I get a phone call at midnight and go to meet my handler in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of a nearby town.
He has a message straight from the top. Silently, they hand over a sheet of paper with a message composed of words cut out of newspaper articles.
Silently I read it, “You must write an article on conspiracy theorists, they are getting too close to the truth. We must stop them”.
I nodded to show that I accepted the assignment and the piece of paper crumbled into dust.
Cover ups, secret agendas, agents, shadowy figures, smoke-filled rooms, clandestine organisations and the real terrifying truth. Together these ingredients make an exciting combination that goes some way to explaining the enduring attraction of conspiracy theories.
They’ve been around for centuries and show no sign of disappearing. On the contrary, the advent of the internet has only caused them to multiply and mutate into ever-stranger views of the world. In recent years both the anti-globalisation and the anti-war movement have proved fertile ground for the growth of conspiracy theories. When groups like the G8 are holding closed meetings to decide the policy of major governments it isn’t hard to believe that there are secret groups engaged in conspiracies all over the world.
The current conspiracy theories gaining currency are those surrounding the events of September 11th 2001. These vary from arguing that the US government, or elements within it, allowed 9/11 to happen or that they orchestrated and carried out the attacks themselves. Following on from this are ever more bizarre arguments that there were no planes, the twin towers were hit by a missile, there were no Jews at work that day, etc. All of these are encapsulated in a variety of organisations that comprise the 9/11 truth movement who are united on little apart from a refusal to accept the official account of events and an unshakeable conviction they alone know the truth.
The UK branch of this movement is the 9/11 Truth Campaign. It’s a slick, increasingly high-profile organisation with films that neatly explain world events and appeals to vague anarchist ideas of opposition to the state. Piggy-backing on the anti-war movement 9/11 conspiracy theories have been gaining adherents all across the country and organisations promoting these theories now have a regular presence at radical events. A good indicator of the size of any radical group is whether they have a group in Cumbria, where little political ever happens, and the 9/11 Truth Campaign do have a well-established group here.
It’s an organisation that is frequently labelled by its critics as being a ‘cult’. Notes from the Borderland Magazine, who are behind ‘9/11 Cultwatch’, accuse it of having a rigid belief system, aggressive proselytising, hostility to outsiders, intimidation of critics and near devotion to charismatic leaders. All of this is behaviour characteristic of a cult organisation.
My own experiences of the 9/11 Truth Campaign has done little to dent the impression that they are becoming an odd cult.
I’ve always had my suspicions of the campaign. Much of their arguments, particularly on the internet, focus on simply listing links to other 9/11 truth campaigns, links to videos. Finally there are the exhortations to ‘challenge authority’, as if the radical left doesn’t aim to do that anyway, and ‘wake up’.
Having been told that they make regular appearances at anti-war events on the anti-war march February 24th me and a mate handed out about a dozen leaflets from ‘9/11 Cultwatch’ to anyone who appeared to be from the campaign.
Let’s examine how they react when they meet with anyone questioning the movement.
While at the time they accepted and read the leaflets carefully a few days later I was emailed a link to an internet thread on their website discussing what had occurred at the march. Apparently some, “brain-washed”, “spotty youth” who was probably in the pay of MI5 had been handing them leaflets. Furthermore, there will be, “BIG TROUBLE”, if the same teenager does it again. Charming aren’t they?
It is baffling that such a small gesture of opposition and questioning generates such a reaction. One poster even ridiculed the leaflets as being from, “a small group of ultra-paranoid loons”. This coming from people who think teenagers handing them leaflets are being paid to do it by the intelligence services.
Reading through their website what is disturbing is the zeal with which they carry out their self-appointed task. They imagine they are battling a gargantuan conspiracy unprecedented in human history and anyone who offers the slightest criticism of this is condemned with ridiculous, baseless accusations. Even a couple of teenagers handing out leaflets is seized upon as yet more evidence of the evil secret state battling these nobles paragons of truth when in actual fact I imagine MI5 think the 9/11 Truth Campaigners are harmless idiots.
The basic assumption is that whatever opposition they face is not that people don’t believe them but because they are being paid or forced to oppose them by people in positions of power who are becoming worried. Anyone who doesn’t find their slim evidence utterly compelling are smeared as secret state agents.
The fearless investigators of dark secrets at the 9/11 Truth Campaign are so obsessed with seeing the hand of the security services behind any and every terrorist atrocity that they fail to pay any attention to the two ex-MI5 agents who are running their campaign! The word ‘ironic’ doesn’t even come close.
The prominence of ex-MI5 agents David Shayler and Annie Machon, who is described as 'Secretary, UK & Ireland 9/11 Truth’, in the campaign has never been explained properly. As late as early 2005 Machon was still blaming Al-Qaeda for carrying out the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Similarly in 2003 Shayler was blaming the failures of the intelligence services for 9/11 rather than blaming the intelligence services themselves for 9/11.
Going by the logic of conspiracy theorists surely if there was a movement very close to uncovering one of the greatest conspiracies of all time then the shadowy forces of the secret state would have infiltrated the movement. Completely co-incidentally the job of both Machon and Shayler at MI5 was infiltrating radical groups like the Socialist Workers’ Party. Funny that.
That ex-spies who have never come clean about their past and spent their careers spying on the movement they now claim to be a part of are given prominent positions in the 9/11 Truth Campaign indicates how serious these people are about investigating the secret state.
Rather than 9/11 itself we need to be asking questions about 9/11 truth campaigns. If the American and British governments, 7/7 and 9/11 conspiracy theories go hand in hand, were really responsible for huge terrorist attacks against their own citizens then why have they behaved so nicely towards the 9/11 truth movement? No-one has been mysteriously silenced, the organisation hasn’t been harassed and they carry out their activities largely unhindered. Surely if these people had uncovered a terrifying, gigantic plot then the state would be furiously attacking them and government experts would be wheeled out to desperately try and disprove their ideas.
That they haven’t suggests that the people in positions of power consider the various 9/11 ‘truth’ organisations to be harmless, to them at least.
The harm that they can do, and all conspiracy theorists can do, is to the anarchist and socialist left whose ideas are discredited by association. When we link up with organisations that admire David Icke, people who believe ‘Zionists’ attacked the twin towers or that the Freemasons run the world we look ridiculous. People simply laugh at us and it allows our opponents to dismiss us as hysterical cranks.
Apart from embarrassing us and discrediting our ideas conspiracy theories encourage ideas that are opposed to the radical political traditions of anarchism and Marxism.
Conspiracy theories like those peddled by the 9/11 Truth Campaign suggests that the state has an omnipotent power and that our rulers are almost super-human, capable of anything. This is a damaging myth. The most powerful state in the world, the US, couldn’t cover up Watergate or the Iran-Contra scandal. The British government couldn’t cover up the collaboration with loyalist terrorists in Northern Ireland. What is there to suggest they have the capability to carry out and cover up a huge terrorist attack on their own cities?
In reality our governments are incompetent. The British government can’t even set up a computer system in the NHS without the project falling behind schedule, the budget spiralling upwards and all the embarrassing details leaked to the press. We can and must challenge our governments as they are not all-powerful behemoths against who all opposition is futile.
More importantly, conspiracy theories teach us that to change the world all we need to do is convert others and help them see the ‘truth’. Once people have seen through the lies then the conspiracy will be overthrown. This is nonsense.
For example let’s imagine it’s true that the US government was responsible for the atrocities on 9/11. According to recent surveys cited by the 9/11 Truth Campaign 1 in 3 Americans already believes that this is the case. And what has happened? Has global capitalism been shaken to its foundations? Has the Bush administration been toppled? Has a secret cabal controlling world affairs been uncovered?
These are important questions for all advocates of conspiracy theories. A significant minority of the population believes in a conspiracy theory that, if true, has enormous implication and surprise, surprise nothing has changed. Massive demonstrations haven’t forced out the US government, the world isn’t quaking with revolutions in the Western world. There hasn’t even been another investigation into 9/11.
We must not be naïve about the role of the British state and all capitalist governments. When threatened the British state reacts ruthlessly regardless of the niceties of modern liberal democracy, just ask the people of Northern Ireland. All states do. Even the famously neutral Swiss government operated Projekt 26 a secret ‘stay-behind’ army that operated outside governmental control and spied on Swiss citizens.
Investigating the actions of the secret state is conspiracy theory territory but it is a vital area of research. It badly needs rescuing from people who are willing to blame anything and everything on mysterious, hidden groups (or the Jews) without a shred of evidence that stands up to scrutiny. The dominance of conspiracy theorists in this area lets governments to dismiss any real revelations of their illegal, immoral and dodgy activities as precisely that, conspiracy theories to be ignored or laughed at.
Conspiracy theories are very damaging for opponents to capitalism and for this reason are ultimately reactionary politics. They help foster the illusion that there’s nothing really wrong with our system. Things would be fine except that there is this secret group of people who manipulate things for their own benefit. All we need to do is expose this conspiracy and get rid of these people and everything will be alright.
The reality is that there is no-one in charge. No secret group masterminding world events. Powerful individuals and small groups do not control the forces of history. Under capitalism the working class is in thrall to the alienating power of capital that dominates our planet not the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Jews or even the Bush administration. The madness of capitalism is like a car accelerating towards a cliff edge, and there is no-one in the driving seat. This is our enemy not some ill-defined group controlling world events from behind the scenes.
But don’t take the word of a spotty brainwashed MI5 agent for it. Ask questions of conspiracy theorists. Ask them what will change if we all believe their theory, ask them how devoting your time to spreading it will bring about a better world and ask them if poverty, war, oppression, inequality and exploitation will be ended if everyone believes this theory.
Remember, question everything.