Signs of a deep and abiding popular skepticism toward the official conspiracy narrative of the 9/11 attacks (the one about a conspiracy among 19 Islamic terrorists armed with box-cutters that successfully demolished three WTC towers and a sizeable chunk of the Pentagon before any effort at a US military intervention could be mustered) continue rhizomically to proliferate through our media culture nearly a decade after the Mother of All Media Events. Among the striking features of this skeptical orientation are the transmediality of its narrative terrains and the broad social diversity of the identities and adherents it unites. Its adherents include tenured professors of physics, history, sociology, political science and other fields; veterans of military service and of the CIA, the Pentagon, and the Bush Administration; surviving family members of WTC attack victims; first responders such as firefighters, cops and other rescue workers; media celebrities and journalists; judges and elected officials from around the world; and literally thousands of licensed and certified architects, engineers and pilots.
As Jodi Dean has observed, one thing that differentiates members of the self-appointed “9/11 Truth Movement” from earlier advocates of “conspiracy theory” (such as the alternative knowledge communities that have adduced counter-evidence and counter-narratives around, for instance, the assassination of JFK, or the involvement of the CIA in the distribution of crack-cocaine within African American communities in order to generate funds for the Nicaraguan Contras and so undermine the strength of political oppositionality among both Sandinistas and US Blacks) is a certain degree of conviction, certitude, or what Dean labels “drive” regarding the incontrovertibility of their assertions and the righteousness of their activism. However, such an observation does not fully capture the diversity of attitudes and orientations toward the numerous counter-discourses circulating among those who are skeptical of the official conspiracy narrative propounded by the likes of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the members of the 9/11 Commission (some of whom have themselves famously denounced the deep flaws in their own final report).
Richard Gage, for instance, provides a compelling example of drive: he has for years been passionately asserting and painstakingly documenting (with what many academic researchers and others consider to be scientific precision) the physical impossibility of the three WTC towers collapsing symmetrically at nearly free-fall acceleration into their own footprints, as they did on September 11, 2001, except under conditions of controlled explosive demolition. Gage has attracted considerable international attention as a member of the American Institute of Architects who in 2006 founded the organization Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, which has secured the signatures of about 1,400 architectural and engineering professionals on its petition demanding a new Congressional investigation into the September 11 attacks. See: http://www2.ae911truth.org/videos/Close-Up_Richard_Gage.mov
Among the most astonishing pieces of evidence touted by Gage and his associates are the studies published in peer-reviewed physics journals by well-respected professors such as Steven Jones that demonstrate the inexplicable presence of large quantities of a high-tech explosive incendiary substance known as “nanothermite” (manufactured by only a few secretive military contractors such as Livermore Labs) in the dust blown across lower-Manhattan on September 11, 2001.
Geraldo Rivera, by contrast, took many years to shift from a position of unyielding refusal to even consider the viability of alternative accounts of the 9/11 attacks (“Oh, get a life!” he once yelled on camera at a group of protesters chanting, “9/11 was an inside job”) to one of self-proclaimed open-mindedness toward such accounts, which he announced last month on Geraldo at Large in the wake of the recent “Building What?” media campaign launched by key members of the 9/11 victims’ families such as Bob McIlvaine.
Indeed, the existence of a large group that adamantly dismisses out of hand any evidence that undermines the official conspiracy narrative of the 9/11 attacks may be more notable than that of a somewhat smaller group that asserts conspiratorial counter-narratives from a stance of righteous certainty. Meanwhile, there seems to be very little discursive space for suspended judgment or considered agnosticism. Is this yet another byproduct of the oft-noted “unprecedented polarization” of the political terrain in the contemporary US? Not in any clear-cut sense of partisan or left/right division; recent sympathizers with the 9/11 Truth Movement include, for example, Marxist intellectual and former European Parliamentarian Gianni Vattimo, right-wing Fox News commentator and former New Jersey Superior Court judge Andrew Napolitano, and political category-defying gadfly, investigative news show host and former independent Governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura. Moreover, media figures claimed by both progressives and conservatives are united in their willingness summarily to dismiss the mere discussion of alternative 9/11 narratives as “crazy talk,” including Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Bill O’Reilly, and Glen Beck.
This dismissiveness reveals very little about the evidence in support of either the official 9/11 conspiracy narrative endorsed by the Bush Administration or the counter-narratives suggested by the Truthers. However, it tells us much about the denunciatory force and exclusionary power of the discourse of “conspiracy theory,” which at this point in history seems capable by its mere invocation of rendering dissident perspectives and counter-knowledges illegitimate a priori. As Jack Bratich has shown, this denunciatory discourse of “conspiracy theory” is part of a larger discursive apparatus that works to keep US politics “within reason” and thus to exert control and discipline over dangerous forms of thinking. This power-bearing “reasonability” expresses of course not a universal position but rather an historically specific (and contested) formation of reason. While the Enlightenment was surely indispensible for the American Revolution, so too was the highly active conspiracy-mindedness of leading colonists bent on discerning obscure patterns of orchestrated deceit, manipulation and treachery in the machinations of key British parliamentarians of the day. If the American Revolution was a product of both Enlightenment rationalism and colonial conspiracy theorization, today it is the shadow cast by a particular historical formation of “reasonability” that makes it difficult for most of our mainstream media outlets to contemplate either the possibility or the evidence of something deeply rotten at the core of our democracy.