Conspiracy theories are commonly believed, or at least circulated, among the Left in the industrialized North and seem to be even more commonly held, across the political spectrum, in the ‘developing world’. It is only after living in Egypt for three years have I come to see how widespread the language of ‘conspiracy’ is here. And it on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the United States that a discussion of conspiracy theories seems appropriate.
Conspiracy theories of the alleged terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001 are appealing for two reasons, not least of which is the US government’s use of the attacks for imperial undertakings abroad and the solidification of a ‘state of exception’ at home. (‘State of exception’ refers to the exceptional and provisional becoming part of the normal apparatuses of governance. What we may simply refer to as institution of constitutional dictatorship within the US. See Agamben 2005) The human and financial costs of the War on Terror are huge, immeasurable – and there is no doubt that the events on 9-11 proved to be a very convenient modus operandi for heightened control over citizens, economies and minds around the world.
A second reason for the appeal of conspiracy theories that tell of US government’s role in the attacks is that the federal investigations of the attacks were neither transparent nor thorough. The 9-11 commission in charge of the primary investigation was not a democratic entity, was not held accountable by the public for its work, and has been routinely criticized for its lack of comprehensiveness (for example, by not even addressing the collapse of Tower No. 7). Since there was not a thorough investigation nor a vibrant public debate about how to respond to the attacks, there is reason to question the official story told.
When the US government again decided not to be transparent about its alleged assassination of Osama bin Laden a few months ago, many today question that bin Laden was actually killed. Just today I saw a show on Aljazeera English, during which Pakistanis were interviewed who witnessed the US military coming into their town (where bin Laden was allegedly in hiding) and who still do not believe that the military found and killed bin Laden. Why? Because the US military has never furnished evidence of the assassination. As soon as he was allegedly killed, his body was brought aboard a military ship and thrown overboard.
So, yes, it is reasonable indeed to question the official story told. It seems much less reasonable to believe the official story when there is no formal, open inquiry through which one may be able to come to an educated opinion about what happened on 9-11 or the day that bin Laden was allegedly killed.
But this does not mean that it is reasonable to believe the conspiracy theories surrounding the 9-11 attacks. As Noam Chomsky has argued, most conspiracy theories put states in a potentially very precarious position, taking a very heavy risk. For instance, if the US government was in some capacity behind the attacks, then people within the government would have to know, and the chances of a leak are there. Any chance is too heavy a risk for a government in that it would lose all its legitimacy before the people.
More than this, though, conspiracy theories reveal that people feel impotent. And at the same time, I would argue, they construct a powerlessness among people. They create a story that makes states and influential groups omnipotent – and themselves ‘the victims’. As soon as protestors stormed the Israeli Embassy in Egypt this past Friday, and ‘threw out’ the Israeli ambassador, rumors spread that the Egyptian government was behind the embassy attack. According to the rumors, it was all part of the government’s plan to have an excuse to control protest activity even more – and within hours the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) did just that, by activating its emergency powers. The delayed response on the part of the military to the protestors’ attack may be suspicious, but arguing that the government was behind the attacks amounts to erasing from the historical memory those who participated. What about the risks they took? The burden they bore? The real reasons they had for kicking out the Israeli ambassador?
Conspiracy theories in a way nullify these questions. And the same for 9-11. There are real reasons why people would want to attack the United States. It is not a benevolent player in the international arena. It does things – like invade countries – that create enemies. On the anniversary of the tragic events of 9-11 it is important to publicly come to terms with the ways in which the US has created enemies – and how the government’s very responses to the attacks has done so.
More than this, the events of 9-11 – and this past Friday in Egypt – illustrate that one of the techniques of governance is the use of tragedy and dissent to consolidate power. This is not a conspiracy but a modern technique of state power. In places where states have so little legitimacy, it is no wonder that conspiracy theories thrive. And in places where people believe what their governments tell them, circulation of conspiracy theories can do some good.
Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. State of Exception. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.