Thursday, September 17, 2009

Thoughts (unpublished) on conspiracy theories

Mysterious terrorist attacks prompt public panic, allowing a cynical government to trample on the constitution. Would that be Russia after the 1999 apartment block bombings, or America after the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001? Russia Today, a pro-Kremlin television station has been casting doubt on the idea that the 9/11 attacks were a surprise and promoting the allegation that they were an “inside job”. That is striking enough. But it also juxtaposes these pieces with coverage of the 1999 bombings in Moscow and elsewhere.

Many challenge the official account of 9/11, using an array of anomalies, loose ends, contradictory testimony, signs of official bungling and so forth. Their main case is inferential: 9/11 “allowed” the Bush administration to go to war in the Middle East.

The apartment block bombings in Russia have also attracted speculation from those who believe that they were part of a state-sanctioned plan. This case too rests on holes in the official story plus an inference. The popularity of the newly nominated prime minister, Vladimir Putin, rocketed as the public welcomed his strong response to a terrorist onslaught. That staved off the impending impeachment of Boris Yeltsin, and saved Kremlin cronies from jail. If Mr Putin and his backers were the main beneficiary of these murders, maybe they were involved in perpetrating them?

But the similarity is only superficial. For a start the 9/11 conspiracy theorists cannot agree on what theory they are propounding (were the hijackers real? Were the planes real? Did the authorities deliberately fail to prevent the attack or actually stage it?). The theories mostly involve implausibly intricate scenarios (planting large quantities of high explosive in skyscrapers, for example). The official account of the 9/11 attacks in America is certainly open to criticism. But nobody suffers from questioning it. The conspiracy theorists’ case is aired on television; their books get published.

By contrast, those who have challenged the official version of events in Russia largely stick to the same, straightforward story. Those who have tried to investigate it have fared badly. Yuri Shchekochikin and Sergei Yushchenkov, for example, two members of a commission in the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, died mysteriously. Mikhail Trepashkin, a lawyer for the commission, served a four-year jail sentence after a controversial conviction on flimsy evidence. The official account does not account for the puzzling incident of a bomb discovered in a basement in Ryazan, apparently planted by two FSB officers. The authorities’ reaction to that has looked very like a cover-up—perhaps of a bungled anti-terrorist drill, perhaps of something more sinister.

Cynics would argue that juxtaposing the two events sends two messages, aimed at different constituencies. To those who think the conspiracy theories about 9/11 are lunatic paranoia, the comparison suggests that questioning the account of the Russian bombings is similarly batty. For those who believe that the Russian bombings were indeed suspicious, it suggests that mass murder by governments is the norm: the American government conspired to kill thousands of its own citizens, so why worry about Russia killing mere hundreds? That could be seen as a subtle form of “whataboutism” (never mind about our shortcomings, what about yours?)

Neither the atrocities in America or Russia will ever be explained to the complete satisfaction of the most suspicious minds. Those criticising the official explanations have their own, sometimes questionable agendas. Their theories certainly deserve the same scrutiny and scepticism that they turn on their opponents. But for all that, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Russia Today is exploiting a non-issue to deflect attention from a more dangerous one.

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