Has it been 12 years?
I remember where I was when Kennedy was killed; and I remember where I was when I heard about the September 11, 2001 attacks. I need to make confessions.
When President Kennedy was assassinated, I was attending 7th Grade at St. Charles Junior High School in St. Charles, Missouri. We were informed during Geography class that the President had been shot.
My parents were convinced, especially my father, that the Pope was the devil incarnate, and that Catholics would follow the Pope's orders like fanatical commandos. John F. Kennedy, then, was distinctly unpopular in our household, where he was called names nightly as my dad watched the news.
When we received the word that Kennedy was shot, I had just moved to "the big city" from St. James, Missouri, a town of fewer than 3,000 people. I was small for my age, extremely small, and to call me socially clumsy would have been a profound understatement. So I did things that were stupid and inappropriate to get attention.
When we got the word, I laughed maniacally and said, "I hope he's dead," bringing a rebuke from my teacher and looks from my classmates.
Ten minutes later, the follow-on announcement came. The President was dead. I was suddenly awash in a kind of guilt I'd never known, believing in some way that I was now personally responsible for his death, that I had wished a reality into existence and a man out of existence. A classmate named Lynn, a serious boy with glasses and straight blonde hair, turned to me and asked, "Are you happy, Stan?"
I don' think I've ever felt lower. I wanted to crawl under a rock, to run away - never again to show my face among those classmates.
Fast forward 38 years.
I had retired from the Army - a great place for a kid with a short-boy complex - and had become interested in politics. Not merely interested, embroiled. I had sampled various strains of leftism, even studied them, as a way of compensating for my own guilt about my own career in the Army, where I'd narrowly averted a court martial for my minor rebellions during the 1994 occupation of Haiti. I was also new, albeit not so technically or socially insightful, user of the burgeoning internet.
In 2001, I had been working as the Organizing Director of a 12-state non-profit organization, called Democracy South, that studied and reported and advocated on issues related to money-in-politics and campaign finance reform, and I'd left then returned to work on a temporary basis with them. I had also joined various listserves where we had rather deep and challenging discussions about political theory and the question of revolution.
I was still furious at the way the Supreme Court had hijacked the 2000 General Election, and while I was no fan of Al Gore and the Democrats, I found George W. Bush to be an especially creepy character.
I had gone to work on the morning of September 11, when my wife called from her job and told me to turn on the television at work. It was urgent. I called my colleagues in and we switched on a tv, and anyone over the age of 18 knows what we saw. Airplanes flying directly into the World Trade Center's twin towers.
As the story developed over the next few days, my loathing of Bush and his cronies, combined with the opportunistic way his administration moved to consolidate executive power - combined with the frightening air of nationalist rage that permeated the whole culture - led me to speculate on one of those listservs about the possibility that the government was in collusion with the attacks. I sent a long piece - as was our wont on one of those lists, there to be subjected to mutual critiques - outlining a case for government collusion given what we knew at the time.
The next day, one of my colleagues, impressed by my argument, copied my argument and pasted it into several more public sites, and suddenly I was being identified with the position that the 9-11 attacks were an inside job. For a time, I even attempted to defend this position; and within a short period of time I abandoned my own position because the evidence to the contrary - or at least that Osama bin Laden was the architect of the operation - convinced me of my error. Not least among the evidence was bin Laden admitting that he planned it; but I was also convinced by a friend who had been a pilot that, indeed, one could acquire the requisite skills to pilot a suicide craft from flight simulator, a claim I had mistakenly contested earlier. I still believe there may have been some form of foreknowledge that "something" was about to happen, but that is not the same as saying it was an inside job.
That piece that jumped from the listserve to cyberspace still haunts me from time to time as die-hard 9-11 conspiracy believers find it and want to engage in a kind of mutual reinforcement of belief.
My general worldview, then and now, has more of an affinity with systemic explanations for current events than the conspiracy-model; and I am progressively more convinced as I grow older and accept my own powerlessness in many regards that even the most powerful of people lack the ability to control events that is ascribed to them by a mindset that might be called "conspiracist."
As the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq mobilized an anti-war movement - one that turns out to have been an anti-Bush movement, since Obama has been let off the hook for his own warmaking - and national chauvinism fulminated in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, my own willingness and ability to speak publicly made me kind of a hot commodity - a retired Special Forces guy who opposed the Bush administration's wars. I gave people cover from the patriot-baiters; and - unfortunately in my view - a few people wanted to adopt me as a kind of alpha-male for the political left. (My discomfort with that role led directly to my engagement with feminism, which has since alienated a goodly number of former "admirers".)
For the next five years, I was in a maelstrom of activism, jetting here and there, organizing this and that, speaking and debating, writing furiously, as well as becoming embroiled in Haitian politics; and I found that in the anti-Bush/anti-war milieu of the time contact with conspiracism was inevitable. Mass politics is never theoretically coherent. But to make a long story a little shorter, I arrived at some tentative insights about conspiracism that seem particularly appropriate as 9-11 is coming to mean less and less to the jingo-right and more and more to conspiracism.
I need to make a few disclaimers based on my own now long standing contact with these folks, many of whom are otherwise perfectly decent, friendly, and ethical people. Some have been and are my friends.
First, calling this phenomenon conspiracism is not aligning myself with anyone who might claim there are never official conspiracies. A conspiracy is "an agreement to perform together an illegal, wrongful, or subversive act." My brother and I used to sneak into the Hot Springs, Arkansas water reservoir to catch fish. It was posted against fishing. He and I were more than one person. We agreed to perform an illegal act together. We conspired. Every crook in any official capacity that gets caught is charged with conspiracy when there are more than one. I even believe in high-level conspiracies, for example, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., probably even the Kennedy assassination (though I refuse to join the incessant speculation about what "really" happened). The Gulf of Tonkin incident. Colin Powell's lying performance before the United Nations about Iraq. These are all conspiracies. Conspiracies happen.
Second, and this is a point of elementary logic, just because there is no other ready explanation for something that has happened does not validate a conspiracy explanation that claims it does explain it. "Well, how do you explain it then?" is not a rational argument. It is a fallacious argument that ignores the fact that we might not have all the pertinent facts yet (and may never).
Third, correlation does not equal causation. Come on, this would be an easy one were it not for the fact that logic has not been taught in schools for generations now. That is not to say that in the process of discovering causation we might first require a number of correlates to aim us toward a solution, just that we ought not jump to conclusions.
Fourth, just because someone has been reprehensible in the past, or just because we don't like her or him, or them, does not mean they are guilty of an unproven act; and their moral reprehensibility in the past is not a license to exaggerate or prevaricate just because "they have it coming." If you are presenting an evidential case, you are still required to stick to the evidence and not extend conclusions beyond what the evidence shows.
Fifth, people can and do change.
Sixth, there really are people who unfairly hang the conspiracist label on positions with which they disagree using a guilt-by-association fallacy. Comparing someone who says the Federal Reserve Chair is a powerful unelected position that has consistently made decisions on behalf of the richest fraction of American society (a demonstrable claim within the evidence available) with someone who claims there was no moon landing or that the Illuminati run the world is unfair and unprincipled. This actually muddies the waters of a critique like the one that follows.
When I have had contact with his conspiracist tendency, what I have found is that it is far more mainstream than the guilt-by-association folks suggest when they use it to unfairly marginalize a point of view with which they disagree. More than a third of Americans now believe that global warming is a massive hoax, for example. So pathologizing conspiracism by calling conspiracism paranoid (some even suggest something akin to schizophrenia) is not very helpful in understanding what this is about, unless the point is to put us all on medication.
When I describe this tendency, I mean to say the tendency to reach for a seated, ongoing, powerful cabal of some kind as the first explanation. Every violent thing done becomes a "false flag" operation before we even know what happened. Lot of that going around these days.
Zionism, for example, exists as a secular Jewish political movement that has achieved a small but influential settler-state on the Mediterranean Sea and state power within it. Zionism cannot explain every foreign policy decision of the United States, and there is no such thing as The World Zionist (read: Jewish) Conspiracy (an anti-Semite's silly but deadly nightmare). One of the most unfortunate outcomes of the conspiracist tendency is how frequently it leads people to various forms of antisemitism, which is regrettably reinforced by the racist brutality of the actually-existing Zionist state.
It is the confusing reality of today's world that sets the stage for simple-minded conspiracism precisely because human beings prefer simple explanations to complex ones when simplicity allows them to compartment their anxieties and move along with their lives. The other unfortunate tendency often associated with conspiracism is survivalism, which is making a comeback in these troubled times, fueled even more by exploitative and unethical sensationalist media productions like Doomsday Preppers. This tendency merges with longstanding male-dominant fantasies of the post-apocalypse and the more general fantasy of some abrupt and dramatic break with an alienated and drudging Now. This survivalist tendency within the tendency to reach-for-the-conspiracy-explanation-first tendency has its troupes of pseudo-prophets who grasp a every turn in current events and plug them into a kind of protean and generalized prediction of the coming catastrophe.
I believe tendential conspiracism is rooted in anxiety, but not anxiety about the various spectral cabals. It's a far more existential anxiety, the dark and gnawing fear that perhaps no one is in control, that chaos does in the last instance have the last word - which conjures the howling void that awaits us as dying animals. Focusing on survival in the short-term, and obsessively preparing for it, is nothing if it is not a denial of death, a pathetic pretension bellowing past the graveyard.
What's worse than a group of bad people in control? A world beyond control. If bad people are at the root of the problem, then we can stop the bad people and stop the problem. If the bad people are brought low like Philistines in a crashing temple, then we have out post-apocalyptic and utopian fantasies to cling to. But no control...??? No one in charge? It's a dread and a humiliation too terrible to even think. And so conspiracism is a kind of elaborate denial, the first stage of dying where we can remain stuck, vacillating between denial and anger in a metronomic limbo like unhappy toddlers.
This tendency will only get worse because we human beings have scaled up our collective capacity to manipulate the world considerably beyond our ability to control the consequences of that manipulation. There are real catastrophes in motion - financial catastrophe, climate destabilization, exhaustion of the thin network of life that sustains us, and these prices paid for our hubris are ramifying through our societies, into our cultures, and exploding even within the experience of personhood.
Survival. Every man for himself (this has always been a male idea, even as it has become a perverse moral norm adopted by women trapped in the world men made). Dangers everywhere. Enemies everywhere.
To all this I can only be a witness, perhaps a nurse tending the wounded. Tell the truth the best way I know how.
This may seem a strange train of thought for a man who is the member of a cult, one that claims the dead can be resurrected, a cult that drinks blood. But our cult has hope that is not predicated on our own machinations, on our cleverness or our pride. Give food. Tend the sick. Comfort the afflicted. Wash feet. Leave history to someone else. Love enemies.
We can plod along within our known capacities, if we are not caught up in the lust for control. We are an order of being within orders of being, and if the ground of all being is Love, then there is hope. Not nothing, but Love, a great inconceivable Yes that will even forgive our worst stupidities, and that was revealed not in power and pride but in humility and the acceptance of death. Christ was no survivalist. For some, it is a fool's hope; and I am a fool. I've proven it time and again, as my confessions show.
We can say, answer hatred with love. We can be that foolish. We can say go out as a sheep among wolves. We can be that foolish. We can even be broken by a broken world, and still hope. Love will have the last word.