The term “conspiracy theory” has become a derisive term for those who believe that some secretive group is responsible for a tragic event. The result of painting people with such a broad brush has been that media elites, both local and national, dismiss such groups before allowing them to present their argument.
For Americans the primary reference to conspiracy theories today comes in discussions of the events of 9/11/01. Let us begin by making an important distinction. There is a difference between rejecting official government and media explanations of events, and maintaining that there was a sinister collusion of secret, unnamed parties. Any objective observer can see that the 9/11 Commission Report was clearly either hurriedly or incompetently done, or they are covering something with it. But to conclude from that, that the cover-up is the specific one of a nefarious government inside job in the destruction of the World Trade Centers is a different issue, and requires a high standard of evidence. This is not only because of the nature of the charge—it involves the charge of mass murder if not treason—but because it charges that particular parties did the deed rather than that particular institutional structures were dysfunctional that day. Beyond that, it is a demand that such individuals be arrested and brought to trial. So it is both the grandiose nature of the charges, in conjunction with the hypothesis that given individuals within our own government did it, and in conjunction with bringing such ghost figures to justice, that such hypotheses are called “conspiracy theories.” Consequently, many political party and media elites shut the parties holding this view out of the debate.
But let us discuss this conspiracy perspective a bit further. There are four possible approaches to analyses of significant social and political events today: conspiratorial, institutional, “agency and structure,” and what I will call “the ignoratii.” This term refers to those who not only don’t know the distinction between these modes of analysis, but more importantly have not examined the evidence produced by these three modes of investigation, but who nonetheless think themselves expert enough to scoff at one or both positions. Usually this occurs by the ignoratii heaping their ignorant disdain on the conspiracy folks through name-calling or through mocking their position by condescendingly mischaracterizing it as a form of psychological malady; for example, not seeing that real airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. Through such simplistic smearing of others, they perform the elite institutional role of keeping dissenting voices out of the public discussion.
The institutional analysts take the structural approach, ignoring human agency. Noam Chomsky, for example, operates strictly from a paradigm of institutional analysis, and that logically entails that he consistently deny that human agency plays any appreciable role in significant political events. The result is that he a priori dismisses the very possibility that any individual or small group could engage in dastardly deeds such as the assassination of President Kennedy, and, more to our point, the possibility that there were specific agents involved in the demolition of the towers beyond those who piloted the planes on that fateful day. But Chomsky’s institutional analysis, as legitimate as it is, is unwarrantably suspicious about evidence that might indicate the role of human agency beyond the pilots of the planes. His commitment to institutional analysis results in his own ideology of belittling human agency as of little merit in significant events.
The conspirators take the agency side, often ignoring the structural side. The conspiracists spend much time and energy trying to establish their assumption that someone or some group committed a high crime, and then additionally attempt to show who did what, how, and why. They tend to ignore institutional patterns of organization and norms that open up and perhaps even encourage such behavior. For example, David Ray Griffin regularly engages in vocabulary that 9/11 was what he calls “an inside job,” and then proceeds to show how some nefarious agents had to be involved in the events of 9/11. Additionally, Griffin consistently encourages a wider understanding of the term “conspiracy theorist” so that everyone in essence becomes a conspiracy theorist.
But the conspiracy theorist viewpoint, like the institutional one, is unduly narrow. By focusing on agents, it ignores institutional norms and mechanisms that would allow the possibility of persons engaging in the actions at issue and even covering them up. The latter is an important issue for conspiracy theorists: without institutional analysis, they pay the high cost of not being taken seriously. They could make their case stronger if they challenge the structuralists such as Chomsky by demonstrating how the institutional operations could conceivably have been configured so as to allow agents to operate in such rogue fashion. A purely conspiratorial theory would require tracing the evidence of their hypothesis directly to the guilty parties for prosecution. The chances of that happening are slim, at best. To be taken more seriously, the conspiracy analysis should go past the allegedly guilty party or parties of the deeds of 9/11 to the mechanisms of an institution that would generate such actions. To the degree that they do this, they combine the best of structure and agency analysis, which would be the preferred option.
The result of this reflection is that if one combines an agency and structural analysis, one must conclude that the question concerning whether 9/11 was an inside job is too narrow, because it focuses not just on agency, but on government agency. Further, the question itself is framed in terms that favor a conspiracist analysis over an institutional one.
But if those who want to be taken seriously in the media debate, they should change not only their vocabulary, but also their focus, from “inside job” to, for example, “structures of agency.” They should also take seriously such analyses as Peter Dale Scott, who certainly sides with the “9/11 Truthers,” but who takes a more institutional approach to his political analyses. Finally, they should drop the name “9/11 Truthers.” That sounds like either or a cult, convinced that they and only they have the truth on their side. Such adjustments in method, focus, and vocabulary would go a long way to reopening the debate about the events of 9/11, and would make it more difficult for the media elites to keep them out of the debate by hook and by crook.
More than this, if conspiracy theories remain simply at the level of conspiracy—i.e. who did it and why—they run into further problems. First, a complex agency analysis, with all the levels of evidence that would be required, would be difficult at best, and would take many years to compile. It would also be incomplete and largely circumstantial. As a consequence, such evidence will never convince skeptics. Third, it ultimately won’t matter for prosecution sake, since the agents will be dead by the time they are revealed. Finally, using the Kennedy assassination as an example, the case is still not closed, fifty years after the fact. Thus, it would be much more beneficial and important to discuss what was done by the Bush and now Obama administrations in the wake of the events of 9/11 instead of trying to focus on who did it.
The “agency and structure” analysis asserts that human agency is too closely intertwined with institutional structures and norms to lessen the importance of individual intention to a second-class standing in analysis. This analysis maintains both the individuals sought to cause a catastrophic event and that the institutional structures were in place to either permit or encourage it to be done. It sees agency as important and instructive on a micro level, and to be used where needed. It sees institutional analysis as a macro approach, generally valid where group movements and institutional patterns are discernible. The two approaches are not contradictory, and can even be mutual. But it denies the tendency of the institutional approach to maintain that human actions are in some way predetermined or at least generated by the institutional organization itself. It also denies that only rogue agents of some sort acted outside of the institutional structures. It is a “both-and” approach, compared to Chomsky’s “either-or” approach.
If the conspiracy approach widened their investigative concerns over 9/11 to institutional structures and then to the agents they want to maintain were behind 9/11, they may be taken more seriously by the media, and be less subject to the ridicule and scorn from the liberal intelligentsia that has kept them out of the media debate about this critical question of our generation: “What indeed happened on 9/11?”
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