AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 37/2003

Cover Story: Panoply of the Absurd

Were the attacks on New York and Washington the biggest act of terrorism in history – or just an enormous secret service conspiracy? Conspiracy theorists are filling bestsellers with their supposed evidence, and they already have one-fifth of all Germans convinced of their half-truths.

The man with the shy smile who has been appearing in the dock in room 237 at the Hanseatic Higher Regional Court in Hamburg since August 14 is accused of being involved in a conspiracy. His name is Abdelghani Mzoudi, and he has been charged with assisting in the commission of murder - in 3066 cases - as a member of the secret terrorist group surrounding Mohammed Atta that changed the world with its attacks on September 11, 2001.

As soon as the representative of the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office, standing behind thick bullet-proof glass, had read aloud the results of the investigation against this 30-year-old Moroccan on the first day of the trial, his defense attorney, Michael Rosenthal, delivered a portrayal of a different conspiracy, one far more extensive, dangerous and monstrous than that of which his client is being accused: "It appears that the United States of America was already familiar with the political benefits of an attack on the World Trade Center, at least in theory, before it actually occurred."

Wasn't "a catastrophic and catalyzing event" precisely what US strategists had longed for? And hadn't George W. Bush and his people "implemented ... with astonishing speed ... geopolitical concepts that cannot be separated from an analysis of the attack?"

As the astonished whispers in a courtroom packed with reporters began to subside, Rosenthal quietly continued: "As I take a close look at the results of the investigations through my glasses, I find anomalies that are immediately apparent. They begin with passenger lists that include the Arabic names of people who are still very much alive today. And there are certainly other pieces of evidence that could give rise to some speculation."

One could certainly speculate. Most of all, one could speculate about Rosenthal's glasses.

Was this well-known attorney completely serious in suggesting that the American administration, to further its foreign policy objectives, did not even shy away from the mass murder of more than 3,000 people in its own country?

Federal Public Prosecutor Walter Hemberger was speechless. He said that he hoped Rosenthal did not "truly doubt that Atta & Co. were responsible" for the attacks. "If so," he continued "we are no longer on the same page here."

The defense attorney quickly modified his approach, claiming that he had only been trying to provoke the release of files that American investigators have thus far withheld from German authorities: "I had absolutely no intention of speaking out in favor of outrageous conspiracy theories."

However, that was precisely what he did, applying an air of social acceptability to those confused arguments that established publishing houses have been bringing to the people - with considerable success - in so-called non-fiction books for months. The authors of these books conjecture that the "geopolitical chess masters" in the White House may have sacrificed "two castles" to achieve "global dominance." They claim to be uncovering "the lies and fabrications of the media and secret services," as well as illuminating the role played by the CIA in international terrorism.

At the core, their analyses of "irregularities" lead to an allegedly "convincing counter-model for operation 9/11." The obvious conclusion: The American administration either staged the terrorist attacks itself or at least knowingly allowed them to unfold.

In his book "Operation 9/1 - An Attack on the Globe," author Gerhard Wisnewski, an employee of the German television network ARD, presents supposed evidence to support the theory that the Pentagon was destroyed by US missiles and that an aircraft never crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Like-minded former German minister Andreas von Bülow ("The CIA and September 11th") suspects that the towers of the World Trade Center could have been exploded from within. Mathias Bröckers, a former journalist with "taz," sees George Bush Jr. as the "true reincarnation of Hitler," and for this reason believes him capable of virtually any dastardly deed.

These supposed exposés have been successful with the public. Wisnewski was permitted to bring his psychic speculations to the public in the form of a film broadcast on the German television network WDR. Bülow's book climbed to the number 3 slot on the SPIEGEL bestseller list within a few weeks, and more than 100,000 copies of Bröcker's first conspiracy book have been published, making it the biggest sales coup in years for publishing house Zweitausendeins Verlag. The sequel has been available since July and is also expected to be very profitable.

The results of a Forsa survey conducted in April also indicate that this "running amok of an unbound constructivist fantasy" (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) has become a true peoples' sport in Germany. According to the survey, one-fifth of all Germans now believe "that the US government could have ordered the attacks of September 11th itself." 29% of respondents in the eastern portion of Germany and as much as 31% of Germans under 30 believe this statement.

The world also seems to have gone awry in other countries. In France, author Thierry Meyssan has sold about 200,000 copies of his book titled "L'Effroyable imposture" (translated title of the German version: "The Staging of Terrorism"). On the internet, thousands of web sites provide an international band of amateur sleuths with the opportunity to speculate about the supposed "truths" behind the "official" version.

The worst act of terrorism in history is entering the rarified atmosphere of those myths in which Elvis is alive, John F. Kennedy fell victim to a conspiracy involving the Mafia and secret service agents, the Moon landing was staged in the Nevada desert, and Princess Diana was murdered by the British intelligence services.

It's a panoply of the absurd and yet entirely of this world. Historian Dieter Groh writes that conspiracy theorists "represent a constant temptation for all of us" because they are a constant in western history. According to Groh, "the historical sequence before the French Revolution is one of Jews, heretics, witches, followed by Jews, Communists, capitalists, and secret services" after the revolutionary year of 1789.

As diverse as these theories and their adherents may be, they share a basic thought pattern: great tragedies must have great reasons. According to this way of thinking, it would be impossible for a small group of Islamists to strike such a damaging surprise blow against superpower USA, with all its weapons and intelligence services.

"The wonderful thing about a conspiracy theory is that it allows you to understand everything perfectly," says American political scientist Michael Barkun in an effort to explain the continued success of conspiracy theories. It "discloses to you that all the evil in the world can be attributed to a single cause, and that THEY are this cause, whoever they might be."

Of course, THEY - the Americans, in the case of September 11th - make things rather easy for those with a lot of imagination. That's because conspiracy theories, says Groh, only take hold when they come into contact with reality. To ensure that their "mechanism functions properly, they must fit into the prevailing interpretation patterns of a group, nation, culture or religion the way a key fits into a lock."

After all, didn't Bush and Blair deceive their fellow citizens, the United Nations, and the rest of the world with falsified or exaggerated threat scenarios to make it easier to send their soldiers to Iraq? What about Vietnam, the Iran Contra affair, and US support for Bin Laden and the Taliban when they were fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan?

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