9/11? It Never Happened

To get a sense of how deep mistrust of the United States runs in Germany, take a look at the bookshelves. Two years after September 11, German bookstores are flooded with such works as "The CIA and September 11," in which a former government minister of Research and Technology, Andreas von Bulow, insinuates that the U.S. and Israeli intelligence services blew up the World Trade Center from the inside. The two Boeings, he claims, were flown in by remote control as a cover-up. The whole thing was a cynical plot by America's neoconservatives to take over the world.

Published last month by the otherwise reputable Piper Verlag, the minister's book has already jumped to number three on the nonfiction best-seller list. The only books more popular are two works by Michael Moore, an American left-wing documentarian who has, over the past year, become celebrated for his eloquent rants against the Bush administration, accusing it of using 9/11 as an excuse to curtail civil liberties while pursuing its own corporate interests. Recently, more crackpot 9/11 theorists have gotten a kind of official blessing. In June, German government-run WDR television broadcast a "documentary" claiming that no airplane ever crashed in Pennsylvania.

You would expect this sort of thing in some quarters of the world, where hatred of the West is so common and intense that theories of America (and Israel) as a wellspring of sinister forces easily flourish. To this day, many Arabs believe that 4,000 Jewish employees working at the WTC did not show up at their jobs on September 11, having been tipped off by the Mossad, the true perpetrator of the attacks. Consider, too, the many interpretations surrounding the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. Many Arabs think the United States did the deed, allegedly to foil those who seek to turn the mission over to multinational control. In a world where paranoia and disinformation reign, it's easy for such theories to spread. But why have they seemingly taken root in a place like Germany? And why now, two years after the attacks?

Make no mistake. The number of Germans, French and other Europeans who believe in a secret American conspiracy surrounding 9/11 is a minority. But it's sizable: one in five Germans, for example, says it's possible that Bush ordered up 9/11 as a pretext for world conquest, according to a July poll by the weekly Die Zeit. There's a practical explanation for the current bout of cryptomania: most of the books released now were written at the height of the nasty transatlantic war over an American attack on Iraq. Amid the antiwar fervor, conspiracy theories played a big role in many Germans' thinking. Indeed, some mainstream media virtually specialized in sinister plots. In suggestive cover stories titled blood for oil and warriors of god, the German newsweekly Der Spiegel described U.S. policy as a conspiracy to control the world--fomented and led by the oil industry one week and the Christian right the next. That kind of hysteria can't disappear overnight.

Recent weeks have provided fresh fodder. Take the controversy over Britain's hyped-up Iraq dossiers, the disappearance of Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction and a dead British defense scientist. Add in the backdrop of the continuing debate over massive U.S. intelligence failures that might have let 9/11 happen. When reality already reads like a political whodunit, it's easy for skeptics to see a more sinister plot. Even before 2001, there was the curious Florida election, as well as the Bushies' close ties to corporate interests and the newly prominent network of neocons in U.S. media and think tanks. All around the globe, the Bush presidency has turned out to be "the most fertile period for conspiracy freaks since JFK was shot," says Jorg Lau, a Die Zeit reporter who's been tracking the phenomenon.

Cockeyed explanations for real-life events will always flourish, of course. One in five Britons, for instance, apparently believes Princess Diana was murdered. The fact that Germans who think Bush masterminded 9/11 aren't demonstrating in front of the American Embassy in Berlin suggests that, for many of them, these plots are a kind of political entertainment, so much more interesting and provocative than the complex and in many ways more frightening truth. The problem begins when the paranoia seeps into public discourse. "The line in the sand is when respectable media and publishers start serving up fiction as truth," says Oliver Schrom, a German intelligence expert who has watched his own meticulously researched best seller on 9/11 intelligence failures be eclipsed by the conspiracy books. Schrom worries that a widespread paranoid attitude will cloud what he says is the real lesson of 9/11: that better and more coordinated intelligence will ensure against future attacks much more than cutting back civil liberties or going to war.

Worse, the theories are circulating at an immensely sensitive time. With Iraq in apparent chaos, America is returning to the United Nations in search of allies. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is regrouping, just as new global conflicts may be brewing over North Korea and Iran. Before things started going to hell, it was fine (and fun) to speculate about American perfidy, especially since some of the authors didn't much care whether readers believed them or not. But now hard decisions must be made, with the prospect that Europeans will increasingly be swept up in America's troubles abroad. Perhaps that explains, in Germany at least, why mainstream journalists and politicians have been quick to denounce the crackpots. Even Der Spiegel--usually good for a conspiracy theory or two--last week ran an unusually sober cover story debunking them. Now that the game has turned so serious, whimsy seems suddenly out of place.