A poll of 17 countries that came out September of this year revealed that majorities in only nine of them “believe that al Qaeda was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.” A Zogby poll from 2006 found that in America, 42% of respondents believed the US government and 9/11 Commission “covered up” the events of 9/11. It’s safe to say that at least tens of millions of Americans don’t believe anything close to the official account offered by the 9/11 Commission, and that much of the outside world remains skeptical.
Over the years, AlterNet has run dozens of stories, mostly critical, of the 9/11 Truth Movement. Matt Taibbi has taken on the 9/11 Truth Movement head on in a series of articles, and most recently in his new book, The Great Derangement.
In April, I asked Taibbi if he would be interested in interviewing David Ray Griffin, a leading member of Scholars for 9/11 Truth & Justice, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University and author of seven of books on 9/11, about his recent book, 9/11 Contradictions. After months of back and forths between them and some editorial delays, I’m pleased to share their written exchange — all 24,000 words of it. What we have here are the preeminent writers on both sides of the 9/11 Truth argument; a one-of-a-kind debate. Because the questions and responses are quite long, I’ve woven them together in order. Enjoy. — Jan Frel, AlterNet Senior Editor.
1. Matt Taibbi (May 16, 2008): In your first chapter, you seem to imply — well, you not only imply, you come out and say it — that you think the real reason George W. Bush didn’t hurry to finish his reading of My Pet Goat might have been that “the Secret Service had no real fear of an attack.” In other words, they knew the plan in advance, and the plan didn’t involve an attempt on Bush’s life, hence “no real fear.” My question is this: if they knew about this whole thing in advance, why didn’t they plan to make Bush look a little less like a paralyzed yutz at the moment of truth? If the purpose of the entire exercise was propaganda, wasn’t it counterproductive to have the intrepid leader sitting there frozen with panicked indecision, a kid’s book about goats in his hands, at the critical moment of his presidency? What possible benefit could that have served the conspirators?
David Ray Griffin responds (June 12, 2008): Matt, I appreciate this opportunity provided by you and AlterNet to respond to questions about my writings on 9/11, especially my most recent book, 9/11 Contradictions, which is addressed specifically to journalists (as well as Congress).
Before responding to your first question, however, I need to address a theme that is implicit throughout your questions. I refer to your claim, which you have spelled out in previous writings, that those who believe 9/11 was an inside job must, to make this claim credible, present a complete theory as to how this operation was carried out.
You made this claim in the article in which you referred to “9/11 conspiracy theorists” as “idiots.” They must be idiots, you said, because “9/11 conspiracy is so shamefully stupid.” Saying that you could not give all your reasons for this claim, you wrote: “I’ll have to be content with just one point: 9/11 Truth is the lowest form of conspiracy theory, because it doesn’t offer an affirmative theory of the crime.” By “an affirmative theory,” you meant a “concrete theory of what happened, who ordered what and when they ordered it, and why.” In the absence of such a theory, you went on to claim, “all the rest,” including the “alleged scientific impossibilities,” is “bosh and bunkum.”
Recognizing that members of the 9/11 truth movement will argue that you are “ignoring the mountains of scientific evidence proving that the Towers could not have collapsed as a result of the plane crashes alone,” you replied: “[Y]ou’re right. I am ignoring it. You idiots. Even if it were not the rank steaming bullshit my few scientist friends assure me that it is, none of that stuff would prove anything.”
Your argument here has two problems (aside from your self-contradictory statement that scientifically disproving the official account of how the Towers fell would prove nothing). First, like most people who defend the official account of 9/11, you use the term “conspiracy theorist” in a one-sided way, applying it only to people who reject the official account of 9/11. But that account is itself a conspiracy theory — indeed, the original 9/11 conspiracy theory.
A conspiracy is simply an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime. One holds a conspiracy theory about some event (such as a bank robbery or a corporation defrauding its stockholders) if one believes that it resulted from such an agreement. A conspiracy theorist is simply someone who accepts such a theory.
According to the Bush-Cheney administration, the 9/11 attacks resulted from a conspiracy between Osama bin Laden and various members of al-Qaeda, including the 19 men accused of hijacking the airliners. This official account is, therefore, a conspiracy theory. (This is not a new point: I made it in my first book on 9/11, The New Pearl Harbor. I even made it in the title of my 2007 book, Debunking 9/11 Debunking: An Answer to Popular Mechanics and Other Defenders of the Official Conspiracy Theory. ) Accordingly, insofar as you accept this official account, you are a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. And yet you evidently do not consider yourself an idiot. Rather, you save that description, along with the term “conspiracy theorist,” for those who reject the official conspiracy theory.
Looking aside from your selective name-calling, your one-sided use of the term would not be so bad except that it leads you to be one-sided in the demands you make: While demanding that rejecters of the official theory must provide an account of what happened that is both self-consistent and based on hard evidence, you do not seem concerned whether the official theory exemplifies those virtues. (I will illustrate this point in my responses to some of your other questions.)
In addition to this one-sidedness, there is a second problem with your claim that anyone challenging a theory must have a complete alternative theory: It is false. There are several ways to challenge a theory. You can cast doubt on it by showing that its alleged evidence does not stand up to scrutiny. You can show that a theory is probably false by pointing to evidence that apparently contradicts it. You can positively disprove a theory by providing evidence showing that it cannot possibly be true. The 9/11 truth movement has done all three with regard to the official account.
To make clearer why your claim is unreasonable, I’ll use a method that you like to employ: I’ll make up a story.
You and your best friend entered a contest and, on the basis of something you considered unfair, he won the rather sizable cash prize. A week later, he is found dead, killed by an arrow. Although you are heartbroken, you are arrested and charged with his murder.
The police claim that, being angry because you felt he had cheated you out of money and glory, you used a crossbow to shoot him from the roof of a nearby building. You hire an attorney to defend you, even though you are confident that, since the charge is false, the police could not possibly have any evidence against you.
At the trial, however, the prosecutor plays a recording on which your voice is heard threatening to kill your friend. He plays a video clip showing you going into the building carrying a case big enough to hold a disassembled crossbow. He presents a water bottle with your finger prints on it that was found on the roof.
In defending you, your attorney, having pointed out that the water bottle could have been planted, then argues that, since you did not make that call and never went into that building, the police must have fabricated evidence by using digital (voice and video) morphing technology. When the prosecutor rolls his eyes, your attorney cites William Arkin’s 1999 Washington Post article, “When Seeing and Hearing Isn’t Believing,” which points out that voice morphing, like photo and video manipulation, is now good enough to fool anyone. With regard to why the police would have tried to frame you, your attorney suggests that the FBI may have asked the local police to put you away because of critical things you had written about the White House.
The prosecutor, smiling knowingly to the judge, says: “Oh my, a conspiracy theory.” He then adds that, even if your attorney’s speculations were true, which he doubted, it wouldn’t matter: Your attorney could prove your innocence only by providing a complete and plausible account of the alleged conspiracy: Who ordered the frame-up and when, who carried it out, and how and where they did this. Your attorney replies that this is preposterous: You would not possibly have the resources and connections to do this.
In any case, your attorney says, he has scientific proof that the police’s theory is false: A forensic lab has shown that the arrow that killed your friend could not possibly have flown the distance from the building’s roof to the location where your friend was killed. He then asks the judged to dismiss all charges.
The judge, however, says that he’s inclined to agree with the prosecution, especially if you are charging the government with engaging in a conspiracy: You need to provide a complete account of this alleged conspiracy. Not only that, the judge says, wickedly quoting a passage from one of your own writings: “In the real world you have to have positive proof of involvement to have a believable conspiracy theory.” You must, he says, provide positive proof that the FBI and police conspired to frame you.
Your attorney protests, saying that, in spite of the fact that his client had articulated this requirement, it is absurd. The defense has done all it needs to do. Besides showing how all the evidence against the defendant could have been manufactured, it has shown that the government’s theory is scientifically impossible.
The prosecutor objects, saying that the impossibility is merely alleged: He has some scientist friends who believe that the arrow could easily have traveled the distance in question.
The judge convicts you of murder.
Having shown you, I hope, that your demand for a complete theory, with positive proof, is unreasonable, I turn to your first question: “[If the Secret Service] knew about this whole thing in advance, why didn’t they plan to make Bush look a little less like a paralyzed yutz at the moment of truth?” That’s a good question, one that I myself asked near the end of The New Pearl Harbor, in a section entitled “Possible Problems for a Complicity Theory.” Perhaps anticipating that you would come along, I pointed out that critics of the revisionist theory of 9/11 may well make the following claim:
[T]hese revisionists must do more than show that the official account is implausible. They must also present an alternative account of what happened that incorporates all the relevant facts now available in a plausible way. Furthermore, these counter-critics could continue, insofar as an alternative account is already contained, at least implicitly, in the writings of the revisionists, it could be subjected to a great number of rhetorical questions, to which easy answers do not appear to be at hand.
I then offered a series of such rhetorical questions, one of which was: Why would the president , after officially knowing that a modern-day Pearl Harbor was unfolding, continue to do “the reading thing”? And why would the president remain in his publicly known location, thereby appearing to demonstrate that he and his staff knew that no suicide missions were coming their way? Would not the conspirators have orchestrated a scene that made the Secret Service appear genuinely concerned and the president genuinely presidential?
I then pointed out that this and the other questions suggest that to accept the complicity theory would be to attribute a degree of incompetence to the conspirators that is beyond belief. But the truth may be that they really were terribly incompetent. With regard to the occupation of Iraq, the incompetence of the Bush administration’s plans — for everything except winning the initial military victory and securing the oil fields and ministries–has been becoming increasingly obvious. [This was written in late 2003.] Perhaps their formulation of the plan for 9/11, with its cover story, involved comparable incompetence. Perhaps this fact is not yet widely recognized only because the news media have failed to inform the American public about the many tensions between the official account and the relevant facts.
Moreover, I argued, whatever difficulty these rhetorical questions pose for a complicity theory, the problems in the official theory are far greater. After illustrating this point, I concluded:
Seen in this light, the fact that a complicity theory may not at this time be able to answer all the questions it might evoke is a relatively trivial problem . Furthermore, the fact that the revisionists cannot yet answer all questions would be important only if they were claiming to have presented a fully conclusive case. But they are not.
In my later writings, I emphasized this point — that I am not attempting to provide a complete theory, partly because to do so would require groundless speculation, partly because there is no need. I did, however, state what I found the evidence to show on various matters, such as the fact that the World Trade Center buildings could have come down only through the use of explosives. I also clearly stated, after the first book, that I believed that 9/11 was an inside job, that the Air Force had been ordered to stand down, and that Dick Cheney was at the center of this operation. But this is very different from trying to offer a complete theory.
In the preface of the book about which you are asking questions, moreover, I pointed out that it contains not theory but simply an exposition of 25 contradictions within the official story.
One of these contradictions involves the story about Bush at the school. On the first anniversary of 9/11, the White House started telling a new story about what happened, saying that right after Andy Card told the president that a second WTC building had been hit, meaning that America was under attack, the president waited only a couple of seconds before getting up and leaving the room. The White House even got the teacher who was in the classroom to write two stories that repeated this lie.
Obviously the White House had come to believe that Bush’s having remained in the classroom was a liability, not a benefit. (Some reporters had asked why the Secret Service had not hustled Bush away, thereby implicitly suggesting that perhaps the attacks were no surprise.)
Why the Secret Service had allowed Bush to stay, I wouldn’t know. Perhaps it was thought essential that Bush make his scheduled address to the nation at 9:30. Or perhaps the planners were simply not very bright.
After the video surfaced on the Internet in 2003, in any case, the White House confirmed, when asked by a Wall Street Journal reporter, that Bush had in fact stayed for several minutes, explaining that his “instinct was not to frighten the children by rushing out of the room.” The reporter evidently did not ask the White House why it had tried to get away with a lie.
The 9/11 Commission did not report that the White House had put out a false account in 2002. It did, however, ask the Secret Service why it permitted Bush to remain in the classroom. The Secret Service replied that “they were anxious to move the President to a safer location, but did not think it imperative for him to run out the door.” The Commission evidently accepted that as a satisfactory answer.
In sum, I too would like to know why the planners did such a stupid thing. But I would think, Matt, that you should be concerned about why, if the attacks were a surprise, the Secret Service left Bush at the school, why the White House tried to change the story a year later (giving us two mutually inconsistent reports), and then why the press has not forced the White House to explain either of these events.