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A couple of weeks after 9/11, I was in Cairo, trying to connect with the father of Mohamed Atta, the leader of the attack squad. I was a little late because, wise to the Western media by the time I got there, he was demanding thousands of dollars for an interview, and I had to make do with screening tape shot by NBC immediately after the attack to get what I needed.
I remember vividly that already at that point, it seemed that every cab-driver in Cairo could tell you with great confidence that all the Jews in the World Trade Center had been warned not to show up on the fateful day: evidence that the whole thing had been got up by Mossad to sucker the Americans into the Middle East to fight Israel’s enemies. Asked where they got the story, they would say they “heard it on the news”, or as one student told me outside the American University of Cairo, that he had read it in Time magazine!
According to Slate, the story originated with the Hezbollah’s television network Al-Manar. Tracking it down in the internet, at the time, I found references on many Arab websites to a mysterious retired Pakistani general from the intelligence service, who apparently had the goods on Mossad. From his perch in Karachi? You had to think that Pakistani intelligence has deeper roots in Al Qaeda than in Mossad, but never mind: this stuff works by playing on credulity, not by confronting skepticism.
The Globe wasn’t interested in the news of the conspiracy story at the time, despite my pitch that it said a lot about the “Arab street” — something Westerners were obsessing about in those early weeks. Whether it was that my editors didn’t want to give the theory legitimacy unintentionally by putting it in print, or because they were worried about fueling an anti-Arab backlash in Canada (a real concern in those first days), I do not know.
Anyone who has spent time in the Arab world will tell you that theories like the one about 9/11 — often preposterous, and almost all of them conspiratorial — pop up regularly in popular discourse. One of my favourites was the story that sprouted among Palestinians whenever Yasser Arafat was doing something they didn’t like, that the Israelis had swapped him him with a Mossad doppelganger when his plane crashed along the Egyptian-Libyan border in 1992. Man, I thought: you had to be one hard-bitten Mossad guy to do that job for thirteen years.
It is sad in a way, that so many of these myths speak to a self-image among Arabs as being collective weaklings, and invest mystical powers in the Israelis. In fact, at the time, it was not unusual to hear Egyptians, Palestinians and Lebanese say that the 9/11 plot was too sophisticated to have been pulled off by Arabs. So the story struck currents of self-loathing as well.
There may be a pleasant irony in the fact that Americans share something of the Arab taste for exotic conspiracy theories. Various polls have suggested more than a third of Americans disbelieve the official story of 9/11 as they do of the Kennedy assassinations and Elvis’ death. I am told that some still think there really were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
All of this brings us back to Lesley Hughes, the Winnipeg journalist and sometime university lecturer running for the Liberals in Winnipeg, who was informed by a CBC reporter of her unceremonious dumping from the Liberal team by Stephane Dion yesterday. Those of us with Winnipeg roots know Lesley Hughes best as the slightly flaky, a-little-too-openly-opinionated, lefty morning show host on CBC radio in the 1980s and 1990s. Harmless, well-intentioned even, but a little irritating some days when you were shaving and the news just kept coming with an dollops of often quite spectacularly un-self-critical political viewpoint from Ms. Hughes.
It was painful to see her yesterday distancing herself from the 9/11 conspiracy theory, which in context, she plainly gave credence in the offending article, written soon after the September 11 attacks, but re-surfacing this week. Here is a larger chunk of what she wrote than has appeared in most media:
Truth may have been the casualty of war in former ages, but this war is different. While major media busy themselves waving flags, a global network of independent journalists, who have no interests to protect, no secrets to hide, are tracking and documenting its development on a daily basis.
Using and sharing only published and sourced news stories from world media, and official documents of various governments either leaked or available under freedom of information acts, these journalists have assembled a disturbing picture, which suggests CIA foreknowledge and complicity of highly placed officials in the U.S. government around the attacks on the World Trade Center Sept. 11.
Many official sources are claiming to have warned the American intelligence community, which spends $30 billion a year gathering information, about the attacks on the twin towers on that heartbreaking day.
German Intelligence (BND) claims to have warned the U.S. last June, the Israeli Mossad and Russian Intelligence in August. Israeli businesses, which had offices in the Towers, vacated the premises a week before the attacks, breaking their lease to do it. About 3000 Americans working there were not so lucky.
Ironically, the stock market was also warning anyone who cared to notice that something peculiar was afoot: in the week prior to Sept. 11, unknown speculator(s) were suddenly betting that the stocks of United Airlines and American Airlines were going to fall in value; the trades were placed through Deutschebank/AB Brown, a firm formerly managed by Buzzy-Krongard, now executive director of the CIA.
You can check out the websites she cites. They are the home of no end of conspiracy theories, involving the CIA, Mossad, the Vatican and so on. They seem to mark the precise point in American cyberspace where loony meets lefty.
When the she was dumped by Dion on Friday, best documented in a story here by CBC Winnipeg, Hughes reacted with variations on the ‘it was taken out of context” and “some of my best friends are Jewish” tropes:
“It’s a major shock to my faith in the party and the whole system,” said Hughes, who defended her track record by citing her biography about a leading figure of the Jewish community and the Holocaust education that she taught in classes at the University of Winnipeg for more than a decade.
“It’s the theatre of the absurd,” said Hughes.
“I have no time for conspiracy theories about the Jewish population whatever,” she said. “The article that I wrote — for anyone who reads it carefully — is very clearly innocent of any kind of anti-Semitic feeling. I am just absolutely stunned by this.
“I guess that’s how soldiers die in the trenches. This is how it must feel.”
Looking at her original remarks in context, you can only see this defence as either disingenuous or utterly self-aware. I suspect the latter, but of course, cannot know.
The problem, in my view, with the kind of nonsense Hughes was trading in, is not that the American and Israeli governments (as well as the Vatican, for that matter) don’t have lots to answer for. It is that the ideas she was retailing, in the guise of journalism, replace verification and questioning — which should be the journalist’s stock in trade — with credulity and speculation.
This does not make it any easier for people writing about the Middle East to do their jobs. In fact, it understandably raises questions about whether anti-semitism lurks behind every critical question, which it does not and should not.
It makes me tear my hair out.
Paul Adams is a former political reporter with the CBC and the Globe and Mail, and is now a member of Carleton’s journalism faculty, and executive director of EKOS Research Associates.