Ongoing server hiccups have interfered with my normally impeccable posting schedule, meaning that I’m only now getting around to commenting on a programme entitled “The Conspiracy Files,” shown on BBC2 last Sunday. The show addressed the burgeoning mini-industry of 9/11 conspiracy theories, which all appear rooted in the inability to accept that 19 fundamentalist wackos could bring a superpower temporarily to its knees. It is, in a sense, more comforting to believe that the carnage was orchestrated from a command centre located in a block across from the World Trade Centre, which was subsequently demolished by a controlled explosion to hide the “evidence.” It seems a government that is monstrously cynical is easier to believe in than one that is all-too-fallible.
A resource available to the 9/11 conspiracists not available to the earlier generation of Kennedy assassination connoisseurs is, of course, the Web, which is to rumour and the cockeyed what the black rat was to the bubonic plague. In particular, one film, Loose Change, has coursed through the vectors provided by YouTube to disseminate the credos of the 9/11 conspiracy canon to a massive audience. With a lulling ambient soundtrack, some superficially plausible CGI “reconstructions”, and the narrator’s Savonarola-style self-belief, the documentary has the power to make a substantial part of its audience, weaned on Jerry Bruckheimer paranoid fantasies, drop their chillums with horror at the mendacity of the military-industrial complex.
It’s interesting to note that much of the finger-pointing seems to revolve around what should have been the results of the attacks rather than the actual aftermath. In particular, there has been ongoing debate about the size of the hole in the Pentagon’s outer wall (the so-called “E-Ring“) left by the impact of American Airlines Flight 77 hitting it at an estimated 400 mph. Its relative smallness, people claim, suggest a cruise missile rather than an aircraft fuselage. But one wonders what platonic ideal of “plane-shaped hole” did the blackened gap fall short of in the febrile imaginations of the Loose Change auteurs. Perhaps, these Gen-Y filmmakers expected a perfect silhouette, like something out of Hanna-Barbera cartoons when Tom has a door slammed on him by Jerry? And can their disappointment at the paucity of plane debris be triggered by half-forgotten memories of the gate-fold sleeve of their older brother’s copy of Licensed to Ill ?
Such glib pop-culture references only hint at the larger disappointments that might be fuelling the conspiracy theories around 9/11. Even in the hours following the attacks, it became a commonplace to claim that the televised images were like “something out of a movie.” But the aesthetics of the blockbuster failed to carry over to the aftermath–the crash-site of United 93, the scene outside the Pentagon, even the stumps of the Twin Towers did not match the scale our imaginations had assigned to them. They somehow lacked the Ozymandian stature we expect from the ruins of a great endeavour. And so, just as the conspiracies provide a perverse comfort by conjuring up Government in Old Testament guise–malign but omnipotent–they also reveal a kind of eschatological anxiety. The children of the movies have seen our world destroyed a hundred times–we can accept the apocalypse, even guiltily savour it, but we want the smouldering ruins to have grandeur. For example, the blackened patch of grass that constitutes the crash site of United 93, from the sky no more impressive than the charred remains of a bonfire, is an uncomfortable reminder of the totality of loss. Simply put, after a modern catastrophe, there’s not much left. This spectre of absolute erasure–which hangs over our apparently indestructible civilization–might the ghost that the 9/11 conspiracy theorists are really attempting to exorcise.