Vol. 10, No. 2; Summer 2004
Unthinkable Thoughts on 9/11
The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11. By David Ray Griffin. Olive Branch Press, 2004. xxv + 214 pgs.
Jean Bethke Elshtain thinks that I should not be reviewing this book. Of course, you may say, she thinks that I should not be writing at all. But I do not here refer to her views about me. She thinks, rather, that no one should take this book seriously. She calls "the suggestion that American officials, including the president, were complicit in the [September 11] attacks ‘preposterous’ [and] adds: ‘This sort of inflammatory madness exists outside the boundary of political debate’ and therefore does not even ‘deserve a hearing’" (p. xv, quoting Elshtain).
Since The New Pearl Harbor very definitely does entertain such charges, it falls under her ban. But to dismiss Griffin as a crackpot is prima facie mistaken. He is a philosopher of distinction, especially noted as an exponent of "process" thought in the style of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. Among his many books, his God, Power, and Evil and Unsnarling the World-Knot seem to me particularly excellent. (The latter book is a study of the mind-body problem.)
The vital core of Griffin’s book is this. President Bush and high officials of his administration wished, long before the attacks of September 11, to pursue a policy of militant worldwide aggression against supposed enemies of freedom. An invasion of Iraq and drastic measures against other nations in the "axis of evil" were contemplated.
But how could the American people be brought to back so costly and dangerous a policy? The attacks of September 11 solved the president’s problem. After the grievous blows struck against us by terrorists, who but a few "extremists" dared oppose the invasion of Iraq?
The startling hypothesis that our author invites us to consider is that, to some degree or other, the Bush administration was complicit in what thus served its purpose. Just as revisionist historians such as Charles Beard and Charles Tansill argued that President Roosevelt allowed the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor in order to bring a united American people into war, so does our author suggest an analogous strategy for President Bush. (Oddly, Griffin does not refer to the Pearl Harbor precedent, despite the title of his book. Richard Falk alludes to the revisionist view in the book’s foreword.)
Griffin is a careful philosopher, and he usefully distinguishes eight varieties of official complicity. These range from "Construction of a False Account [of the September 11 attacks]" to "White House Involved in Planning [the attacks]" (pp. xxi–xxii). His evidence inclines him to take most seriously the higher degrees of complicity; but it is important to bear one fact in mind. Griffin nowhere asserts that any of the charges of complicity are true. He confines himself to saying that the researchers who have made such charges, such as Nafeez Ahmed, Paul Thompson, Thierry Meyssan, and Michael Chossudovsky, have raised claims that warrant careful investigation. Griffin’s task has been to summarize and analyze the work of these and other researchers, adding to their body of work some arguments of his own.
Before I proceed to Griffin’s contentions, I think a confession is in order. In spite of the book’s intrinsic importance, I have hesitated to review it. Many of the arguments advanced depend on technical matters that I lack the knowledge to evaluate. When, e.g., Griffin claims that the manner of collapse of the World Trade Center buildings suggests that explosives were present inside, or when he suggests that photographs of the damage indicate that a missile rather than a plane struck the Pentagon, I can do no more than report his remarks. In order to evade this problem, I shall confine myself to discussing Griffin’s less technical arguments.
Griffin’s initial argument is one of his strongest. Why were the planes that attacked the Twin Towers not intercepted before they crashed into their targets? Does not the United States have an elaborate system in place to take action against planes that deviate from their assigned flight paths and lose radio contact with the ground? According to spokespersons for NORAD [the responsible military agency], from the time the FAA senses something is wrong, "it takes about one minute" for it to contact NORAD, and then NORAD can scramble fighters "within a matter of minutes to anywhere in the United States" (p. 4). If this is so, there was ample time to stop the first plane from striking the World Trade Center. The case is even more compelling that the second plane could have been stopped, let alone the plane that struck the Pentagon. (Griffin is in some doubt that a plane did hit the Pentagon: but if it did, it could have been stopped.)
But has NORAD actually intercepted and, if necessary, shot down commercial airplanes within the United States within a few minutes of being notified? Griffin’s case would be strengthened by examples of such incidents. Otherwise, a competing hypothesis explains NORAD’s poor response. Perhaps the United States does not have so speedy and precise a capacity to respond to air attacks as NORAD claims. Elaine Scarry argues exactly this in Who Defended The Country? (Beacon Press, 2003), and it would be valuable to have Griffin’s response to her arguments.
In his discussion of the attack on the Pentagon, Griffin makes a startling claim. If true, it alone would suffice to bring into question the official story. Our author claims that anti-missile batteries protect the Pentagon. If so, why were these not used? But what supports the claim about the batteries? Griffin tells us that the "Pentagon is, in fact, Meyssan points out, protected by ‘[f]ive extremely sophisticated antimissile batteries’" (p. 32). But is Meyssan correct? It would be valuable to have more confirmation than the bare statement of a controversial French researcher.
Griffin also contends that U.S. intelligence agencies ignored various warnings in the months before September 11 that terrorists planned a massive attack in the near future. He offers a number of examples of such warnings. For this to count as a good argument for the official complicity thesis, Griffin needs to overcome the Roberta Wohlstetter objection. In her Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, she argued (in my view unconvincingly) against the revisionist contention that Washington ignored advance warnings of an attack on Pearl Harbor. She admitted that there were such warnings. But intelligence agencies are often inundated by warnings, almost all of which turn out to be false alarms. Wohlstetter claimed that the genuine warnings drowned in a sea of "noise." Is Griffin vulnerable to a parallel point?
I think he has available a convincing response: the information available was so precise and specific that an agency acting in good faith could not rationally have ignored it. (The Pearl Harbor revisionists, incidentally, have available the same response to Wohlstetter.) Far from responding to the warnings, in some cases agents were ordered to ignore them.
One example must here suffice. David Schippers, an attorney involved in President Clinton’s impeachment, "publicly stated that he had attempted to warn Attorney General Ashcroft about attacks planned for ‘lower Manhattan’ six weeks beforehand, based on information he received from FBI agents. In this and subsequent statements, Schippers stated that the dates and targets of the attacks as well as the names and funding sources of the hijackers were known by these agents months in advance. Schippers claimed further that the FBI curtailed these investigations, then threatened the agents with prosecution if they went public with their information" (p. 84, emphasis in original).
I have been able to mention only a few of Griffin’s many claims. I have indicated some reasons to doubt a few of these; but even if these particular arguments are rejected, this does not destroy his case. I shall let this gifted philosopher explain: In a deductive argument, "each step in the argument depends on the truth of the previous step. If a single premise is found to be false, the argument fails. However, the argument for official complicity in 9/11 is a cumulative argument . . . [which is] like a cable composed of many strands. Each strand strengthens the cable. But if there are many strands, the cable can still hold a lot of weight even if some of them unravel" (p. xxiv, emphasis in original).
Griffin is aware of the incompetence objection, although he does not mention Scarry. He thinks it is an excuse to avoid confronting the conspiracy view.