The Man Who Thought He Knew Too Much

The Zapruder film? It was faked. The Wellstone crash? It was a hit. 9/11? An inside job. Tumbling down the rabbit hole with professional philosopher Jim Fetzer.

Jim Fetzer's labors notwithstanding, the idea that the U.S. government was an active participant in the 9/11 attacks strikes the vast majority of Americans as outlandish. Naturally, in his view, the media bears a large responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. But Fetzer thinks there is another dynamic at work, something rooted in psychology. "Confronting the idea that the American government has been practicing terrorism on the American people is very difficult to accept," he says. "I draw the parallel to the mother who discovers her husband is molesting her daughter."

This argument would be a little more persuasive were it not for some other inconvenient problems with the truth movement. As truth movement debunkers are fond of pointing out, many of the scandals that have plagued the Bush administration—the NSA wiretapping program, the secret prisons, the Plame affair, the rendition of terror suspects—have come to light because of leaks from within the government. And yet if you are to believe the avatars of the truth movement, a conspiracy that minimally involved hundreds of participants has yet to produce a single confession. It is a conundrum that neither Fetzer nor his allies can answer in a particularly satisfying way.

For that matter, you might wonder, if 9/11 was orchestrated by the government as a pretext for imperial expansion, why did the government identify 15 of the alleged hijackers as coming from Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally? Why not say they were from Iraq or Afghanistan, which were the presumptive objects of our imperial ambition? "That's an interesting question," Fetzer says. In addressing this thorny matter, he chooses to talk about Lee Harvey Oswald. "Why, in framing Oswald—when you can use any weapon in the world—do you use a piece-of-junk World War II Italian carbine, which wasn't even a high-velocity weapon?" he asks. "Why does the government do these sorts of things? Because they can get away with it. And one reason the government can have been emboldened to pull off such a giant hoax as 9/11 is because they got away with assassinating the president of the United States in broad daylight in a major American city in front of hundreds of witnesses."

To some, that logic may sound tortured. Yet 2006 has been a year of enormous progress for the 9/11 truth movement. In large part, that has been a demonstration of the efficacy of the internet as a tool to recruit believers. Web documentaries such as Loose Change and In Plane Sight have fueled enthusiasm for the inside-job hypothesis. Like Fetzer, the creators of Loose Change—a one-hour-long analysis of blurry photographic evidence from that day—aren't content to argue that the World Trade Center collapsed because of controlled demolition; they contend that no plane struck the Pentagon and that the whole story of Flight 93—the passenger revolt, "Let's roll," the crash over Shanksville—is nothing but a grand hoax. And what of the phone calls made by passengers? Fetzer believes those phone calls were probably made by government agents using voice synthesizers.

Though it's difficult to quantify, the number of 9/11 conspiracy theory sites on the internet seems to be growing rapidly. Believers are cropping up with increased frequency in the public domain. One day, they can be found bombarding C-SPAN talk shows. The next, they are chattering on late-night radio. And always, they are posting on internet chat boards.

Mark Fenster, a law professor who authored the book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, is not surprised by the surge in 9/11-related theories. "These kinds of traumatic events occur once in a generation," he observes. "This has the feel of a spectacular moment in history, much the way the Kennedy assassination did." In Fenster's view, conspiracy theories—even when they are utterly wrong in the particulars—often speak to broader truths. "Just because conspiracy theories are wrong does not mean they are not on to something," Fenster observes. "Specifically, they ideologically address real structural inequities, and constitute a response to a withering civil society." That sympathetic view, of course, is not shared by many other observers, who regard conspiracy advocates as cranks and crackpots whose fevered tales only serve to obscure genuinely important issues. That has been the standard line of response among most liberal journalists when confronted with 9/11 conspiracies.

Conspiracy theories, Christopher Hitchens once memorably wrote, are "the exhaust fumes of democracy." If that's true, it stands to reason that the rest of us probably ought to just ignore them. Fenster disagrees. But he acknowledges that the conspiracy mindset does promote a certain helplessness among adherents. "There's something incredibly debilitating about the suggestion that the political system is so corrupt that there is no real answer to it. All you're trying to do is invoke suspicion and agreement that something terrible has happened. What do you do next?" he asks. "In the end, I guess, the next step is to vote the bums out. But if you're so convinced that there is a huge conspiracy, then merely voting the bums out won't do anything."

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