Another year, another anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I feel compelled once more to follow up on what I have previously argued on this subject, if nothing else in the hope that I will get through to some members of the so-called “9/11 Truth” movement and persuade them what a worthless enterprise their whole project is and, indeed, always has been. In this article I will deal with what motivates me to “go on the attack,” as one Truther put it to me in a recent exchange. First though, let me take you through the back-story.
On September 11, 2019, I wrote an article for The Canary, a UK-based online publication, arguing that 9/11 conspiracy theories are not just far-fetched but also harmful to the cause of opposing needless war. I quoted Noam Chomsky, who has argued that the “9/11 Truth” movement has had the effect of “draw[ing] enormous amounts of energy and effort away from activism directed to real and ongoing crimes of state, and their institutional background.”
Scores of 9/11 Truthers pounced on this article and began hurling abuse at both me and The Canary. These attacks included threats to withdraw financial support (The Canary is a reader-supported publication); suggestions that we had been “got at” by the secret forces supposedly behind the original conspiracy; accusations that I am a “gatekeeper”; and an insinuation (by one Whitney Webb) that The Canary had been insincere in publishing the article and had done so in order to “keep that green Newsguard rating at all costs.” None of these comments, of course, did anything to change my mind about the conspiracists’ claims themselves. They did do a great deal, however, to confirm my suspicions that the “9/11 Truth” movement has degenerated into a cult and attracted some pretty unpleasant and, frankly, seemingly mentally unwell people to its ranks.
But, in the interests of fairness and open-mindedness, I delved further into its claims to satisfy myself that I hadn’t been too hasty in rejecting them. Two years later, I had a piece titled “Why I’m Still Not Convinced By 9/11 Conspiracy Theories” published at CounterPunch, a longer revised version of which I published on my Medium page. In it, I acknowledged that there are various iterations of “9/11 Truth” conspiracy theories and that the claims made by these differing factions vary in terms of plausibility. In particular, I noted that there were those who believe that the Bush administration simply allowed the attacks to happen in order to create a ruse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq — known as the “LIHOP” faction, which stands for “let it happen on purpose.”
I concluded that, though I am not myself persuaded even by this most modest construction of “9/11 Truth” theories, I nonetheless believe that reasonable people can disagree about it. I maintained that theories of the rival “MIHOP” (that is, “made it happen on purpose”) faction, on the other hand, are not remotely credible, describing theories involving planted explosives, in particular, as “palpably fatuous.” I finished by making an appeal to 9/11 Truthers who still are not persuaded by my rebuttals, asking them to consider whether, whatever they believed happened on that day, their whole exercise is simply a political dead end at this late stage.
The responses that I got to this article were, again, not encouraging. Some again went on the attack on social media. Others emailed me expressing their outrage and providing me with “proof” of how wrong I am. Now, I recognize that I did go on the attack in both articles. In the first, I argued that the “9/11 Truth” movement allowed supporters of war and imperialism to present those who oppose these things as “deluded crackpots.” I ended by stating: “there isn’t enough time to waste on implausible conspiracy theories peddled by a rag-tag of fringe fantasists.” In the second piece, I wrote: “Having stated their beliefs with such certainty, acted so sanctimoniously in their proselytizing, and hurled so much invective at those with whom they disagree, the act of considering that they got the whole thing wrong would require a level of grace and humility that they quite self-evidently don’t possess.”
This was strong language, to be sure. But I nonetheless stand by both the content and tone of both of my articles on the grounds that: a) Many Truthers can seemingly dish it out plenty themselves, and moreover, b) I sincerely believe that Truthers’ claims are ridiculous and deserve to be described in such terms.
In this article, I want to expand a little bit on why I believe this and explain why it is that I go out of my way to criticize the “9/11 Truth” movement. According to 9/11 Truthers, of course, the reason I do so is because I am a “gatekeeper,” have been “got at,” and so on. But if this is the case, then I would like the Truthers reading this to consider which of the following possibilities is more probable:
Possibility #1 — I am on the payroll, or am perhaps even part of, the Bush administration or some murkier secret cabal that pulls its strings.
Possibility #2 — I just plain examined the available evidence and sincerely came to the conclusion that the “9/11 Truth” movement’s claims aren’t credible.
Now, before reflexively jumping to Possibility #1, I would like you to take a step back and really think about what that really entails. What it means is that agents of the Bush administration (or the more secretive forces that some think pull its strings) troubled themselves to seek out an obscure independent journalist with about 600 Twitter followers, who they all but certainly would think to be a far-left crank beneath their dignity to even consider, and decided to offer to pay him money to criticize 9/11 conspiracy theories on two small left-leaning online publications. It would furthermore mean that they were willing to channel financial support to someone who criticizes them in all other respects, including even in the two articles I wrote about the “9/11 Truth” movement, and has even gone so far as to describe them as having engaged in state terror.
It would presumably also mean that they would have been willing to risk me blowing the whistle on this attempt to enlist me in the cover-up of their crimes (a strong likelihood given my political orientation) and, indeed, that I decided against all my convictions that I wouldn’t do so but rather accept their offer, which would, in turn, risk indelibly tarnishing my credibility and reputation as a journalist should this all ever be uncovered. I mean, really, I ask you in all earnestness: Do you really believe that deep inside yourselves or are you just so desperate to cling on to your pet theories that you will subconsciously delude yourselves into believing such obvious nonsense?
Inevitably, one Truther publicly brought up my surname and mused about whether I am perhaps related to the notorious neocon John Bolton, who served as George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor. As it happens, I have never met this individual and have no reason to believe that I am related to him. I got my surname from my British father whereas both of John Bolton’s parents were Americans. Whatever very distant relation he and I might have would stretch back to whenever his ancestors immigrated to North America from Europe, which is in all likelihood centuries ago. In any case, many people share the same surname but are not related, even distantly. Also to consider is that, even if I was related to him, that of course wouldn’t necessarily mean that I share his political beliefs, let alone would be willing to help him cover up what would surely constitute the most outrageous and risky false flag operation in all of human history.
But all of this is not the point. The point is that this whole tactic shines much more light onto the mentality of Truthers than it does onto anything about whether I am, in fact, related to John Bolton. Indeed, it is another example of the kind of thinking that underpins the conspiratorial mindset. It forms part of what I term the “infinitely expanding conspiracy.” What I mean by this is that whenever anyone criticizes their claims, Truthers concoct what I term “sub-conspiracy theories” to explain why this person is part of the grand cover-up that is supposedly going on, and that this process would, in principle, go on-and-on to infinity if left to run its course indefinitely.
I can think of two other of these sub-conspiracy theories just off the top of my head. When the magazine Popular Mechanics, for example, released its report debunking the “9/11 Truth” movement’s claims, Truthers scoured the web and found out that amongst the magazine’s staff was a young researcher named Benjamin Chertoff. They then claimed that he is related to Michael Chertoff, who served as George W. Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security. Benjamin Chertoff has said that he knows of no relation between them and that, if there is any, it would be very distant. Truthers have nonetheless claimed their supposed relation as proof that the magazine has been engaging in a cover-up at the behest of the Bush administration.
Another example involves one of the very publications I wrote one of my critical articles for. The late Alexander Cockburn noted that Truthers pounced on the fact that Ford Roosevelt, grandson of FDR, served for a time on the board of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch’s parent non-profit, to argue that “CounterPunch was a pawn of the Democratic Party, the CIA and kindred darker forces.”
Again, before jumping to conclusions, think for a minute. Do you really believe that an (at most) distant relative of Michael Chertoff would have the ability to coerce a respected popular engineering publication into falsifying its research to whitewash what happened on 9/11? Do you really believe that FDR’s grandson would conspire with Alexander Cockburn to publish articles that CounterPunch knew all along were wrong? If you really find this more plausible than the alternative — that Popular Mechanics and Alexander Cockburn just concluded what they concluded sincerely — then I say, without the slightest bit of facetiousness, that you really should consider seeking out psychiatric treatment.
So, now that I have told you the reasons why I didn’t write the articles, I will now move on to the reasons why I did write them. Some of these reasons I have already stated. In the article for The Canary, I argued that 9/11 conspiracy theories “divert precious attention and investigative resources away from actual crimes and injustices of US imperialism.” In the article for CounterPunch, I argued that the whole “9/11 Truth” enterprise has become a political dead end and that there are more fruitful ways that anti-imperialist activists can work for change. I still think this on both counts.
But there are some other reasons why that I would like to now expand on. One reason is that I feel that the “9/11 Truth” movement has become an embarrassment to the left. Though admittedly the movement now contains elements from the political right as well, I get the impression that 9/11 conspiracism began as and remains a largely left-wing phenomenon. It seems to me to have become the left’s equivalent of right-wing conspiracy theories like “birtherism,” which holds that Barack Obama wasn’t really born in the United States. And this kind of silliness, in my view, belongs on the faux-populist far right, not on the left.
It is the kind of nonsense that laid the groundwork for the rise of Donald Trump and had been brewing on the Republican Party’s hard right flank for some time. Today, it manifests itself in such idiocy as the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that a Satanic, cannibalistic child sex trafficking ring — made up of Democrats, celebrities and business figures — conspired against Donald Trump, who had been secretly battling against this cabal while in office, and cheated him out of the 2020 presidential election.
And all of this is not just harmless foolishness that does no more than waste people’s time when they could have been doing something more constructive. Conspiracism has ruined, and in some cases even ended, people’s lives. It ultimately led to violent incidents such as the Pizzagate shooting and the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot, which ended with several deaths on both the rioters’ and law enforcement’s sides.
Dr. Michael Jensen, the lead investigator at the University of Maryland’s Domestic Radicalization Project, has noted that followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory have committed crimes including “everything from trespassing to vandalism to property destruction, all the way up to kidnapping and actual homicides.” It seems that the perpetrators were for the most part not hardened criminals who would have committed such acts irrespective of their belief in QAnon. He stated: “These are individuals that had been married, they have children, in some cases they had grandchildren, they’ve had careers.”
The conspiratorial mindset also led to Trump’s criminally inept response to the Covid-19 pandemic, not to mention the huge amounts of misinformation spread on the internet that led to widespread vaccine hesitancy and mass flouting of Covid restrictions and guidelines. As a result of this stupidity, by the end of 2020 the US held the dubious distinctions of having the highest national Covid-related death toll among all the world’s nations as well as the highest total number of cases, which ultimately reached more than 21 million, according to research published by Johns Hopkins’ University’s coronavirus research center. In short, conspiracism can cost lives. And given what conspiracism has done to the political right, I think it would be a great shame if it led the left in a similar direction.
Another reason why I decided to speak out against the “9/11 Truth” movement is that I believe that it harms public discourse more broadly, and especially online public discourse. Philosopher Luciano Floridi, who specializes in computer ethics and the philosophy of information, has proposed that the internet should be understood as an “infosphere” that has fundamentally changed humanity’s informational ontology. Floridi likens the spread of fake news and conspiracism in the infosphere to pollution, similar to how some industries pollute the air and waterways. And if ever there were an example of polluting the infosphere, then the spread of far-fetched conspiracy theories and the misinformation contained within them is surely it.
Finally, I decided to condemn 9/11 conspiracy theories because I think that they are not just bad for public discourse but bad for the individual people who believe them. I sense that conspiracism stems from shoddy modes of thinking, which, in turn, reinforce those poor cognitive habits. This appears to be supported by academic research. In 2021, PsyPost reported: “New research published in Applied Cognitive Psychology provides evidence that critical thinking skills are negatively related to belief in conspiracy theories.” It added that “the study suggests that people with greater critical thinking skills are less likely to believe that terrorist attacks are being covertly directed by a country’s own government.”
I also sense that membership of conspiracy theory-based communities such as the “9/11 Truth” movement leads to a sense of alienation among those who hold these beliefs, which, in turn, fuels the bitterness that they have toward those who disagree with them. Indeed, and I say this not to make myself out to be a victim or some kind of martyr, I have been on the receiving end of Truther vitriol and, though I resent that as much as anyone would, it has also led me to feel sorry for the people who have become so embittered and hateful towards others because of their membership of the Truther cult.
Perhaps the most indicative example of how Truthers themselves can suffer from conspiracism is the fate of those who choose to leave the cult and openly repudiate their past convictions. The British newspaper The Telegraph reported on the fate that befell a young Scottish Truther named Charlie Veitch after he recanted his belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories while participating in a TV show called The British Conspiracy Road Trip. He said:
“I was a real firm believer in the conspiracy that it was a controlled demolition. That it was not in any way as the official story explained. But, this universe is truly one of smoke screens, illusions and wrong paths. If you are presented with new evidence, take it on, even if it contradicts what you or your group want to believe. You have to give the truth the greatest respect, and I do.”
For uttering such heresy, Truthers subjected Veitch to exactly the kind of vicious abuse that I had a taste of after publishing my two critical articles. Examples included such comments as:
“You sell out piece of s — -. Rot in hell, Veitch.”
“This man is a pawn.”
“Your [sic] a f — -ing pathetic slave.”
“What got ya? Money?”
The notorious New Age-inspired conspiracist David Icke, who had earlier praised Veitch and publicized his work, stated threateningly that Veitch would “deeply regret what he has done.” The infamous Alex Jones of the far-right tinfoil hat outlet InfoWars, who had also promoted Veitch, claimed in an online video that he had known “all along” that Veitch was a plant acting on behalf of the secret forces supposedly behind the original conspiracy in order to discredit the “9/11 Truth” movement.
This avalanche of abuse ultimately culminated in death threats and the spread of fabricated accusations of pedophilia meant to smear him. Veitch recalled:
“A guy in Manchester set up a YouTube channel called ‘Kill Charlie Veitch’. It said, ‘Charlie, I hope you know I’m going to come and kill you. Enjoy your last few days. Goodbye.’ So many hate videos were posted — my face superimposed on a pig and someone’s killing the pig.”
He added that one message showed a video containing doctored images of his sister’s children depicted as being used by Veitch for child pornography, which was subsequently sent to his mother (who initially believed it to be real) and 15,000 other email addresses. This, I contend, is where the paranoid, cultish, in-group echo chamber created by conspiracism ultimately ends up.
9/11 Truthers: I know I have given you an earful in this article. But I would like you to consider whether you are doing the anti-imperialist cause any good with this whole exercise. And I would especially like you to consider whether you are doing yourselves any good either.