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The conspiracy theorist next door

In my office last week, I walked past a co-worker's desk and noticed he — let's call him Joe — was reading a website with pictures of the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The pictures of the buildings were overlaid with lines and arrows, like John Madden had gone to work on them with a telestrator.

I feared the worst, but had to make sure.

"What's that you're reading?" I asked.

"Oh, it's a site that says 9-11 was planned by the government."

Joe, I should point out, is a college-educated American, fluent in English and Japanese, and who by all accounts is very good at a complex job. He's no dummy. He's also married and has a young son. We're not talking about a guy who sits in a dingy basement watching X-Files reruns and listening for the secret messages the FBI is broadcasting through the fillings in his teeth.

"Do you believe that?" I asked.

"Well, it's really interesting."

"What about that videotape of Osama Bin Laden taking credit?"

"They say he's working for the U.S. government. That's why we haven't caught him yet."

This went on for a while longer. For every fact, Joe had a convenient explanation: The Saudi hijackers were trained by the CIA. The towers were blown up by explosives. smuggled into the buildings at night. The Pentagon was hit by a missile, not a plane. The people on the missing plane were flown out to sea and killed. Flight 93 was meant to be shot down all along, to show we stopped one. The government killed Americans to give us a reason to invade Iraq. The hijackers were Saudis, not Iraqis, because using Iraqis would have been too obvious.

Finally, I had heard enough.

"Joe, that's nuts, and I'm actually offended that you believe this stuff."

"Hey, I just think it's interesting. You should talk to Bob downstairs. He's completely sold on it."

"It's as upsetting to me as if you were denying the Holocaust."

"This is different."

"You really think the government killed almost 3000 Americans so it could invade Iraq a year and a half later?"

"Well, this kind of thing happens throughout history. Hitler had the Reichstag burned so he could blame it on his opponents and seize power for himself."

That's right — two sentences after saying 9-11 wasn't like the Holocaust, Joe compared Bush to Hitler.

What drives educated people to ignore Occam's razor, constructing elaborate conspiracy theories when the facts are plain as day? Why do they prefer wild speculation to sober analysis?

And, if they must reject the facts in favor of paranoid tales of their own invention, why do they cast their own government as the villain? At least Arabs have the esprit de corps to blame 9-11 on Israel, not their own leaders. It just seems right to them that evil Jews would be behind such a terrible act. Yet apparently, to many Americans, it just seems right that Americans themselves would be behind it.


Anonymous said...

Good intervention. Will Joe go the way of Bob or be saved? Sounds like he had all the common sense educated right out of him. For guys like Bob ridicule is all that is left. Sadly. It is best to make sure your Japanese is far superior than his and that way when you let him have it in Japanese he won't take it so hard. Unable to understand what it is you're saying. At least that was the advice my teacher gave me about dealing with the many "ugly Americans" roaming Japan.  

Posted by uranari

Anonymous said...

I've found it's best not to discuss politics at all in the office. Although sometimes, as in this case, a brief intervention is all but unavoidable, I doubt I'll be revisiting the issue with either Joe or Bob in the future. 

Posted by GaijinBiker

Anonymous said...

Some people will believe just about anything if it suits their ideology.

I remember before the Iraq war several people in my office insisted that it had been proven that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, was involved in 9/11 and was preparing to give WMD to Al Qaeda.

I briefly tried to "intervene" ala Gaijinbiker, but was told straightoff that I must hate America if I didn't believe that Iraq had WMD, was involved in 9/11 and working with Al Qaeda. Like, GB, I realized there are some pretty tight limits as to what you can do as far as political debate in an office environment... 

Posted by Amanda Reckonwith

Anonymous said...

Your co-workers were unduly intolerant, AR, but Saddam's past behavior at least made him a credible suspect for possession of WMD's and attacks against America.

Believing that Saddam was behind 9-11, especially back before the Iraq war, is hardly as outlandish as believing that Bush was behind it. 

Posted by GaijinBiker

Anonymous said...

``Believing that Saddam was behind 9-11, especially back before the Iraq war, is hardly as outlandish as believing that Bush was behind it. ''

Why has the Iraq war made it less outlandish to believe that Saddam was behind 9/11?

Long before Bush insisted that there was no time for further UN inspections to find those WMDs, we had to invade NOW, Bin Laden had boasted of carrying off the attack and intelligence had corroborated Al Qaeda's role.

And while, yes, it's a lot more outlandish to believe Bush caused 9/11 than to believe Saddam did, they are both OBVIOUSLY false and, in that sense, equally deserving of rebuke. Actually, the Saddam was behind 9/11 lie may be more worthy of rebuke. It got the U.S. into a war it CAN'T GET OUT OF killed more than 100,000 Iraqis and, unless the direction changes, will eventually bankrupt the United States.


Posted by Amanda Reconwith

Anonymous said...

My goodness, Amanda, you need to stop watching/reading the mainstream media and seek the truth. I doubt we'll have much more than a quick reaction force in Iraq within 12 months, the 100,000 dead figure is grossly wrong and the US will be bankrupt because Congress spent too much, not because the US spent too much on Iraq. We spend almost as much annually on the Dept. of Education as the amount we've spent in Iraq for everything - defense and reconstruction, and that's a one time expense. Dept. of Education is annual! 

Posted by antimedia

Anonymous said...

Good point, Antimedia, the mainstream media doesn't report Iraqi civilian casualty counts. Apparently, they don't consider it a major issue.

As for ending the war, Saddam's former pal Donald Rumsfeld on Sunday said: ``Insurgencies tend to go on five, six, eight, 10, 12 years.'' He declined to predict when the U.S. would withdraw and instead said setting a withdrawal date would encourage the insurgents to wait.

Rumsfeld's logic isn't clear, but it seems safe to say that the U.S. has no exit strategy.

TokyoBK says Iraq spending is a ``one-time expense.'' If only he were correct. As we know, Iraq's infrastructure is in much worse shape today than the dilapidated condition it was in before the U.S. invasion. Who will pay to maintain this in the as much as 12 years Rumsfeld predicts the insurgency may last? France? Russia? Saudi Arabia? No, TokyoBK, the U.S. taxpayer will pay, and pay and pay for this horrific exercise in nationalist self-esteem maintenance.


Posted by bunkerbuster

Anonymous said...

TokyoBK, apparently, is determined to remain outside the information mainstream, so I offer these links to mainstream organizations for other readers, who may be interested in learning where I got my figures.

A report from the medical journal Lancet makes clear that mortality accelerated after the invasion and estimates total deaths at 100,000. Their report is here .

An organization called estimates CIVILIAN deaths at 26,000 Iraqis based on REPORTED killings. They make an argument for relying on reported incidents, rather than making an estimate based on demographic information, etc. There Web site, updated at least daily, is here.

``We don't do body counts,'' U.S. General Tommy Franks 

Posted by Amanda Reckonwith

Anonymous said...

GB, if you were working with English teachers, I'd not be surprised at your colleague's reaction. I once worked with an Oxford-educated character who, shortly after 9/11, mass-emailed a multi-scene missive about how the jet that crashed into the Pentagon didn't really happen, it was all an elaborate scam; I tore it to shreds, scene by scene, in a mass-reply. But that's what they want to believe, so what can you do about it?

Amanda, you may check this link of Islamofascist mayhem  for an idea of what the jihadis, who are your real nemeses, are doing in Iraq and elsewhere; the US is trying to stop them, though you apparently don't believe it. There are legitimate questions about the sources and validity of the Lancet article as well as iraqbodycount. You are also neatly skipping the tally of dead, maimed, and raped that Saddam racked up over his years in power. Have you checked the Mass Graves site, a CNN report, or even US Aid? Heck, type "iraq mass graves" into any search engine and see what you get. Have you ever heard of the Kurds that Saddam gassed? Remember "Chemical" Ali? No, Iraq is not a pretty picture now (And who is targeting the civilians, Amanda? It's not US suicide bombers.), but it's a fever swamp that is hopefully being drained.

The Coalition invasion has brought environmental benefits too: the Basra Marshes Saddam drained to get at and kill the Marsh Arabs and Shias are being brought back to life by the Coalition. Remember when Saddam unleashed the major eco-disaster of setting all Kuwait's oil wells alight? Or is that America's fault too, for pushing him out of Kuwait?

As for office politics, never, as I'm sure to have a falling out. I've worked with Communists, Japanese nationalists, rabid (and tepid) anti-American Europeans, and one Japanese English professor who said "world Jewry" were behind Japan's economic decline (something about forex manipulations). These were all "highly educated" and "tolerant" educators, mind you. How they were in class though, I know not. I studiously avoid politics there, too. 

Posted by Comrade_Tovarich

Anonymous said...

I don't know where Comrade gets the idea I don't believe the U.S. is trying to stop Islamafascists. Indeed the Bush administration is trying it's best; I simply think they are going about it in completely the wrong way and at great cost to Americans and the world.

Comrade says ``There are legitimate questions about the sources and validity of the Lancet article as well as iraqbodycount.'' As well there should be. I would expect there to be legitimate questions about any body counts in a war zone. I don't imagine Saddam's regime was very good at taking census and I don't imagine the U.S. military is bothering to estimate how many people it's killing. In fact, as Gen. Tommy Franks said: ``We don't do body counts.''

Comrade's suggestion that I have "neatly left out" Saddam's depradations is ludicrous. I said nothing about Saddam; my comments were specifically about the death toll from the U.S. invasion. The other death tolls have nothing to do with that.

Lastly, Comrade claims the U.S. isn't "targeting" civilians. That is open to interpretation. Recall that, shortly after the invasion, the U.S. conducted a massive bombardment of an Iraqi neighborhood based on a tip--Chalabi again?--that Saddam was at a nearby restaurant.

Three city blocks were leveled and, as the U.S. "doesn't do body counts'' an untold number of Iraqis met their maker. You can say that the target was Saddam, but at some point, the sheer magnitiude of civilian deaths has to intrude on this polite fiction.

The U.S., indeed, has behaved somewhat better than the insurgents. But American ideals and American history doesn't measure itself against the subhuman behavior of those animals. It measures itself against its own best behavior. And on that scale, the war crimes in Iraq by the U.S. are atrocious. 

Posted by Amanda Reckonwith

Anonymous said...

Nothing personal, Amanda , but the minute someone mentions "the U.N." and its' "not being given enough time" to fully inspect Iraq's alleged sites of WMD, I stop listening. The U.N., many conveniently forget, was in fact the proponent that argued that Saddam Hussein could be managed, and that we should leave him in power following the first Gulf War. We all know how well that turned out.

AS we all know Saddam remained in power, and the UN aided, abetted and empowered him through the "Oil-for-Food" program. The U.N. weapons inspectors allowed Saddam to determine when and where inspections would be conducted, and the venerable U.N. failed to enforce their own post-Gulf War I cease fire as well as the "strongly-worded" warnings made following yet another violation of its' own decrees. They also employed as their Chief weapons inspecter (and later as P.R. rep)a known & convicted pedophile who trolled internet chatrooms in order to hook up with young teen girls (Scott Ritter).

The U.N. also refuses to follow up on allegations that Syria may have helped Iraq funnel weapons out of Iraq in the days leading up to the war. Combine this with the Internation Atomic Energy Agency's willingness to accept prima facie  Tehran's assertions (that any and all atomic research being conducted was solely for the purpose of residential and commerical energy supply), with their ineptitude in managing the allegations that the Irani facility was in fact purposed for the production of enriched Uranium (a key component in the production of nuclear weaponry) and you have an organization I wouldn't trust to guard an outhouse in the Yukon.

For people to continue to assert that the U.N. is better suited to manage international crises than the U.S. is a sign of, if not outright lunacy, an unwillingness to deal with cold, hard facts. It would appear hatred of Bush trumps all, and makes the pro-U.N. contingent look like fools.

Posted by Langtry

Anonymous said...


You have asked a really fascinating question - that is ultimately tied to brain function. We basically build maps of reality, and then often find it easier to twist reality to fit out mental map that to rework our map in the face of inconsistent facts.

We all have a tendency to filter out, downplay or dismiss dissonant information, and have to consciously struggle to face up to the difficult task of constantly updating and reworking our mental maps. This a brain hard-wiring issue; have you heard of conditions such as anosognosia, where a stroke that damages a particular region of the right cortex – apparently crucial to the mental map adjustment mechanism – leaves the victim unable to consciously acknowledge that the left side of his body is paralyzed? The key researcher, Ramachandran, surmises that this is due to damage to an "anomaly detector" in the right hemisphere.

Here are a few links on the topic.,denial.html

We can see this struggle played out in political discourse, where it seems most time for many participants is spent in vociferous defense of one’s own reality model, and little in exploring whether someone else might have a point that might require reflection and consideration.

In other words, unless one is vigilant, it is entirely natural that many of us find that we are just talking past each other. You can see it everywhere, even in this thread.

Posted by Tokyo Tom

Anonymous said...


I acknowledged that phenomenon in the comments here :

"I personally think Bush won in large part because Americans liked his plain-spoken, humble style more than Kerry's dour, haughty patronizing. How many WMD's we found in Iraq didn't really make a difference. (Perhaps Bush voters said they thought we found WMD's in Iraq just to back up their gut-level decision to vote for him.) "  

Posted by GaijinBiker

Anonymous said...

I hope this thread hasn't reached the point of "One man's war liberator is another (wo)man's war criminal," but it seems it has. In taking Okinawa, the US killed and injured thousands of people; were those war crimes?

Yesterday the Japanese Emperor was in Saipan remember war victims. He visited, among other places, a cliff where many Japanese threw themselves to their deaths because they believed the propaganda they were fed about savage inhumane Americans. Skepticism of motives is almost always warranted, but dubious and wholly fake cries of "War criminal!" are counterproductive and can be deadly; for Japanese in WW2, it caused mass suicides; for some Muslims and others today, it leads to justifying suicide bombings targeting civilians and peace keepers and attacks on US troops doing the same as well as building and rebuilding infrastructure.

War is a nasty imprecise business. Projectiles go astray; the wrong places are attacked. But rather uniquely the US tries to compensate: it punishes its miscreants (maybe not to the extent others would like) and pays compensation (maybe not on a scale others would like but adequate by local standards). Are these the actions of a war criminal? I could be wrong, but I doubt Saddam (or any other dictator) disciplined his ill-mannered thugs (and sons) or paid the Kurds for their lost relatives or lands taken and given to Sunni Arabs.

By the way, how many UN resolutions did Saddam violate? About 17 was it? If one views the UN as a legitimate force for securing and enforcing peace, allowing its policies to be flouted repeatedly undermines the UN. For some, including President Bush (if my memory is right) this was added justification for invading Iraq. It wasn't only WMD.

Saddam's past activities (including the abuse of his own people who called him "al Safah," the Vampire) led to the invasion. By ignoring or downplaying them while issuing a blanket denunciation of US activities, you seem to imply that Iraqis were better off under Saddam, a true war criminal who, whenever his trail gets under way, will assuredly be found to be one, officially. Some Iraqis will likely agree with you about the US, but the majority apparently do and will not, and that's whose opinions are most important: Iraqis', not yours or mine. Their opinions and actions are what will determine how this story is written into history and how its characters' roles are portrayed.

If you seek to criticize the US for failing to live up to its own standards, that's fine: Exceptions and hypocrisy exist. But I don't think you can go about shifting standards to achieve the outcome you want or ignoring the actions of all other invested parties. 

Posted by Comrade_Tovarich

Anonymous said...

Langtry: Then-U.S. Commander in Chief George HW Bush led an unprecedented alliance of U.S. and global military leaders to a consensus during Gulf War I that the price would be too high and the consequences to uncertain to remove the Saddam regime. Events have shown that they were right. Your assertion that the U.N. was ``the proponent'' of containing Saddam is, perhaps, a consequence of your acknowledged habit of not listening.

Under U.N. sanctions, Saddam remained crippled militarily, was prevented from rebuilding his WMD capacity and took only a very limited role in terrorism--somewhat less, for example, than did the monarchs, dictators and mullahs running Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia or Syria.

No the U.N. sanctions didn't transform Saddam into Nelson Mandela and they came at great cost to the Iraqi people. The costs and benefits of the sanctions and containment can only be meaningfully compared with the costs and benefits of a U.S.-led invasion.

The results of the U.S. invasion have been that Iraq is not a major training ground for terrorists where money, weapons and support flows freely, directly to Al Qaeda supporters. To be sure, there were some positive results from the U.S. invasion. Saddam will face trial for atrocities, for example. But the costs in human life, money and geopolitical capital far outweigh the benefits, just as GHW Bush and his allies had expected when they chose not to pursue Saddam after the first Gulf War.

Langtry also asserts that there are ``legitimate questions'' about the Lancet and iraqbodycount estimates. There certainly should be, since it is a war zone and counting deaths is sure to be a tricky business. If he has a better, more legitimate source for body count, perhaps he will share it with us. If he doesn't, it might call into question his assertions about Lancet and iraqbodycount. And we know the U.S. media isn't covering the Iraqi death toll in any depth or consistency. Any theories about why that is?

Perhaps Langtry's biggest mistake is to draw a simplistic Bush vs U.N. picture of what's going on in Iraq and the Middle East. The U.N.'s track record of diplomatic success in the region is almost as bad as that of the U.S. Still, many or even most Americans prefer to work with the U.N., not against it.

Posted by Amanda Reckonwith

Anonymous said...

Comrade T: who's ignoring Saddam's atrocities? No one. The disagreement is not over whether Saddam was a bad guy, nor even of exactly how bad of a guy he was.

The disagreement is over what the appropriate policy is to deal with Saddam and regimes like his.

To the extent that Comrade T. persists in the claims that Saddam's depredations are being ignored, he is fabricating his fundamental premise. 

Posted by Amanda Reckonwith

Anonymous said...

actually, I meant to say: The results of the U.S. invasion have been that Iraq is now a major training ground for terrorists where money, weapons and support flows freely, directly to Al Qaeda supporters.  

Posted by Amanda Reckonwith

Anonymous said...

This thread started with Gaijinbiker's query about why smart people prefer a twisted, constructed reality to the real one. I took a stab at that from a brain-function standpoint, but the short answer is that because the real world is so damn hard to understand, and keeps undermining our subconscious presuppositions. It is sooo much easier to defend one's own view of reality than to really keep one's mind open, and to keep rejiggering your reality map. And so it's just human nature to filter out inconsonant information, and to glom onto facts that already fit a pre-established view.

Amanda, good job at keeping the focus on the legitimacy of criticizing both the decision to go to war and the conduct of the war itself. No question that Saddam was a bad guy, but it was clear that he was not a present threat to the US. Rather, the adminstration invaded because (i) IT WANTED TO, and (ii) IT KNEW IT COULD. Its confidence was derived from the knowledge that post-911 US public opinion could be easily twisted to strike at another "bad guy".

My problems with that? Many, but at the core I think that the adminstration has seriously weakened representative government in the US by cynically circumventing its obligation to make an honest case for the war with the American people. We see continually evolving RATIONALES, but that's what they are, and it is still nigh impossible to judge with any confidence what the adminstation's true objectives are. The adminstration wanted this war, and beat the drums long and hard. After 911, it was natural that many Americans found satisfaction in supporting that call. Those who wanted a little discussion are even now being painted as unpatriotic.

Of course 911 presented the US with many opportunities to harness the energies of the American people and the international community, but the administration has preferred to be a steamroller rather than a global leader. This has led many to question its true motivations. There is certainly a case to be made for more interventionist US policy, but we can't do everything alone. Why can we invade Iraq, but stand idly by at genocide in the Darfur or while Mugabe turns the breadbasket of Zimbawe into a basketcase?

This administration has never brooked the slightest dissention or analysis, even from its professional miltary, and the legacy of its arrogance and hubris is already proving to be extremely costly to the US and our long-term interests. What are we really doing in Iraq, and why does it justify all of the costs?

Some recent news from Iraq, for those of you interested in hearing from people close to the action:

Patrick Cockburn in today's Independent:

"Iraq: A Bloody Mess" 

I also recommend Dahr Jamail's Iraq Dispatch  

Posted by Tokyo Tom



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