answer to those questions - but then, that's probably exactly what a 9/11 Truther would've said about me anyway.


Andrew Stevens said...

I've never thought the narrative offered by the US government was entirely satisfactory; I'll even hazard there was actionable intelligence about the terrorist plot that was deliberately neglected by the Machiavellian vampires in PNAC.

This is false. For one thing, law enforcement did act on the intelligence. They arrested Zacarias Moussaoui a month before the hijacking. Requests for permission to search his laptop and personal rooms were denied for civil rights reasons. There are a few points to make here. A) The signal-to-noise ratio on intelligence of this sort is very low - there are always lots more claims of plots than there are actual plots just as there are many more conspiracy theories than actual conspiracies. B) After 9/11, the Bush Administration has been accused of creating a police state by being less concerned about civil rights and more concerned about safety. Imagine the outcry had he done this before 9/11. Americans take their civil rights very seriously, both on the left and the right. C) There was certainly a failure of imagination on the part of law enforcement and intelligence-gathering agencies in the Bush Administration. The idea that people could hijack airplanes with box cutters simply never occurred to them. The idea that people would hijack airplanes, not just to threaten the passengers and crew of the airplanes, but to deliberately crash them into high-occupancy buildings also never occurred to them. The Al Qaeda plan, given the availability they had of people willing to commit suicide, was brilliant and they were able to use this element of surprise to maximum effect. It is, of course, a gun that can only be fired once.

All of this is just Hanlon's Law. Never attribute to malice what can easily be explained by incompetence. I've excoriated the Bush Administration for incompetence on numerous occasions, but actually this isn't particularly one of them. There was some incompetence, but it's all entirely understandable unlike, say, the bungling of the occupancy of Iraq or the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

It's fascinating that conspiracy theories used to be the characteristic lunacy of the right. Black helicopters, one-world governments, the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Federal Reserve, and all of that. And then three shots rang out in Dallas. A tax-cutting fiercely anti-Communist President had been gunned down by, in Jackie Kennedy's words, a "silly little Communist." The first conspiracy theories about Kennedy came from the right - whispers that the LBJ Administration were covering up Cuban or Soviet connections to Oswald in order to avoid a possible nuclear war. But these theories were quickly buried by an avalanche from the left. LBJ was actually the beneficiary of a right-wing plot to take down JFK! (The fact that LBJ was far, far more liberal than JFK, despite LBJ being from Texas and JFK from Massachusetts seems to have escaped their notice.) Most of these theories have something to do with Vietnam. Nobody mentions that, while we have no idea what JFK would have thought of escalation in Vietnam, we do know that LBJ's advisors who most strongly urged him to escalate were, to a man, Kennedy men. Some of these theories even exonerate Oswald, even though the evidence against Oswald is open-and-shut. (We cannot say with certainty, however, that other people were not involved with Oswald in the plot. All we can say is that there's no good evidence for this.) Conspiracy theories, once confined to a fringe on the right, seem to be in danger of actually taking over the whole of the left. It's a strange thing to witness. E.g. what I found interesting in your debate with the Truthers was that neither side seemed particularly interested in what was true, so much as what was useful. (And I did hear Chomsky make almost precisely that point in a taped interview.) This isn't unique to the left, of course. Sadly, this is common across the political spectrum. I seem to be in a tiny minority of people who aren't interested in whether a piece of propaganda is helpful to his cause (and plausible enough to gain traction), but whether or not it is actually true.

Seb said...

Man, where were you when we were trying not to be shouted down by these batshit 9/11 Truthers over at I Cite? You're preaching to the choir here, man. The key word of mine that you quoted was "hazard"; you'll notice I didn't make much of an argument for such a theory - because I don't really believe it. Is it feasible or possible? Yeah, I think so. But, like you (and especially given the track record of the administration taken in total), I'll pick brute incompetence over a masterfully evil plan any day.

Andrew Stevens said...

Fair enough then. I did read the thread on I Cite when it was going on. (After you mentioned Jodi Dean, I looked up her site and have been checking in on it occasionally.) I chose not to intervene since I didn't think my perspective would help. When one extreme left wing group and another more moderate left wing group are arguing, it usually doesn't help matters when someone who is not left wing at all steps in and says that he agrees with the more moderate perspective. What would they care that some evil capitalist pig agrees with you?

However, I do think it's valuable to point out some inconsistencies in the argument from the left. The actions the Bush Administration would have had to have taken to prevent 9/11 are actions that the left would scream about now. It is not intellectually serious to simultaneously argue that it should have taken those steps then. It is a classic heads-I-win, tails-you-lose dilemma.

Seb said...

You're right, there are glaring inconsistencies on the left - in general, but especially with regard to the blame cast upon the Bush administration for 9/11. Not only are "the actions the Bush Administration would have had to have taken to prevent 9/11... actions that the left would scream about now," but those steps in all liklihood still would have been insufficient in preventing a terrorist attack - perhaps nothing so spectacular as 9/11, but something horrific could have happened nonetheless. No less a luminary than Jesse Ventura (ha!) recalled the grim effectiveness of the Beltway Snipers: "These guys paralyzed four states and 20 million people and they weren't even that good. You take five coordinated sniper teams, put them in five different locations around this country and start randomly killing people, and you would bring us to a freeze." This echoes a comment I've made innumerable times to friends since 9/11: the day a suicide bomber walks into a Starbucks is the day the United States crumbles.

It's impossible to legislate against terrorism, if only because the only way to guarantee there would be no attacks whatsoever would be an authoritarian state the likes of which would make China and the DDR look like sissies. What is possible is to mitigate the offenses & transgressions that would breed terrorists in the first place.

I can see how the 9/11 debate over at I Cite seemed like a horserace between whose intel was more utilitarian; but if the priority is to charge the US administration with violating international law, then my side of the debate (a non-9/11-oriented prosecution) has the benefit of being backed by fact and not fanciful speculation. How can a successful prosecution (assuming an uncorrupt court) that isn't based on the truth be launched? Again, it says a lot about the 9/11 Truth read of history that their explanatory analogy posits them as the defense team, because they ain't got the evidence to prosecute a damn thing beyond a doubt.

While I may be interested in what is useful, I'm interested first in what is true. Only after veracity has been established can we really decide if the information is useful or not. The only people to whom untruth is useful are propagandists, hustlers, witch doctors, spooks, pimps, snake oil salesmen, and thieves.

As for the JFK assassination, my read on it has always been mafia-oriented. There was no grand political scheme on either the right or the left, it had nothing to do with Russia or Vietnam - it was, as they say, strictly business.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't think the U.S. would crumble in such a circumstance, but I do think we'd wind up a very different country. Generally I agree with almost all of your comment.

The Mafia speculation is unlikely, but I suppose it's possible. Jack Ruby may have had some ties to mobsters (or, more specifically, his friend Joseph Campisi may have been a mobster, though there isn't great evidence either way) and, of course, JFK reportedly did too (but I'm not sure of the veracity of that information either - I've never really looked into it). Also, Bobby Kennedy's investigation into the Mafia certainly gives them a credible motive. It should be stated that all of Ruby's friends and family think the notion that he was connected to the Mafia and killed Oswald for them is nothing short of laughable. But the real difficulty with the theory is Oswald.

When I said earlier that there was an open-and-shut case against Oswald, I may have overstated it somewhat. There is an open-and-shut case against Oswald on November 22nd, 1963, the murder of Officer J.D. Tippit. Tippit was shot with Oswald's revolver (the shell casings which Oswald ejected near Tippit's body were positively matched by unanimous testimony of experts), which was found on Oswald when he was arrested. Two witnesses saw Oswald shoot Tippit and picked him out of separate lineups. Seven other witnesses heard the shots and saw him flee with revolver in hand. Three others identified Oswald as the man they saw running from the shooting to the Theater where he was later arrested. So we can conclude either 1) Oswald shot Tippit or 2) someone who looked very like Oswald shot Tippit with Oswald's revolver and then gave the revolver back to Oswald after running to him in the theater and somehow escaping without anyone seeing him. The simplest hypothesis is 1. So now we need a motive for Oswald to have shot Tippit. I maintain the only credible motive is that Oswald was involved with the assassination; you're asking too much of coincidence otherwise, given that Oswald was working in a building earlier in the day with his rifle with his palmprint on it in a perfect position to fire the two shots that hit Kennedy and Governor Connally and Tippit was stopping Oswald because he matched the description of their chief suspect. (However, there is some wriggle room for whether he was the actual assassin, I suppose.) The circumstantial evidence against Oswald's being the assassin is overwhelming, but we'll leave that aside. Occam's Razor says that Oswald was hip-deep in the assassination.

If it was the Mafia, why? Why would the Mafia trust a loose cannon like Oswald? It's true that Ruby's murder of Oswald looks like a hit to shut Oswald up, though Oswald had been in custody for 24 hours. (So more likely it was removing a witness who they knew had probably already talked, but, miraculously, hadn't done so.) I just don't find the argument particularly plausible. However, G. Robert Blakey, one of the nation's foremost authorities on organized crime and RICO laws, agrees with you (specifically blaming Carlos Marcello) and it is, by far, the least nutty conspiracy theory I've ever heard. Blakey believes the evidence against Oswald as JFK's assassin is open and shut as well. He does believe, I think wrongly, that there was a fourth shot fired from the grassy knoll, but he also believes it missed, which is the only halfway plausible "more-than-one-shooter" theory. However, the Mafia theory does have one advantage: I don't know it's wrong. I do believe it's implausible since it's hard to imagine the Mafia working with Oswald of all people (or, for that matter, Jack Ruby) and the Mob, at that time, had far more to lose than to gain from the assassination. If they thought Bobby Kennedy was putting the heat on them, they had to know the heat would get even worse if they got mixed up in an assassination of the President of the United States. Other people have criticized the Mafia theory because the Mafia does not have the power to engage in the "cover-up." However, if we accept Oswald as the assassin, very little covering up needed to be done.