I was reading an essay about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the Spring, 2008 edition of New German Critique, when I stumbled on an intriguing article about 9/11 conspiracy theory by Peter Knight. Knight is an academic and the editor or author of a number of well-received books on conspiracy theory, including Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia, Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to the X Files, and The Kennedy Assassination.
Outrageous Conspiracy Theories: Popular and Official Responses to 9/11 in Germany and the United States makes the point that the Truther myth and the Bush administration’s account alike are both demonological narratives, that they both feature villainous actors and innocent victims, and are both premised on a presumption of American exceptionalism (sinister or benign). Knight dismisses most of the conspiratorial counter-theories on a factual basis, but he finds that some of the conspiratorial websites (Mathias Bröckers’s “World Trade Center Conspiracy” blog and Paul Thompson’s “Complete 9/11 Timeline” online database, in particular) create:
strategies of representation that begin to push to the very limit—and even at times undermine—the traditional epistemological structures embedded in conspiracy theories that make them so attractive to believers seeking the refuge of humanist certainties in an increasingly posthumanist age: namely, nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, everything is connected. In short, they end up creating portraits of highly interconnected but also decentered and deterritorialized networks of vested interests that are not necessarily the product of individual or collective intentionality, producing in effect a picture of what might paradoxically be termed “conspiracy without conspiring.”
Read past the academic buzzwords and what he’s saying is that the truth is more elusive than any straightforward narrative can provide–that the conspiracists, however wrong-headed or disingenuous, are serendipitous deconstructionists and the “orthodox” tale-tellers outmoded humanists. “Despite the conspiracists’ attempts to name and blame a particular source of the imagined plot,” he writes, “often an infinite regress of suspicion opens up, as the location of the ultimate foundation of power is endlessly deferred. In other words, what these conspiracy accounts of 9/11 produce, almost in spite of themselves, is a portrait of power as decentered and dispersed into a vast network of interlocking vested interests within the wider process of globalization, a picture that cannot easily be pinned down to an evil cabal, even if at the surface level it is presented in those traditional terms.”
As a non-academic, I find this fascinating, provocative, and ultimately terrifying. I think Knight makes a necessary and valid point that the official 9/11 story is compromised by its tellers’ psychological, political, and propagandistic distortions, conscious or not. I suspect–as with the Kennedy assassination–that documents that might have settled some of the most vexing issues will never be found, because they were destroyed or altered by interested parties. I even concede that, if it plausibly undercuts the orthodox account, then some of the data that the conspiracists collect, much of it dismissed out of hand by official chroniclers, should be seriously considered–provided that it’s not invented out of whole cloth or hyped beyond recognition (as so many of the supposed 9/11 anomalies turn out to be).
But in the long run, I would hope that conscious, thoughtful, critical-minded scholarship–good history, as it were–provides a better antidote to bad history than the accidental hermeneutics of conspiracy theorists, however many “truths” they may accidentally reveal.