Why facts won’t demolish the conspiracy theories
A report on the collapse of Tower 7 will not shut up 9/11 Truthers: their theories spring from a culture of mistrust, suspicion and ‘agency panic’.
The rise and rise of conspiratorial thinking is one of the most disturbing developments in twenty-first century public life.
Sometimes it appears as if Western societies have regressed, adopting a medieval attitude towards calamitous acts. Back in the Dark Ages, people regarded accidents, disasters and other acts of misfortune as the work of hidden forces. Accidents did not happen, apparently – they were intentionally caused, either by divine or malevolent forces. Misdeeds were often said to have been caused by people who had been manipulated by ‘evil forces’.
This primitive outlook is making a comeback; it informs the way many people make sense of high-profile catastrophes today. Conspiracy theories are pushed forward to explain what happened on 9/11, or why there was such devastation in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
And since conspiracy thinking believes that what you can’t see is more important than what you can see, it is highly unlikely that the report on the destruction of Tower Seven on 9/11 – due to be published by the Washington-based National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) this month – will help to clarify matters.
The 47-storey Tower Seven was the third tower to collapse at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Unlike the twin towers, Tower Seven was not hit by a plane. According to the conspiratorial imagination, Tower Seven was destroyed by the American government in a controlled explosion. Why? Because, it is claimed, American security agencies such as the FBI and CIA had offices in Tower Seven, and that is where they plotted to execute the ‘9/11 operation’. In short, they demolished Tower Seven to cover their tracks. How else, the conspiracy theorists ask, can we explain the collapse of a massive building?
9/11 ‘Truthers’ and other conspiracy thinkers are unlikely to be moved by NIST’s report, which is likely to argue that a raging fire caused Tower Seven to fall. As far as the so-called Truth Movement is concerned, this report is simply further evidence of a massive government-inspired cover-up.
A crisis of causality
The conspiratorial imagination views people, not as the authors of their destinies, but as objects of manipulative, secretive forces. Life is interpreted through the prism of a Hollywood blockbuster, where powerful evil figures pull all the strings. The flourishing of this imagination in recent years has been driven by society’s own difficulty in putting forward an authoritative account of events.
These days, virtually every aspect of public life is contested, challenged, doubted: there is little agreement on what are the causes of our current predicament. We might refer to this as a ‘crisis of causality’, and it is a crisis which continually calls into question any official version of events. Of course, officialdom’s account of event often needs to be questioned, but not by putting forward a simplistic, conspiratorial worldview that blames small cliques of evil people for everything that goes wrong in the world.
The crisis of causality means many people believe that major events are shaped and determined by a hidden agenda. We seem to be living in a shadowy world similar to that depicted in the movie franchise The Matrix Trilogy, where the big questions are: how do we know what is real, and who is being manipulated by whom?
In previous times, such conspiracism mainly informed the thinking of right-wing populist movements, which always saw the hand of Jewish, Masonic or Communist conspiracies behind major world events. Today, conspiracy theory has gone mainstream, and many of the most vociferous proponents of the conspiracy theory are radical protesters and thinkers on the cultural left. When, a few years ago, Hillary Clinton warned of a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ to undermine her husband – then US president Bill Clinton – it became clear that the politics of the hidden agenda had well and truly become a feature of public life. Today, the anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation movement is as wedded to the politics of conspiracy as is its opponents on the far right.
Contemporary conspiracy thinking helps to fuel suspicion and mistrust of politics. It replaces critical engagement with public life with a destructive search for the hidden agenda; it distracts from the clarification of genuine differences and helps turn public life into a theatre where what matters are the private lives and personal interests of mistrusted politicians. The media, in turn, fuels this attitude by continually suggesting that what really matters today is not what public figures actually say, but rather what their ‘real’ agenda is. This incites the public to look for hidden motives. No one, apparently, is what he seems to be. The normalisation of suspicion has absolutely no positive element to it.
The crisis of causality does not only mean we find it difficult to understand the chain of events that led to a particular outcome; it has also diminished our capacity to find meaning in what sometimes appears to us as a series of patternless events. Today, making sense of events is proving particularly troublesome – and in such circumstances, ‘facts’ about what happened do not really help very much. That is why significant sections of the public are sceptical toward official accounts of the death of Princess Diana, the reason for the US invasion of Iraq or the events of 9/11; even when we have the facts, society’s inability to make sense of events in a meaningful way pushes some people to seek meaning elsewhere.
Many seek explanations in the realm of conspiracies. People’s embrace of conspiracy theories is often driven by a sense of incomprehension towards the workings of the world. According to author Peter Knight, in his exploration of the relationship between our heightened sense of risk and the rise of conspiracy theories: ‘A conspiracy theory typically claims that there is a hidden agenda and a hidden hand behind current events… In effect, conspiracy theories have tended to restore a sense of agency, causality and responsibility to what would otherwise seem the inexplicable play of forces over which we have no control.’ (1)
The loss of a sense of causality has led to a situation where bad things – whether it’s accidents or disasters – are increasingly associated with intentional malevolent behaviour. Such episodes are frequently blamed on the self-serving, purposeful acts of politicians, business figures, doctors, scientists – indeed all professionals. Today, one of the clearest expressions of the sense of diminished subjectivity is the feeling that the individual is manipulated and influenced by hidden powerful forces – not just by spindoctors, subliminal advertising and the media, but also by immense powers that have no name.
For example, people often attribute unexplained physical and psychological symptoms to the food we eat, the water we drink, an extending variety of pollutants and other substances transmitted by new technologies and other invisible processes. The American academic, Timothy Melley, has characterised this response as ‘agency panic’. He writes: ‘Agency panic is intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy, the conviction that one’s actions are being controlled by someone else or that one has been “constructed” by powerful, external agents.’ (2) The perception that our behaviour and action is controlled by external agents is symptomatic of a heightened sense of fatalism, which arises from today’ s sense of diminished subjectivity. The feeling of being subject to manipulation and external control – the very stuff of conspiracy theory – springs from the contemporary perception of powerlessness.
History shows us that nothing is more frightening than when a community lacks a system of meaning through which it can understand the problems it confronts. In such circumstances, people feel powerless and confused, and are sometimes drawn towards a simplistic version of events where everything appears black or white or good and evil. That is why, for many people, the collapse of Tower Seven symbolises the workings of evil – and why NIST’s forthcoming report is unlikely to shake them out of their thinking patterns. Once you see and hear evil, and believe it exists, it is difficult to regard competing views as anything other than the work of Very Bad People.
Five years after 9/11, observed Frank Furedi in 2006, the search for meaning goes on. In two interviews with Brendan O’Neill, Furedi discussed first ‘the fallacy of the spider’s web’ and, earlier this year, the contemporary meaning of terrorism. Elsewhere O’Neill called conspiracy theories gossip dressed up as investigative journalism, while Emily Hill dismissed them as plane stupid. Munira Mirza reviewed CounterKnowledge. Or read more at spiked issue After 11 September.
(1) ‘ILOVEYOU: Viruses, paranoia and the environment of risk’, Peter Knight, included in The Age of Anxiety: Conspiracy Theory and the Human Sciences, Parish and Parker (eds), Blackwell Publishers 2001, p.21
(2) Empire and Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar American, Timothy Melley, Cornell University Press, 2000, p. vii
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