What's Left

When's a conspiracy theory not a conspiracy theory?
When it's your own

By Stephen Gowans

It has become fashionable these days, in a kind of snobbish way, to denounce 9/11 conspiracy theories. "Conspiracy theories," the growing legion of detractors snort, "are absurd, ridiculous, and beneath contempt. Not only that, they're harmful."

And, indeed, it's true; some conspiracy theories are absurd, and some are harmful, but it's doubtful the absolutist position that all conspiracy theories are absurd is also true. Couldn't some conspiracy theories be true?

But my purpose isn't to defend this conspiracy theory or that, or to pick the good from the bad, but to look at the way "conspiracy theory" is used as a handy derogatory label to dismiss unpalatable and disturbing views, while other views that are not so unpalatable or disturbing and are just as much conspiracy theories, are accepted as reasonable; some even as received truth.

In fact, what's branded a "conspiracy theory" and therefore is said to be worthy of contempt,  seems to depend on who's said to be doing the conspiring.

Take the theory that holds that US President George W. Bush had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks on US buildings, but did nothing to warn Americans, knowing he could use their deaths to his advantage. This theory is denounced as a monstrous slur, as having no basis in fact. And it's branded a  "conspiracy theory."

But if the same theory were invoked to explain the behavior of an official enemy of the United States, or of the leader of a country Washington considers a rival, what are the chances it would be denounced as a monstrous slur, that has no basis in fact, and amounts to nothing more than base conspiracy theorizing?

Slim to none, I'd say. And I believe this to be so, because there is such a theory, and it has hardly been treated as absurd, ridiculous or unthinkable. Indeed, it hasn't even been labelled  a conspiracy theory. But its features are no different than the "Bush had foreknowledge and deliberately failed to act" theory.

Advanced by the chief UN prosecutor Carla del Ponte, this (unlabelled conspiracy) theory says that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, had foreknowledge of NATO attacks on Serb buildings, and did nothing to warn Serbs, knowing he could use their deaths to his advantage. In other words, he did what some conspiracy theorists allege Bush did (or didn't do.) And del Ponte has threatened to add the charge --  a conspiracy view, just as much as the Bush one --  to the list of indictments against Milosevic. So why isn't del Ponte's view branded a "conspiracy theory" and dismissed as beneath our notice?

Or what of Russian president Vladimir Putin? How would a theory that says Putin conspired to organize terror attacks against Russian civilians to justify military intervention in Chechnya be received? Like the theory that holds Bush responsible for conspiring to arrange terror attacks against US civilians? Would the Putin-did-it view be denounced, as the views of Jared Israel, Michael Rupert, and Michel Chossudovsky have been (who argue the Bush administration was complicit in 9/11.) Indeed, would the Putin as conspirator view even be called a conspiracy theory, or would it be accepted as a view worthy of consideration by level-headed, reasonable people -- hardly a "conspiracy theory" at all (though it very clearly involves a conspiracy)?

The following, published in The Globe and Mail (June 27, 2002), Canada's establishment newspaper, by Amy Knight, a respected university professor, says yes; it would be considered reasonable, and wouldn't be called a "conspiracy theory."
 

"In a third FSB-motivated case," (the FSB is the successor of the KGB) "a Moscow court on Monday convicted former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko of abuse of office and stealing explosives. (He was given a suspended sentence of three-and-a-half years.)

"Mr. Litvinenko, who lives under political asylum in Britain and was...tried in absentia, fled abroad in late 2000, after running afoul of the FSB when he came out with accusations that his employers had ordered him to kill business tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

"More recently, Mr. Litvinenko co-authored a book accusing the FSB of complicity in the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia that killed more than 300 people. The bombings, which Russian officials blamed on Chechen rebels, aroused wide public support for a second invasion of Chechnya and helped to catapult Vladimir Putin to power in 2000.

"The fact that the culprits were never found and that the FSB was subsequently caught red-handed with explosives in an apartment building in the city of Ryazan (the FSB claimed it was just a "training exercise") led Mr. Litvinenko and many other Russians...to voice suspicion about FSB involvement in the bombings.

"The prosecution...of Mr. Litvinenko, hurried through before a law making in-absentia trials illegal comes into force on July 1, may be intended largely as a warning to potential defectors from the security and intelligence services that they would face severe reprisals if they followed in the footsteps of these men.

"Given that both so openly and scathingly attacked their former employers, the verdicts against them are not that surprising. Nonetheless, their cases demonstrate that politically motivated trials, a holdover from the Soviet era, are still a part of the Russian judicial system."


Notice that Litvinenko's allegations, not materially different from the allegations of those who charge the US government with complicity in the 9/11 attacks, are discussed in the context of a serious think-piece, written by a serious academic, in a serious, establishment newspaper. Notice too that Litvinenko's charges are not dismissed, and that the quality of his evidence (whatever it might be), is not called into question. And importantly, Litvinenko's views of a Kremlin-based conspiracy aren't called a conspiracy theory.

Notice, moreover, that you haven't seen the views of Israel, Rupert or Chossudovsky discussed in the mainstream press as serious allegations worthy of anyone's attention. Indeed, the only sustained attention they've received is in the Left American media, where they've been hysterically denounced on the flimsiest grounds. (David Corn, writing in The Nation, argues that Bush's fear of being caught would have deterred him from conspiring in 9/11. Perhaps, Corn would have argued that Richard Nixon would have  never ordered the break-in of the Watergate Hotel, for the same reason: he would have been afraid of being found out.)

Yet, notice how close the parallel is between the two views.

One theory says, Putin orchestrated attacks on Russian buildings, which he then blamed on Islamists, to justify a war in Central Asia. The other says, Bush orchestrated attacks on US buildings, which he then blamed on Islamists, to justify a war in Central Asia. Suspicions are aroused because Putin has offered not a shred of evidence that the Islamists did it, and because the alleged culprits never actually said, "we did it," an odd thing for terrorists to do.  Moreover, the Russian security service was caught placing bombs in Russian buildings.  Suspicions are also aroused because Bush has offered no sound evidence that the Islamists did it, and because the alleged culprits have never actually said "we did it," an odd thing for terrorists to do. Moreover, the US security service has a long association with the alleged perpetrator.

Yet, despite the parallel, one's treated sympathetically and escapes being branded a "conspiracy theory," while the other is reviled and ridiculed as a "conspiracy theory" and circulates on the margins.

There's another parallel. While NATO was laying waste to Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999, I was struck by how the media attributed base and manipulative motives to non-NATO governments, particularly those of Yugoslavia, Russia and China, while angelizing the motives of NATO countries. So, for example, Milosevic's government was said to be inspired by ethnic hatred, Russia's opposition to the bombing was imputed to Slavic ethnic solidarity, while NATO governments were motivated by humanitarian concerns. Isn't dismissing conspiracy as the basis for our own government's actions, while accepting it as a possible basis for the actions of foreign governments, another instance of angelizing our own leaders while demonizing foreign leaders?

And there' another level on which the labelling of views as conspiracy theories is selective. While views that hold the US government responsible for, or as being complicit in, the 9/11 attacks, are disparaged as "conspiracy theories,"  the official view, which is every bit as much a conspiracy theory, is accepted as a received truth. That theory, it will be recalled, presented on no evidence at all, but with the demand that it be accepted on faith, holds that Osama bin Laden, "a sinister mastermind", conspired to have aircraft flown into the WTC and Pentagon because he hates American "freedom and democracy."  What's more, the White House peremptorily dismissed requests to see evidence, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair's brief he claimed proved the Saudi terrorist's culpability was a pathetic farrago of leaps of logic and old newspaper clippings. In other words, the evidence for the official conspiracy theory is no better, and a thousand times weaker, than the evidence for antigovernment theories of only mediocre quality. It's as if what amounts to a conspiracy theory and is worthy of contempt is any set of unsubstantiated allegations other than the one set forth by the White House, State Department and Pentagon.

You don't need a conspiracy theory to explain that. You need only point to patriotism; the patriotism that holds foreign leaders conspire; American leaders never do.

....

You may re-post this article, providing the text remains unchanged.

Join our e-mail list. Send an e-mail to What's Left and write "subscribe" in the subject line.

What's Left