Conspiracies Or Institutions?
9-11 and Beyond
By Stephen R. Shalom & Michael Albert
There has been much frenzied debate on the Internet and in the news recently suggesting that “the government knew beforehand about the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks” and let them happen in order to use these horrible events to pursue their right-wing agendas. In the months since 9-11, conspiracy theories have been multiplying rapidly, gaining, it would seem, popularity in the mainstream, on the right, and even on the left.
None of the “conspiracies” being talked about strike us as remotely interesting, much less plausible. Neither of us would ordinarily have spent even five minutes exploring conspiracy claims because they fly in the face of our broad understanding of how the world works. But such theories seem to have some popularity among progressives, so they must be addressed.
* What is a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory?
The most common definition of a conspiracy is two or more people secretly planning a criminal act. Examples of conspiracy theories include the belief that: (1) JFK was assassinated by rogue CIA elements attempting to ward off unwanted liberalism; (2) negotiations between the United States government and Iran to release American hostages in then-President Carter’s last year failed because Reagan’s aides secretly struck a deal with Iran to hold the hostages until after the election; (3) 9-11 was a plot by a rogue CIA/Mossad team cunningly engineering rightward alignments in the United States and/or Israel.
A broader definition of conspiracy includes misleading, but still legal acts. For example, even if the U.S. president and his top aides could legally perpetrate the secret 9-11 attacks, doing so would still be a conspiracy. Legal assassination disguised as an accident or secretly pinned on someone else might also fit the second definition because it’s not just secret, but actively deceptive. But no definition of conspiracy, however broad, includes everything secret.
People often secretly get together and use their power to achieve some result. But if this is a conspiracy, then virtually everything is a conspiracy. General Motors executives meeting to decide what kind of car to produce would be a conspiracy. Every business decision, every editorial decision, every university department closed session would be a conspiracy. Conspiracy would be ubiquitous and, therefore, vacuous. Even in the broadest definition, there must be some significant deviation from normal operations. No one would call all the secret acts of national security agencies conspiracies, as they are sufficiently normal and expected.
We don’t talk of a conspiracy to win an election when the suspect activity includes candidates and their staff working privately to develop strategy. We do talk about a conspiracy, however, if their strategy includes stealing the other party’s plans, spiking their rival’s drinks with LSD, having a campaign worker falsely claim he or she was beaten up by the opposing camp, or other exceptional activity.
* What characterizes conspiracy theorizing?
Any conspiracy theory may or may not be true. Auto, oil, and tire companies did conspire to undermine the trolley system in California in the 1930s. Israeli agents did secretly attack Western targets in Egypt in 1954 in an attempt to prevent a British withdrawal. The CIA did fake a shipload of North Vietnamese arms to justify U.S. aggression. Conspiracies do happen. But a conspiracy theorist is not someone who simply accepts the truth of some specific conspiracies. Rather, a conspiracy theorist is someone with a certain general methodological approach and set of priorities.
Conspiracy theorists begin their quest for understanding events by looking for groups acting secretly either in a rogue fashion, or to fool the public. Conspiracy theorists focus on conspirators’ methods, motives, and effects. Personalities, personal timetables, secret meetings, and conspirators’ joint actions claim priority attention. Institutional relations largely drop from view. Thus, rather than seeking a basic understanding of U.S. foreign policy, conspiracy theorists ask, “Did Clinton launch missiles at Sudan in 1998 in order to divert attention from his Monica troubles?” Rather than examining the shared policies of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, as an examination of institutions would emphasize, they ask, “Did a group within the CIA kill Kennedy to prevent his withdrawing from Vietnam?”
* What characterizes institutional theorizing?
An institutional theory emphasizes roles, incentives, and other institutional dynamics that compel important events and have similar effects over and over. Institutional theorists notice individual actions, but don’t elevate them to prime causes. The point is to learn something about society or history, as compared to learning about particular culpable people. The assumption is that if the particular people hadn’t been there to do the events, someone else would have.
There are, of course, complicating borderline cases. A person trying to discover a possible CIA role in 9-11 could be trying to verify a larger (incorrect) institutional theory—that the U.S. government is run by the CIA. Or a person might be trying to demonstrate that some set of U.S. institutions propels those involved toward conspiring. Someone studying Enron may be doing so not as a conspiracy theorist concerned with condemning the proximate activities of the board of Enron, but rather to make a case (correctly) that U.S. market relations provide a context that make conspiracies against the public by corporate CEOs highly probable. The difference is between trying to understand society by understanding its institutional dynamics versus trying to understand some singular event by understanding the activities of the people involved.
* Does conspiracy theorizing create a tendency for people to depart from rational analysis?
In a famous study in the 1950s, researcher Leon Festinger wanted to find out how a religious sect would react when its prophecy that “the Earth was going to come to an end” failed to come true on the predicted date. When the fateful date arrived and nothing happened, did the believers cease to be believers? No. Instead they asserted that God had given humankind one more chance and they maintained the rest of their belief system intact. One is entitled, of course, to hold whatever beliefs one wants, but beliefs like those of the religious sect are not rational or scientific, for it is a basic requirement of scientific beliefs that they be in principle falsifiable. If a scientific hypothsis predicts X and not-X occurs (and recurs repeatedly), then the hypothesis ought to be doubted. If the hypothesis flouts prior knowledge, as well as current evidence, and is accepted nonetheless, then the behavior is often neither scientific, nor rational.
To the conspiratorial mind, if evidence emerges contradicting a claimed conspiracy, it was planted. If further evidence shows that the first evidence was authentic, then that, too, was planted....