Ahmadinejad this weekend called 9/11 a "big lie." In doing so, he was just echoing what a particularly sick brand of American wingnut, the "truther," has been saying for years. John Avlon, author of Wingnuts, on some virulent bedfellows.
It was perhaps inevitable that the world’s most notorious Holocaust denier would out himself as a 9/11 Truther. This weekend, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pronounced the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, a "big lie," "a complicated intelligence scenario and act" and "a pretext for the campaign against terrorism and a prelude for staging an invasion against Afghanistan."
He echoed claims long made by one of the most virulent conspiracy theories to infect recent American politics—the Orwellian named 9/11 Truthers, who believe the attack was an inside job.
The usual accusations include explosives to bring down the Twin Towers, missiles to hit the Pentagon, Dick Cheney complicity, the military and the FAA gone MIA.
It is appropriate that Ahmadinejad used the phrase the "big lie," first coined by Adolph Hitler in Mein Kampf to explain the psychology behind propaganda campaigns of misinformation. "In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility," Hitler wrote, because "It would never come into [most people's] heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously."
The Big Lie can be seductive. It masquerades as reason, even scientific inquiry, but it leads down a path confirming your worst suspicions about your worst enemy. Its proponents cast themselves cast themselves as populist truth tellers taking on powerful interests, but many are trying to profit personally or politically by stirring up fear and paranoia.
The Pentagon gunman John Patrick Bedell was an extreme example of an unstable soul who bought into these claims. But he is far from alone. Five years after the attack, a Scripps Howard poll found that thirty-six percent of Americans believed the federal government "either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action" because they "wanted to go to war in the Middle East." Sixteen percent thought the World Trade Center might have collapsed because of secret explosives—a claim made by Bedell in his online writings. Not long ago, purple "9/11 was an Inside Job" stickers were ubiquitous on New York City street-corners and in 2008 Truthers rallied around the presidential candidacy of leftist Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney as well as Texas libertarian Ron Paul, winner of this year’s CPAC straw poll.
Like many New Yorkers, I lived through the attacks of September 11th and their aftermath. I saw the first plane scream past my window and was covered in ash after the collapse. Afterwards, I spent three months writing eulogies for the fallen firefighters and police officers as a speechwriter for Mayor Rudy Giuliani. So when I see people indulging the Blame-America-First reflex anywhere near Ground Zero, I lose my sense of humor real quick.
In search of some perspective, I called Professor Patrick J. Leman, a conspiracy theory specialist at the University of London, to ask a decidedly un-academic question: What the hell is going on?
"There is an underlying psychological phenomena called 'major-event/major-cause’ thinking," explained Dr. Leman. "If there’s a big event, we like to find a similarly big cause to explain what happened. It provides us with a sense that the world is a relatively predictable place. Because the alternative—imagining that something big, like the death of a president, can be caused by something minor like a lone gunman—presents us with a view of the world that’s unpredictable and scary and difficult to control."
The greatest check against government conspiracy is the up-close chaos of any human organization. People are simply too disorganized and indiscreet to pull off a secret world-wide plot. But it turns out that the 9/11 Truthers need a Big Brother for their story to hold. This requires that they effectively reverse-engineer the well-documented al-Qaeda plot to bring down the Twin Towers. They would rather believe that their own government is all-powerful and evil than imperfect and well-intentioned. Faced with a real conspiracy they must invent their own.
Investigating the 9/11 conspiracy Web sites is a thankless business—as the old saying goes, When you argue with a fool, you’ve got two fools. They drape their paranoia in the American flag. The catalogue of accusations is dizzying—a Top 40 list is available on 911truth.org—but the usual suspects include explosives to bring down the Twin Towers, missiles to hit the Pentagon, Dick Cheney complicity, the military and the FAA gone MIA. The documentary Loose Change—an X-Files tempo’ed account of the conspiracy by upstate New York twenty-somethings—has been viewed on You Tube more than three million times.
Alternately, you can just take Osama bin Laden’s word for it. He’s repeatedly taken credit for the attacks, including on a videotape where he recounts the planning process and his wish for maximum damage: "We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower. We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all. … Due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is all that we hoped for."
But this tape is dismissed by the Truthers: "The man shown in the video, though bearded, Arabic, and of darkish complexion, is much heavier than Bin Laden. The man in the video is seen writing something down with his right hand. Bin Laden is well-known to be left-handed." Similarly dismissed are the voluminous 9/11 Commission Report and the thorough special report by Popular Mechanics, Debunking the 9/11 Myths. As Dr. Leman says, "A conspiracy theorist is always going to see a conspiracy—whatever evidence you give to them." Or, as 18th century Irish satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, once wrote, "You cannot reason someone out of something he has not been reasoned into."
This conspiracy theory continued to be pumped up even after the Bush administration ended, promoted by conspiracy entrepreneurs like fright-wing radio host Alex Jones and disturbingly mainstream liberal celebrity dupes like Rosie O’Donnell and Charlie Sheen, who demanded and was denied a request to brief President Obama on the matter. Thanks, Charlie.
The dogged search for truth is admirable and essential to a free society. But when that concept becomes twisted by a moral relativism that masquerades as open inquiry, the idea of truth starts to lose its meaning. Ignoring the obvious does not lead to insight. And by entertaining conspiracy theories after being attacked, we run the risk of amusing ourselves to death. Just because an evil ideology expresses its murderous intentions with cartoonish clarity doesn’t mean that they are not deadly serious. We have the body count to prove otherwise.
So when a Holocaust denier and terrorist supporter like Ahmadinejad chooses to join the ranks of the 9/11 Truthers, it becomes easier to see them for what they are—apologists for al-Qaeda.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.