I am a big fan of Rachel Maddow and her nightly show on MSNBC. She is smart and engaging and provides the kind of in-depth political analysis of US political culture that is absent from much news and current affairs. She keeps important issues in the political spotlight, she believes elected politicians should be held accountable for their actions, she fights for the rights of minorities and she questions the status quo. The political status quo after all, as Maddow is fully aware, perpetuates social and physical violence, exacerbates economic inequalities and prevents common sense legislation that the majority wants and needs from being passed. When Congress proves to be politically ineffective or incompetent or issues start to fade from mainstream media coverage (gun reform, immigration reform, rights of veterans, sequester), she keeps them alive, questioning why they haven’t been addressed and if she doesn’t get a satisfactory answer to a question, she asks the question again. But on Wednesday 25 April, she departed from this critical model in a manner with seemed totally at odds with both her politics and the ethos of the show. She opened the show by recommending two texts on the events of 9/11. The first was the official 9/11 Commission report published as a paperback, and the second was Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Cannot Stand up to the Facts by Popular Mechanics. She described these books as “two of the best things ever published about the 9/11 attacks”. The 9/11 Commission report is in her view the “the definitive official study of what happened on that day” while the Popular Mechanics text successfully lays to rest the idea that 9/11 “was a hoax perpetrated by our government in order to enslave us all”. She uses these texts to take on the conspiracy theorists and 9/11 truth movement, the people who question the official account of what happened on 9/11, and she did so in the past week in order to respond to the many “conspiracy theories” that are now circulating on the Internet about the bombings at the Boston marathon. Maddow’s endorsement of these texts, which have been widely criticized (the omissions, gaps and unanswered questions in the official report did for example lead to the later publication of The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11 by James Ridgway and there are many responses to the Popular Mechanics piece) left me wondering “Who are you, and what have you done with Rachel?”.
I don’t know what happened on 9/11, I don’t know if it was an inside job carried out by the US government to “enslave us” (a point made by Maddow three times in the introduction to Wednesday’s show) or whether it was an attack by Al-Qaeda or somebody else that the US deliberately failed to prevent. I do know however that many questions surrounding 9/11 have not been answered satisfactorily, including why the usual NORAD procedures for intercepting hijacked planes were not followed and why WTC7, a 47 storey skyscraper that was not hit by a plane, also collapsed at freefall speed into its own footprint in a manner similar to a controlled demolition. Like Maddow, I struggle to believe that the US government would do such a thing to its own citizens. At the same time, we (I, you and Maddow) are aware of what the US government has done to the citizens of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Chile, we’ve heard of Operation Northwoods and the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the historical record has also provided evidence of deliberate US government cover-ups, including Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair. I also know that even if the official story is correct and even if the suggestion that it was conducted deliberately in order to “enslave us” is ludicrous (Maddow’s position on Wednesday night), it has nonetheless been used in that manner in the US and around the world. It enabled the invasion and occupation of two countries and thousands of civilian deaths. In a book entitled The Colonial Present, Derek Gregory (2004) describes how 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’ have been used by governments in Washington, London and Tel Aviv, how they enabled forms of coloniality to be re-activated with devastating consequences for ordinary people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. 9/11 has also allowed the US government to keep prisoners indefinitely without charge or trial. It has been used to justify the drone war in Pakistan and elsewhere, which has caused the deaths of at least 175 children (http://childvictimsofwar.org.uk/get-informed/drone-warfare/). In the US, it led to the passing of the Patriot Act, which accorded to the Electronic Frontier Foundation expanded “expands law enforcement’s surveillance and investigative powers and represents one of the most significant threats to civil liberties privacy and democratic traditions in U.S. history” (https://www.eff.org/issues/patriot-act). It has facilitated the criminalization of indigenous peoples, such as in the Urewera terror raids conducted by the New Zealand state against the Tuhoe nation in 2007. For Palestinians, Iraqis and Tuhoe, the effects of 9/11 are chilling, for many of us the effects are much more mundane and only mildly unpleasant or inconvenient but are a constant reminder of how 9/11 shapes our everyday lives. The intense securitization of air travel is an obvious example. Taking a short Friday night flight on a budget airline from Edinburgh to Birmingham in order to visit my parents means being fondled in depth by a complete stranger. In the US, the contradictions of this policy are extreme. Why air travellers have to remove shoes, belts, watches and bracelets and put tiny bottles of hand sanitizer and tubes of toothpaste in a plastic bag when flying, when ordinary citizens can (and do) buy assault weapons and take them to a cinema, mall, university campus or school to kill and inflict suffering. We do extreme things to protect against the occasional terrorist but can’t do easy and obvious things to protect against the occasional lone gunman. Both inflict terror, kill and ruin lives, why is their legislative treatment so different?
But what I found particularly disturbing or at least out of character about Maddow’s account on Wednesday was her homogenization of the 9/11 truth movement. She suggested that the movement was made up of nutjobs and crazies whose questioning of the official story as laid out in those two publications was harmful to the necessary prevention and investigation of terrorist attacks and somehow disrespectful to those who lost their lives in the attacks on that day. A few minutes later, Maddow rightly criticizes the conservative media for blaming all Muslims for what happened in Boston, for homogenizing Muslims as a threat to the US. Without any doubt, the 9/11 truth movement does contain a few nutjobs and crazies and I share Maddow’s distaste for Alex Jones and infowars. But the movement is also made up of firefighters, engineers, architects, physicists, pilots, journalists, filmmakers and military officers as well as families and friends of those who died. It includes many students and young people who are trying to understand the extreme forms of militarization and securitization that are part of the world in which we live. In other words, the 9/11 truth movement is composed of people who are concerned about the lack of government transparency and want answers, as well as people not so concerned with the “truth” of 9/11 but who are concerned about its political consequences. It contains people who are demanding a better and more comprehensive enquiry than the one conducted by the 9/11 Commission, that includes for example an investigation into the collapse of WTC7. Indeed, homogenizing the 9/11 truth movement is as wrong and inappropriate as homogenizing Muslims. Given that Maddow is a strong advocate of Iraq war veterans who are struggling to get the benefits to which they are entitled after they have fought for their country, I would also expect her to be more respectful of the views of the first responders who heard a series of explosions in the World Trade Center that have not yet been adequately explained. In fact, I don’t understand why Maddow does not subject 9/11 to the same kind of scrutiny to which she subjects the other issues she covers in the show. Maddow could have critically tackled the “conspiracy theories” surrounding the Boston marathon, without homogenizing the 9/11 truth movement.
Maddow should also have presented a much more nuanced view of “conspiracy theories”. Some of them do of course turn out to be true, that is why we have investigative journalism. But even if they are never proven to be correct or indeed even if they appear to be wildly implausible, as many of the 9/11 and Boston marathon conspiracy theories do, we should still pay attention to them, because what we call conspiracy theories tend to appear when ordinary people feel disenfranchised or feel that they don’t have access to spaces in which decisions are made. As multiple forms of de-democratization, securitization and militarization intensify, our suspicion towards and distrust of those in power will also grow. There will therefore be more conspiracy theories and because of the Internet, they will travel rapidly. I don’t think for a minute that the US government carried out the bombings in Boston to enslave us, but I am concerned that the US government will lock down an entire city to catch one terrorist, while continuing to proliferate risk and precarity in virtually every other aspect of US social and political life. If you really wanted to protect US citizens from undue risk and harm, you would introduce measures to promote economic equality, such as increasing taxes on the superrich and putting the revenue into social programmes and you would make sure that nobody could take an assault weapon and a high capacity magazine into an elementary school ever again.
Gregory D (2004) The Colonial Present Malden: Wiley-Blackwell