I saw you
Remember David Kelly, the UK government scientist who, was the inside source for exposing the dodginess of the dodgy dossier? Just after he testified before the Parliamentary committee I saw him on the Underground, somewhere on the District line. My guess is Embankment. I’m notoriously poor at recognising celebrities so I stared at him extra hard. He clocked me. And smiled broadly. And I thought, well – that’s cool – he’s handling all this pressure really well.
Except he wasn’t. He committed suicide and his body was found in a field near his home.
Or did he?
And you know the freaky thing. The day I saw him was the same morning that he was found dead, having killed himself the previous evening.
Or did he?
I talked to my brother not too long after it happened and he asked me if the British public was awash with conspiratorial speculation. Colleagues at work were stunned by the concept. Although they shouldn’t have been . Conspiracy theories were widely circulated a Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Baker ‘investigated’ his demise and had a lot of questions – implying that the British government (of which he’s a member of the loyal opposition) must have done him in.
If that’s the case, how could I have seen him in Central London on the day in question? (Answer, clearly I couldn’t have. I saw someone who looked a lot like David Kelly. So much like him that I wasn’t the first person who ‘recognised’ him – and he was used to it).
Piss-up in a brewery
I’ve worked in and around government for a long time. I know a little bit about how bureacracy works. And it’s slow. And it’s difficult to get agreement on anything. And often you can’t get anything done at all. And keeping a secret? Well, the best way to do that is to actually bury whatever little nugget of bad news it is in a whole pile of other stuff.
So when I hear about conspiracy theories in which some kind of government agency is the principal actor, I just have to laugh up my sleeve. Look we can barely organise the things that people think are good things – you know like education or clean drinking water. So, bringing down the Twin Towers? Think of the competitor sites. Think of the states which would have preferred to see a jetliner crash into some disastrous white elephant of a public building (think about how much Peter Mandelson would have liked some insurable disaster to befall the Dome by autumn 2001 if you need an example). Contemplating the navigation of procurement rules alone for something like that makes me shudder.
Twin Towers 2 by Andrew Coulter Enright on Flickr
True, I’ve never worked for agency that keeps black helicopters parked on its roof, but bureaucracy is bureaucracy.
For Christmas we received a copy of Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theories Have Shaped Modern History by David Aaronovitch. The book singularly fails to live up to its title. It isn’t really clear at all how they’ve shaped history – rather it’s an entertaining romp through various conspiracy theories – e.g. the Jews have organised themselves into a worldwide cabal to run everything, Stalin’s show trials, JFK, Marilyn Monroe’s murder, 9/11 and a few more – and why these are so patently false.
In the introduction, Aaronovitch states his hope that the book will provide us with sufficient ammunition to dispel conspiracy theorists and I’d say it does a mixed job on that. For example, only a bit on dispelling some of the crazy 9/11 theories (of course you can always go and check the Popular Mechanics piece if you want that), but an excellent expose on some of the 9/11 Truthers.
Only in the last Chapter does Aaronovitch try to bring the stories together into a revelatory narrative. He gets awfully close to why these conspiracy theories are potentially damaging, but doesn’t quite hit on their greatest potential damage.
They are plotting
All human enterprise is full of conspiracy – or collaboration. We’re often at our best when we work co-operatively to harness the skills, talents and efforts of groups of people. We can buy people’s labour, but buying people’s silence is a more tricky thing. Sure, people will often keep quiet about stuff for a while if they think it may help them keep their job. They may even feel terribly conflicted about sharing information and try to leak it on the sly (like David Kelly). But someone on the inside of a really big job will tell (at least in a relatively free society). That’s why I don’t think that something as clear cut and yet so absolutely huge a job as ramming a couple planes in the twin towers is something that no one would ever tell about if it was an inside job.
Yet, clearly there was a conspiracy afoot around 9/11- more than one in fact. Here are three, at least.
1. Al Qaeda conspired to cause mayhem and destruction. It was a complicated and expensive plot. But these people are fanatics not career bureacrats.
2. There was an ex post facto conspiracy (these are more common, I reckon) in the US Government to cover up the lax way that Al Qaeda was being dealt with. This conspiracy was probably largely uncovered through the 9/11 Commission – but it’s so complex that it’s difficult to comprehend.
3. There was a bizarre conspiracy among the Bush insiders to use the 9/11 attack as a means to attack Iraq. This succeeded and it’s still being sifted through.
Aaronovitch describes in the last chapter how he thinks that conspiracies are currently being almost accepted, mainstreamed. For example, after the Katrina hurricane – there were a number of rumors circulating that the levees had been breached on purpose. Basically to flood out the black people or some variation on that.
Now, I don’t believe that. But I – as people quoted in the book – can sympathise with that point of view. After all, there are people alive today who will have been alive when levees were dynamited to avoid damage to the City of New Orleans in the Great Flood of 1927. It wasn’t secret and people were warned. But you know it was going to be the poor (black) areas which were sacrificed. There was significant displacement generally and the conditions of camps housing the displaced were apparently ambominable.
So in a weird conflation of history you can see how the conspiracy theory arised. But that really wasn’t what happened. And it really wasn’t helpful for Spike Lee to present uncountered (nor supported) those theories in his film When the Levees Broke.
Because it lets people off the hook for the real conspiracy. A conspiracy of inaction for which no one has really been held accountable.
Maintenance of the levees had been underfunded. It was a Federal responsibility and though people had raised warnings, no one did much about it. FEMA – the US domestic disaster relief and emergency management agency – had been brought under the newly established Homeland Security which was being run by a bunch of Bush cronies. There’s little doubt in my mind they were unprepared and people died while they were trying sort their elbows from their posteriors.
But no one blew up the levees that time. And wealthy neighborhoods of New Orleans went in the drink, too. It’s just that the people who owned these homes had the means to get out and essentially enough trust in authority to take the hint to get out when they were told to.
Focusing on conspiracies which represent the depth of your anger – the truth that’s written on your soul – may make you feel better – but it diffuses accountability and wastes energy and makes it far more likely that lessons won’t be captured.
Aaronovitch correctly identifies that believing in conspiracies can be a salve to those who feel they’ve lost out. And he hints at the idea that they can be a salve to those who are uncomfortable with complexity and ambiguity. It’s much easier to think that someone must be behind this rather than to accept that an assassination was a terrible event that the state failed to prevent through bad luck or just dropping the ball, or that there was a failure of policy and bureaucracy and people made a bad series of decisions.