Not too long after 9/11, I read an interview with Mohammad Atta’s father in which he said his son could not possibly have committed the attack.
I would have written this off as the typical and understandable reaction of a grieving and distraught father–after all, who wouldn’t be in denial, under similar circumstances?–if it hadn’t been accompanied by a curious charge about who had done it: the Mossad. The Jews.
So preposterous did this assertion seem to me at the time that I came up with an alternate theory: Atta’s father was somewhat out of touch with reality. Whether he’d already been this way before 9/11, or whether he’d been driven off the deep end by the event, I didn’t know. But he was clearly a crackpot, with some unusual ideas.
That was then; this is now. In the years that followed I learned to consider people such as Papa Atta almost mainstream–especially in the Arab world, although also not so unusual elsewhere, including the US and certainly Western Europe. I’ve become all too aware that conspiracy theories and theorists are everywhere (lurking under the bed, no doubt).
Just Google “mohammed atta father jews 9/11,” or any similar combination of words, and a long listing will spring up of websites dedicated to the proposition that some combination of the Jews, Bush, and Israel engineered 9/11 and framed the loveable Atta Junior–and the authors of said websites have far less reason to want to exonerate Atta than his own father had. So, what’s their excuse? And, if such a proliferation of “evidence” can be proffered even in the face of the facts of 9/11, how much more easily can conspiracy theories take root to “explain” events that are less well-documented?
Conspiracies are very appealing. They appeal to simplicity (one or two linked and evil groups are responsible for the horrors and turmoil of the world, rather than many groups and a complex sequence of events that we understand only poorly). They appeal to the need to know (rather than the acknowledgement that some things are mysterious). They appeal to a sense of order (rather than chaos). They appeal to predictability (rather than the unknown). They appeal to scapegoating and displacement and denial of one’s own culpability. They appeal. They appeal. (Some of the reasons for their widespread appeal are discussed in psychological terms in Dr. Sanity’s fine essay on defense mechanisms).
And the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories, of course, is anti-Semitism (although anti-Americanism is now breathing down its neck in the “anti” sweepstakes). There is little doubt in my mind that the need to believe in conspiracies is one of the main reasons for anti-Semitism, rather than any other single factor related to Jews, who are merely a convenient target. It’s the conspiracy part of anti-Semitism that gives the phenomenon its punch and its “legs.”
But there is never any lack of targets, I’m afraid. If the Jews didn’t exist we’d have to invent them–or find somebody else to take the rap.
The need to find conspirators certainly has not let up recently, and shows no sign of doing so–au contraire. According to Big Pharaoh, our Egyptian informant, US/Israel conspiracy theories continue to be overwhelmingly dominant in the Egyptian (and, by extrapolation, perhaps much of the Arab) world in explaining the recent mosque bombing in Iraq.
And, of course, Iran has wasted no time getting into the blame act.
Here’s a BBC article on reactions around the Arab world (plus Iran) to the mosque bombing (hat tip: Roger Simon). Note the unanimity of conspiracy theories coming from Iran, and their absence in the Iraqi press.
I find it exceptionally interesting that–at least as far as their media goes–the Iraqis, the ones facing the real danger in this particular case, don’t seem to be in denial about who’s doing what. At least in the quoted excerpts, there’s no blaming of either the Jews or the Americans for the bombing (although I have little doubt there’s a contingent in Iraq who heartily blame both).
The relative strength of conspiracy theories in the Arab and Iranian world, serving to deflect blame from other Arabs/Iranians/Moslems and onto the usual suspects, protect that world from looking in the mirror and facing its own need to change, and the rot within. Because the mosque bombing is an affront to the Islamic faith as a whole, to believe that fellow-Arabs or fellow-Moslems did it is tantamount to admitting a truth that many cannot, and will not, acknowledge. To do so would be too shattering.
But conspiracy theories are hardly the sole province of the Arab/Islamic world; not by a longshot. They may indeed be more common there (I seem to recall some post-9/11 polls that indicated the vast majority of Egyptians agreed with Atta’s father about who was responsible for 9/11, for example). But one only has to tune into Coast to Coast on almost any night, or surf the web–or, of course, go to the websites of David Irving‘s rabid supporters (I refuse to show the links, but you can find them easily enough yourself) to see the universality of the theme that some group–Jews or Illuminati or Bush’s Minions or Aliens–is Behind It All, pulling the strings of the world’s puppets.
[NOTE: Jeff Goldstein's post about evaluating the situation in Iraq mentions that one of the ways to counter the ascendance of conspiracy theories would be a much stronger effort to publicize the truth--in other words, propaganda, as I've defined it here.]