Last Sept. 11, German state-owned television ZDF marked the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by broadcasting a prime-time documentary titled "September 11, 2001: What Really Happened." By enticingly implying a discrepancy between what the film itself repeatedly terms the "official version" of 9/11 and the reality of the events, the mere title of the film already provides obvious grist for the mill of what might best be called "alternative" 9/11 conspiracy-theorizing: "alternative" because in the legal sense of the term, the 9/11 attacks were in fact the product of a conspiracy. On the ZDF Web page promoting the documentary, this effect is then underscored by a subtitle portentously announcing that "ZDF Investigations Reinforce Accusations against Authorities." The "authorities" in question are, of course, more specifically American authorities. As is well known, for "alternative" 9/11 conspiracy theorists, it is the latter -- and not Osama Bin Laden and the 19 identified hijackers -- that are supposed "really" to have been "behind" the attacks: often -- though the German broadcaster tastefully avoids this linkage -- in further connivance with the Israeli secret service Mossad.
When, however, Ray Drake of the German media-watch blog Medienkritik called attention to ZDF's seeming pandering to the most disreputable extremes of the 9/11 "truth" movement, his remarks quickly drew irate reactions from some German-speaking defenders of ZDF. The counter-critics argued that while the ZDF documentary did indeed give a platform to some well-known alternative "conspiracy theorists," it in fact served to "debunk" their theories. On the most generous assessment, ZDF had even pulled off a sort of pedagogical coup de force: in effect, fooling the most benighted sections of the German public into watching the documentary by way of its salacious conspiracy-mongering title and promotional material -- only in order then to set them straight about the erroneousness of the alternative "theories." (For the original post and discussion on Medienkritik, see here.)
And, indeed, the ZDF documentary does not exactly endorse the hypothesis that 9/11 was the product of a U.S. government conspiracy. It does not, however, reject it out of hand either. While it concludes that most of the variants of the government conspiracy "theory" are perhaps wrong -- or "unproven," as the narrator puts it, in the conspicuously noncommittal final word with which the documentary concludes -- what is so remarkable about the ZDF documentary is precisely that it treats them throughout as eminently reasonable and hence worthy of serious debate. It thereby, in effect, serves to render them, as one says in German, salonfähig: i.e. acceptable in polite company.
In fact, the thesis of U.S. government and/or Israeli involvement in the 9/11 attacks was already flourishing just on the edges of the established media in Germany long before such "theories," having wafted across the Atlantic, gave rise to similar offshoots in the United States. But even for Germany, ZDF's remarkable indulgence toward the alternative conspiracy theorists represents a significant change in attitude as far as the mainstream is concerned. Thus, for example, in an August 2003 report on its "Panorama" news magazine (video clip), Germany's other public television network, ARD, raised the alarm about a boom in Germany of what the title of the report describes from the outset as "absurd" 9/11 conspiracy theories. "People all over the world were there as it occurred 'live' on their television screens," Panorama's online summary of its report begins:
No terrorist attack has been so thoroughly documented. But self-styled experts on September 11th dispute the facts, suppose that deception and conspiracy lies behind everything, and claim that only they know who was truly behind the attacks and what the real motivations were. Thus, on their account, the World Trade Center was brought down through the use of explosives, the Pentagon was hit not by an airplane but by a missile, and at least some of the alleged hijackers are still alive.
"All sheer nonsense," the Panorama editors conclude, in the same tone of bewilderment as characterizes the report itself, "but more and more people believe it and enthusiastically buy the books of the conspiracy theorists." Panorama refers here to a whole list of German bestsellers: by well-known authors like Mathias Bröckers, a former editor at the popular "leftist" daily die Tageszeitung, and Andreas von Bülow, a former minister of research in the Social Democratic government of Helmut Schmidt -- as well, of course, as the "dean" of 9/11 "conspiracy theorists," the Frenchman Thierry Meyssan. This is in the summer of 2003: at a time when "alternative" 9/11 conspiracy theorizing in the United States was still largely confined to the murkiest backwaters of the Internet.
Note that the Panorama report explicitly draws attention to the irrational, esoteric quality of the "theories": as highlighted by the pretense of their purveyors to be in possession of an exclusive knowledge that stands in bold contrast to the allegedly deceptive obviousness of the widely known facts. Unlike their colleagues at ZDF, moreover, the ARD editors did not shy away from mentioning the use by the alternative "theorists" of the nefarious, esoteric explanation of merely "apparent" political facts par excellence: namely, the hypothesis of a specifically "Zionist conspiracy." "There is no respectable conspiracy without the Jews," the Panorama narrator remarks ironically, amidst footage of interviews with the neo-Nazi Horst Mahler and the Social Democrat von Bülow. "If Israeli Mossad agents are to be believed," von Bülow remarks, "psychological warfare can also lead to the employment of terrorist acts against one's own population." And then he concludes: "so, the Israeli side possibly played a role in 9/11."
The change of tone in the ZDF documentary could hardly be more patent. (The full video can be viewed here.) Now the alternative "theorists" are no longer the purveyors of wildly implausible allegations, which are plainly contradicted by banal and well-known facts. Instead, they are respectable, even courageous, seekers of truth, whose allegations can only be disproved, if they can be disproved, by additional research: such, for instance, as the "investigations" undertaken by ZDF's intrepid documentary team of Michael Renz and Guy Smith.
Now the "theories" of the likes of a von Bülow are not the product of morbid phantasms and prodigious logical leaps, but of reasoned, if ultimately perhaps faulty, reflection. It is none other than the "Former Federal Minister of Research" Andreas von Bülow who is brought out by the ZDF documentarians to set the stage for the other "skeptics": a motley crew of American acolytes of the European "theorists," including the Texas radio show host Alex Jones and Dylan Avery, the 23-year-old director of the Internet documentary "Loose Change." Referring to the "official version" of the events, von Bülow says: "That is the conspiracy theory that the Americans disseminate and that gives them the justification for fighting a worldwide war against terrorism, usually in Muslim countries with oil or mineral resources. I believe this story is not true, that there is a completely different background. And there are many, many skeptics . . ." And then the narrator continues, as if speaking in a single voice with von Bülow, "and many open questions." Unlike in the ARD report, von Bülow is never once confronted with his widely-publicized opinions about Israeli involvement in 9/11.
Now it is not the alternative "theories" of 9/11 that are inherently dubious, but rather the -- supposedly! -- known facts themselves: the ominous "official version." "Most people know where they were as the towers burned," the narration begins, "but do they know what really happened?" And thereafter even the most well-established and uncontroversial facts about the attacks are persistently stylized into mere hypotheses. Thus, for example, as pictures of Mohammad Atta and his accomplices flash rapidly across the screen, the narrator refers to the perpetrators of the attacks -- or rather those "presented [as such] to the world by America's government" -- as "19 young men, allegedly [angeblich] armed with box-cutters." Shortly thereafter, as debris from the twin towers is shown, he speaks of "the remains of two giants that were made to collapse by Osama Bin Laden's young martyrs -- so it is said [heißt es]."
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