Scott McLemee: Conspiracy theories about 9/11 were inevitable even if the plot wasn't





Last month, Thomas M. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton published Without Precedent, an account of their time as co-chairs (Republican and Democratic, respectively) of the 9/11 Commission. Whatever the uses of a deliberate and scrupulous bipartisanship in political life, it does not make for good memoir-writing. I read it, but kept slipping into that mild coma that is an occupational hazard for anyone who reviews a lot of not-very-good or just-sort-of-okay books for newspapers.

Yet one thing about Without Precedent did prove quite interesting: the strong emphasis on conspiracy theorists. Or rather, to be more exact, the authors’ preoccupation with trying to head them off at the pass. The spectre of the Warren Commission must have haunted their dreams. They put a lot of thought into establishing what they call “core principles” intended to prevent “the kinds of conspiracy theorizing that have followed in the wake of other inquiries.” They mention this guiding intention not once or twice, but roughly a dozen times.

“We decided to be open and transparent,” they write, “so that people could see how we reached our conclusions about 9/11, and we demanded access to every document and witness in part to demonstrate that we had left no stone unturned in our investigation. We also adopted a policy of openness to the general public: people could send information to our offices, and somebody would review that information.”

Clearly preventing conspiracy theory was a major concern — which also suggests that Kean and Hamilton must have known that it was, for all practical purposes, an effectively hopeless endeavor. The impulse to frame things in terms of conspiracy has very deep roots. It is not an American specialty, by any means. But there is something sobering about reading the pamphlets from the years just before the Revolution and discovering that the patriots were, let’s say, a tad paranoid at times. (George Washington worried about the “systematic plan” of King George and minions to turn the colonists into slaves “as tame and abject,” as he put it in an interesting turn of phrase, “as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.")

The idea that malevolent secret forces are at work behind current events is much too seductive to banish. And now, as the fifth anniversary of the attacks approaches, we have regular reminders that the 9/11 commissioners’ efforts at prophylaxis have failed. The single best-publicized source of conspiracy theory on the matter is a group calling itself Scholars for 9/11 Truth whose members have been much in the news lately. Both Kevin Barrett and William Woodward belong to the group, and I’ve read Barrett’s work in one of their journals....



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