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Top 10 Conspiracy Theories of 2003-2004

Is the end of the world now? Are we out of oil? What prior dealings did the US have with Iraq? Conspiracies abound. How near is the truth?
 
 
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On August 6, 2001, while vacationing in Crawford, Texas, George Bush received an intelligence briefing called "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." It included revelations that al Qaeda members were conducting "surveillance of federal buildings in New York"; the World Trade Center was mentioned in the first paragraph, the prospect of terrorist "retaliat[ion] in Washington" in the second. According to the briefing, Osama bin Laden's organization was acting in ways "consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."

But Bush must have had headphones on, because 36 days later when he saw Flight 11 fly into the World Trade Center, he claims his first thought was, "There's one terrible pilot." Even after the second crash Bush assures us he was unsure what was going on: "I grew up in a period of time where the idea of America being under attack never entered my mind."

The attacks of 9-11 have since been used to justify two military actions that the government has chosen to call "wars," the more recent of which -- a "pre-emptive," which is to say unprovoked, assault on Iraq -- has yielded American soldiers their bloodiest two weeks of combat since 1971. Odd, then, that every expressed reason for the Bush administration's massive and deadly undertaking in Iraq, most conspicuously Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, has evaporated under scrutiny. In fact, the only thing we know for sure is that the invasion isn't about oil. Tony Blair, among others, has been quite clear on this: any attempt to explain the war in Iraq as an oil war is a "conspiracy theory."

This makes one wonder whether other so-called conspiracy theories might be more worthy of consideration than we've been led to believe. Some months ago I wrote an article originally published in Popmatters magazine about this. In light of subsequent events, the time was right to revisit it -- particularly since the political climate in America, with its indefinite detentions and pointless color-coded alerts, has taken a more Orwellian turn than anyone ever imagined possible.

1. Prior Warnings.

Right after September 11, rumors began floating around that World Trade Center employees of the Jewish faith had been mysteriously alerted to stay home that fateful morning. This racist fantasy had an equally ugly counterpart among anti-Islamic reactionaries: that Muslims the world over knew of the 9-11 attacks in advance and managed, en masse and in their millions, to keep it a complete secret.

Such bizarre hearsay about collective foreknowledge has many unpleasant effects, not the least of which is to delegitimize an otherwise worthy question: was anyone told beforehand that something shocking might happen on or around 9-11? It turns out quite a few people claim to have received such warnings. Although the mainstream press tends to mention these accounts in isolation or attribute them to uncanny serendipity, when taken together they cry out for further explanation.

The airport security service for San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, for example, had contacted him eight hours prior to the strikes and warned him not to fly, and controversial author Salman Rushdie also claims to have gotten warnings before September 11 not to take to the tarmac. As reported in the Sept. 24, 2001 issue of Newsweek, several employees at the Pentagon cancelled their flight plans the night of September 10, citing "security concerns." And last but not least, Justice Department head John Ashcroft had stopped flying commercial aircraft two months before 9-11. Why? The FBI cited an unfavorable "threat assessment" -- but after September 11 has been unwilling to elaborate on this.

2. What Was With That Handshake, Anyway?

As I write a scandal is unfolding at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where American soldiers are accused of torturing and brutally humiliating prisoners, possibly at the behest of military intelligence officers. In a particularly bitter irony, Abu Ghraib was once a favored torture chamber of Saddam Hussein, a fact that leads some to ask whether there are actually any good guys in the U.S.-Iraq conflict.

There are more reasons than this to wonder. Where Iraq's human rights violations are concerned, U.S. foreign policy has long been sterner in rhetoric than in deed, dating back at least to the 1980s -- when many Bush administration figures were dealing with Iraq on behalf of then-president Reagan. Among these were Mideast envoy Donald Rumsfeld, whose 1983 meeting with Hussein resulted in a videotaped handshake that has since crossed the world countless times on the Internet. Speculation abounds as to what may have transpired at this meeting, but one thing is certain: at the time Hussein was employing chemical weapons almost daily in his hideous war with Iran. In 2003 the Bush administration referred to these gas attacks as part of its justification for invasion, but for whatever reason it has taken 20 years for Rumsfeld et al. to discover their own outrage over these horrific crimes.

3. That's Our Plan and We're Sticking to It.

From the toppling of the Taliban to the creation of the Homeland Security Department, September 11 has been used to justify virtually every action that the Bush administration has taken since. But as with so much concerning the administration, this is more complicated than it appears. Case in point: conspiracy theory web sites -- and later on, mainstream progressive e-zines -- have made much hay of the Project for the New American Century, an extragovernmental pressure group which has long been bent on conquering Iraq. As far back as 1998, PNAC sent the Clinton administration a now-notorious letter insisting that the sanction-choked country posed an imminent danger to the United States. P-Nackers such as conservative writer Bill Kristol argue that the oil moguls and weapons firms PNAC represents have long been preoccupied with Iraq out of an abiding humanitarian concern, but the fact remains that where Iraq is involved, September 11 has not altered policy so much as it has been used to justify policies that were already in place.

4. The Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Your Liberties.

Similar stories haunt the USA Patriot Act, which was promoted as a response to 9-11 but in fact resembles anti-terrorist measures passed following the Oklahoma City bombing as well as an anti-drug bill that was scuttled in 2000 for being too "reactionary." The stunning 9-11 attacks created a more compliant social climate for such harsh measures, so that after the attacks Congress passed the Patriot Act without even bothering to read the provisions it had earlier found so untenable.

Different people draw different conclusions from this. Unabashed conspiracy sites like www.prisonplanet.com speculate that the government deliberately orchestrated the 9-11 attacks in the hopes that this would drum up support for war and indoctrinate the American people into willingly abandoning their freedom. Others such as Gore Vidal make slightly more temperate accusations, that corruption and real-politik policies left American security in a dire state of neglect, setting the stage for the attacks. Whoever is right, it seems clear that although life in America has changed radically in the wake of 9-11, the plans in the highest levels of the government have remained oddly unchanged.

5. The War in Iraq Is Not About Oil.

We have noted with relief the assurances of those on high that the Iraq War has nothing to do with control of natural resources. We can therefore assume that the following facts, though interesting, are completely irrelevant:

  • Iraq holds the world's second-largest oil reserves, and owing to decades of wars and sanctions many of these fields lie un- or underdeveloped, simply waiting for sufficiently motivated energy firms to come along and tap them.
  • As luck would have it, executives from such firms are exceptionally well-positioned to influence the current administration.
  • Oil and gas prices in the U.S. are currently the highest they've ever been, a problem that oil from Iraq is likely in the coming years to help alleviate.
  • And finally, the highest priority of the administration's military forces when they moved into Iraq was to secure its oil ministry, even as museums and hospitals in Baghdad were being looted.

6. Bread and Circuses.

For a long time following 9-11, strange facts such as these were rarely mentioned in the mainstream media. This is no longer true. Anomalies from the August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing to the agenda of PNAC are now common knowledge, but many people seem not to have noticed.

Why this is? Part of the answer probably can be found by looking at the assumptions underlying the media's coverage of war. Although they will occasionally cover news items that might damage the U.S. government's credibility, in general the American media have waxed awfully uncritical since the cynical days of Vietnam, and particularly since 9-11. For example, the attack on Afghanistan, which was portrayed as a response to 9-11, was also presented as a kind of World War II re-enactment in which the U.S. -- with its 700 or more military bases in 120 countries worldwide -- was cast as a "sleeping giant" in a stunt intended to link 9-11 and Pearl Harbor. Bush spoke of America, which has engaged in more than 200 military actions since 1945, as a "peaceful" nation, but "fierce when stirred to anger." The "axis of evil" speaks for itself.

Such puffery not only misrepresents the U.S. government as benevolent in foreign affairs and reluctant to use military force, it also dehumanizes Islam in American eyes, much as the Japanese were dehumanized in World War II. It is additionally useful for shaming those who question government actions, tarring them as a kind of Fifth Column. But the most important effect of the war on terror/World War II analogy is to create the illusion of clear lines between good and evil in the current conflict when in fact those lines, as in Vietnam, are becoming blurrier by the day.

7. What You Gonna Do When They Come For You?

Propaganda of earlier decades is usually pretty easy to recognize. In hindsight, for instance, most of us can see that the duck-and-cover newsreels of the 1950s and '60s were selling Americans a bill of goods about the "survivability" of nuclear war.

But how good are we at recognizing media PR today? Some would say not terribly -- at least if the popularity of reality TV is any indication. From Survivor to Fear Factor , reality shows all ask us to identify with people whose lives are being captured on camera, often almost continuously. And they encourage us to think that's okay.

This is happening in the context of an increasingly intrusive surveillance apparatus in America and Western Europe, where the average city-dweller can expect to be photographed by closed-circuit cameras anywhere from a dozen to 73 to 300 times a day. Not many people complain about this, perhaps at least in part because Big Brother has changed the way Americans feel about Big Brother. But it's hard to imagine earlier generations accepting such a state of affairs, weaned as these generations were on novels and movies -- 1984, Fahrenheit 451 , even Videodrome -- which warned that excessive surveillance would spell the end of freedom.

8. Chip Me!

In the finest homesteading tradition, the Jacobs family of Boca Raton, Florida, has volunteered to plumb a new technological frontier: They have agreed to have "VeriChips," computerized ID tags about the size of grains of rice, surgically implanted in their bodies. On May 10, 2002, their dream was realized. Today the Jacobses constantly emit a low-frequency hum that's readable with a specialized scanner, which makes their medical histories accessible in much the way your Shoppers Food Warehouse preferred customer card allows your cashier to learn, with a single swipe, that you prefer Charmin.

Implantable chip technology is in its rudimentary stages today; in the future, more sophisticated chips are likely to be put into your kids as homing devices to help discourage child abductions; they could serve as permanent biometric identifiers; still more advanced models might even be able to monitor your body chemistry and administer precise doses of psychiatric drugs to regulate your mood.

Despite the Jacobs' enthusiasm, some are less than tickled about this new technology, particularly since being chipped, like owning a credit card, will probably someday become a prerequisite to such life necessities as renting an apartment. Also, once the chip is in your body, you have precious little say in what the device does. The ramifications of this are ominous, particularly where chips that administer psychoactive drugs are concerned. In his conspiracy nightmare "Blueprint for a Prison Planet," Nick Sandberg sums up the worst-case scenario: "With implant technology accepted as being part of life in the twenty-first century," he wonders, "who is going to notice if they no longer require us to actually program them, but seem to do it without our help, no longer allowing us access to our true feelings even if we wanted them?"

9. Peak Oil and the End of the World.

Chicken-littlism may well be humanity's oldest avocation. Since the beginning of what some of us like to call "civilization," doomsayers from the Muggletonians to the Heaven's Gate cult have frantically and confidently spoken of the world's imminent demise -- and each time, they've been all wet. The latest pessimistic vision of the future regards "peak oil": the idea that as rising demand for oil outstrips the capacity of producers to supply it, formerly stable economic systems will be thrown into disarray, leading eventually to the kind of anarchy foretold in movies like Mad Max .

One would hope peak oil is a hand-wringing fantasy on a par with the survivalist craze that accompanied Y2K. But there are some facts in favor of the peak oil agitators: a recent, stubborn rise in gas prices, with little relief in sight; the ominous fact that the world's total oil production declined in 2001 and 2002, and rose in 2003 by only .5 percent, while demand rose by nearly 2 percent; and the otherwise inexplicable war in Iraq -- which, though a political liability in the short run, is likely in the long haul to yield the U.S. virtually unending supplies of oil just when the peak oil theorists claim it's going to start getting quite scarce.

If the peak oil theory is right, the Iraq war, terrible though it is, will be remembered -- like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or the Nazi invasion of Poland -- as a mere prelude to a much bloodier affair. According to proponents like Kenneth Deffeyes and Colin Campbell, the coming decline in oil supplies will trigger privations in seemingly unconnected economic sectors. Industrial agriculture, for instance, depends heavily on oil and so much of the world's population will face starvation in a future of dwindling fossil fuels. Many oil-peakers speak of a coming "die-off," as the world population adjusts to the resources available to it -- by perishing in the billions from war, famine, exposure, and civil unrest.

10. Life After the Fall.

The peak oil theory has been around for some time now, so some people have thought long and hard about its consequences. Such folks include new-urbanists like Jane Jacobs -- who forecast that Americans will see fewer lengthy commutes and more self-sustaining local communities, as higher prices at the pump obviate automobile addiction in the U.S. -- and more pessimistic "anticivilization" thinkers like Internet scribe Ran Prieur and Richard Heinberg, who foresee a future in which a much smaller populace ekes out a spartan but sustainable existence, feeding largely off the detritus of late capitalism's industrial-sized excesses and marveling at the degree of this generation's waste. Conventional wisdom holds, somewhat vaguely, that alternative power sources such as hydrogen or nuclear power will come along at the last minute to rescue the West from such a fate. But the anticivilization thinkers have worked long and hard to imagine the consequences if no such alternative is found.

It's worth noting that the world they envision is one in which many people live today. It resembles, for instance, the privations of Sadr City -- the now-famous ghetto of Baghdad where running water is unreliable and raw sewage flows in the streets -- or the arid countryside of Sudan, where political upheaval has displaced a million people and the prospect looms of another Rwandan-style genocide, complete with the same indifference from the supposedly humanitarian West.

In The Soft Cage , a book on the rising surveillance state in America, Christian Parenti quotes Slovenian writer Slavoj Zizek regarding 9/11. Writing of that horrifying taste of third-world violence in the first-world streets of America, Zizek sardonically welcomes Americans to "the desert of the real." "The point," Parenti explains, "is not to justify the crimes of 9/11," but instead to awaken Americans to the reality that "the world is a brutal, vicious place and that America is deeply implicated in its worst aspects." In other words, even if the well-to-do in the West can somehow avert the fate that the peak oil theorists predict, for peoples around the globe the end of the world is now -- and this has been true for a long time.

Mike Ward is a contributor to PopMatters.