Monday, September 17, 2007


Sam Smith

The other day I asked a former TWA pilot - one who had flown TWA 800 just months before its final crash - what a group of his colleagues sitting around a bar would say about the disaster. Overwhelmingly, he said, they would think the plane had been brought down by a missile - either the result of Navy error or a terrorist attack.

By the standards of the media and the rest of the American establishment, these pilots would thus qualify as conspiracy theorists. This is a bit odd since the average former TWA pilot knows far more about planes and what can go wrong with them than 99% of commentators, politicians and think tankers in Washington. Yet it is the latter who claim not only consummate access to the truth but the prerogative to determine who amongst us is a paranoid nut for not accepting their version of it.

We do not even need to discuss the facts of the TWA 800 incident to appreciate the enormous hubris involved in such a presumption. Yet almost every time the phrase 'conspiracy theory' is used, this hubris lurks to some degree just behind the protective shield of derision.

In fact, unproven or unprovable theories are all around us. They not only guide our everyday choices - I think if I turn right here I'll get home quicker - but our intellectual ones, witness the time spent absorbing the guesswork of Marx, Freud and Ayn Rand. The greatest conspiracy theory in our culture is probably the notion that J. Christ ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. If the Washington Post and the FBI had been around at the time, they might have insisted that his body had been snatched by members of a contemporary version of Al Qaeda. But no one would have paid much attention because the truth back then was controlled by religion and not by a secular elite. In more recent times, the secular elite has wrested ownership of unprovable theses from the priests.

And own them they will. An early example was a 1967 CIA report, 1035-960, on how to handle doubts about the JFK assassination. Among the recommendations:

"The aim of this dispatch is to provide material countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists, so as to inhibit the circulation of such claims in other countries. . .

"To discuss the publicity problem with and friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors), pointing out that the Warren Commission made as thorough an investigation as humanly possible, that the charges of the critics are without serious foundation, and that further speculative discussion only plays into the hands of the opposition. Point out also that parts of the conspiracy talk appear to be deliberately generated by Communist propagandists. Urge them to use their influence to discourage unfounded and irresponsible speculation.

"To employ propaganda assets to . . . refute the attacks of the critics. Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate for this purpose. The unclassified attachments to this guidance should provide useful background material for passing to assets. Our ploy should point out, as applicable, that the critics are (I) wedded to theories adopted before the evidence was in, (I) politically interested, (III) financially interested, (IV) hasty and inaccurate in their research, or (V) infatuated with their own theories."

In other words, only the CIA and their toadies in politics and the media - aka 'friendly elite contacts' - are allowed to have theories before the evidence is in, be politically interested, financially interested, hasty and inaccurate in their research or infatuated with their own theories. And so it has been with every major unsolved mystery ever since.

The government often does not even have to conceal the truth because it, like everyone else, may not know it. But that doesn't matter; the issue is control of the presumption. Just as the church was once broadly in charge of interpreting the unknown, today the right belongs to agencies like the CIA, the corporate media and bipartisan commissions.

Regardless of the ultimate facts of the matter, therefore, the process is dishonest, misleading, unfair and anti-intellectual in the extreme. A competent homicide detective, investigative reporter or serious academic would have nothing to do with the sort of elite theoretical manipulation that has occurred in numerous incidents from the JFK assassination to the present day.

This is not to say that popular alternative theories are inherently correct, only that the acceptability of any theory should not be based on the status of those who propose it but on the internal consistency of the premise and the external evidence to support it.

Obviously, if you want to rig the evidence, the approach favored by the secular elite is a good one. But what about those who go along with ill founded conclusions and prattle about conspiracy theories while sincerely believing that they are being responsible? This latter class includes much of the best educated and most powerful in Washington and other power centers.

One important cause of such behavior is simple caution and fear. To question the conventional wisdom in Washington is not a wise career move whether you're part of the government or merely reporting on it. It takes a lot of work and a lot of courage to challenge accepted presumptions.

Further, you can signal your willingness to play by the rules by the use of such terms as 'conspiracy theories.' It's a code that says to the powerful, you don't have to worry about me.

Finally, a major key to success in Washington is using certainty as a substitute for competence and disdain as a substitute for comprehension. Calling someone a conspiracy theorist is so much easier than actually investigating an issue or engaging in an honest intellectual debate, something that rarely happens in the capital.

The intelligent response to unsolved matters is to remain agnostic, skeptical, and curious. Theories may be suggested - just as they are every day about less complex and more open matters on news broadcasts and op ed pages - but such theories should not stray too far from available evidence. Conversely, as long as serious anomalies remain, dismissing questions and doubts as a conspiracy theory is a highly unintelligent response. It is also ironic, since those ridiculing the questions and doubts typically consider themselves intellectually superior to the doubters. But they really aren't because they stopped thinking the moment someone in power told them a superficially plausible answer.

There is the additional irony that many who ridicule doubts about the official version of events were typically trained at elite colleges where, in political science and history, theories often take precedent over facts and in which substantive decisions affecting politics and history are presumed to be the work of a small number of wise men (sic). They are trained, in effect, to trust theories rather than evidence and to support purportedly benign confederacies - such as Skull & Bones or the Council on Foreign Relations - as opposed to the malevolent conspiracies imagined by lesser minds.

Further, those in power have their own conspiracy theories - the justifications for the Iraq war being a prime example - but these must fit comfortably within the capital canon.

Other fields - such as social history or anthropology - posit that change for better or worse can come as a cultural phenomenon and not just as the decisions of a few individuals. People in other fields - such as detectives and investigative reporters - use inductive thinking which starts with evidence rather than with theories and aren't happy when the evidence is weak, conflicting or lacking. They keep working the case until a solid answer appears. This is alien to the well-educated Washington scribe who has been trained to trust official answers and conventional theories regardless of the paucity of facts.

For America, the unresolved major event is largely a modern phenomenon that coincides with the collapse of constitutional government and the decline of our culture. Beginning with the Kennedy assassination, the number of inadequately explained significant incidents has been mounting steadily and with them a steady reduction in the trust between the people and their government.

Most of the time, the secular elite wants neither new facts nor new theories. On the other hand, the intellectually curious are not afraid of either. In the best scientific tradition, they will take new facts and, if they warrant it, contrive a hypothesis about them. They will test that hypothesis, and then take it from there, revising, discarding or refining what was originally proposed as the evidence accumulates. They will follow the story as far as the facts lead and leave the remaining anomalies out in the open to be dealt with in the future.

Admittedly, there are plenty who offer alternative theories who do not follow such a rigorous approach. The irony is that such critics of accepted wisdom have far more in common with the editorial board of the NY Times than either would admit. Both place faith over facts. It's just that their faiths clash.

This doesn't, however, mean that the alternative theorists' criticisms of official explanation are without merit. One does not have to accept the notion that the Bush regime was behind the WTC attack to question the gaps in the government's version of the story or to raise the mostly ignored issue of whether the World Trade Center was built right in the first place.

But critics who insist on ill-formed conclusions actually play into the hands of those in power who happily use the most extreme hypotheses to ridicule all doubt and questioning. This has happened with virtually every unsolved mystery of recent times. The serious remaining questions are thus obscured or lumped with the unreasonable. It is far better not to reach a final conclusion, offering instead several possibilities or just pressing for answers to the unresolved aspects of a case.

Thus, like the TWA pilots, I do not trust the official story on what happened to Flight 800. But I also do not know what really did happen. Like so many other incidents in our recent history, the case can not be closed, in no small part because those in power refused to deal with it in an honest and thorough manner. So it up to others to both investigate and come up with alternative hypotheses - to test them, to write about them and, perhaps some day, to finally discover the truth.

Meanwhile, we can do our country a great favor by encouraging others to keep asking these questions and seeking answers and not to insult or dismiss them as conspiracy theorists for attempting, as best they can, to do what those with far more power, knowledge and money, should have, and were meant to have, done.