At the 9th anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, it is further evident that this momentous event has amounted to a turning point in the history of the United States. It was indeed the first attack of such magnitude on the continental USA; it also occurred at a moment of perceived prosperity and security, with the Cold War relegated to history, and with the United States confirmed in its role as the sole global superpower. The US self-image, in politics as well as in culture, reflected the national awareness of the implications of the new status, and the possibility of harmonizing US interests and principles in the pursuit of international stability and progress. In the opinion of many, the policies of the consecutive US Administrations in the post - Cold War era had materialized this harmony, thus the interventions in Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and thus the repeated US efforts to resolve the Middle East conflict, and many others.
Evidently, this self-image stands in stark contrast with many less charitable assessments of the United States that, in their most extreme version, portray it as a global hegemon seeking control over the world's economy and resources, and working to impose its unilateral vision of world order irrespective of the interests and wishes of others. However, when the subject of the 9/11 attacks is at stake, the divergence reaches dangerous levels that risk precluding fruitful interaction.
It may be indeed the case that excessive sensitivity is aroused in the United States upon any consideration of these attacks that extends beyond condemnation or beyond their characterization as an abject unprovoked aggression. This sensitivity is even extended to attempts at understanding the motives of the aggressors, if such understanding alludes to any US position on any issue. The deeply rooted conviction in US culture is that the attacks of that fateful day constitute a primary event. It is not acceptable, in the US context, to refer to US positions towards the Palestinian question. Is it not a fact that resolving the Middle East conflict has been a major occupation of all US presidents in recent memory, all the way to the settlement proposal that the former president Bill Clinton endeavored to formulate, and which conformed to virtually all Palestinian demands, but was still rebuffed? It is also unconvincing to raise the issue of US military presence in the Arabian peninsula. Has this presence not been at the request of or in agreement with local governments, and is it not in some cases subject to conditions and restrictions that the United States had not experienced before, and that many even consider offensive or even insulting? Furthermore the linkage between attacks and policies seems to restrict the cause and effect phenomenon to the United States, or else where is the alleged US responsibility for Kashmir, Chechnia, and other grievances? Why do linkage advocates ignore the fact that the United States has repeatedly spent blood and treasure in consecutive wars in the 1990s, in defense of Muslim populations? Even if US policies are worthy of deep criticism, is the killing of the innocent critical practice? In the US context, these questions relegate to the category of rejected apologetics any attempt at explaining the 9/11 attacks as a reaction, even when the such a reaction is deemed excessive and arbitrary. The alternative, in the US cultural mainstream, is to seek an understanding of the motives of the attacks in what the USA stands for as values and principles.
US culture accommodates nonetheless many margins, of variable importance, which witness the exercise of free speech in expressions that divert considerably from the mainstream. Some of these margins are held in high esteem outside of the United States, while being virtually dismissed within it. A typical example is the ideological left (Chomsky, Finkelstein, etc.) that has no discernable impact on mainstream US culture, while being treated elsewhere as an authoritative influential revolutionary reading of US reality. Supporters of this marginal current may have a ready explanation for its marginality: it is reflective, in their opinion, of a deliberate attempt at silencing voices that could undermine the control imposed on the American mind. Most in the USA, on the other hand, tend to attribute its marginal character to its selective reductionist conspiracy-laden approach, which is shared by many other cultural fringe scenes, such as those seeking to unravel the conspiracies responsible for the Kennedy assassination, or for hiding the truth on UFOs, and other similar concerns.
It is in the midst of mutual dismissals — of US mainstream culture rejecting comprehensively critical readings for their reductionism, and circles critical of US culture as captive to the hegemonic control of special interests — that considerable divergence has emerged between the mainstream of US culture and many of its counterparts elsewhere. And with this divergence, accounts doubting what is termed the "official version" of the events of 9/11 are in increasingly wide circulation, including many the accept the possibility of involvement of the Bush administration in the planning and execution of the attacks. Alleged expert opinion presumably revealing inconsistencies in some aspects of the "official narrative" are called upon, testifying to the fact that the towers could not have possibly collapsed as they have, or that no evidence for a plane exists at the Pentagon. The overall assessment of these "open" issues vary from a call for an "objective" consideration of the possibility of conspiracy, to the outright conviction that such a conspiracy is hereby revealed and all attempts at debunking it are part of a further conspiracy of silence.
The refutation of every argument of the alternative account is solemnly possible beyond any reasonable doubt. The total neglect, within this alternative account, of the repeated claims of responsibility for the past nine years by the party that committed the attacks, is noteworthy. The origins of many of the arguments used in this account are also worthy of note. Many stem from the output of "researchers" who had previously revealed that the moon landings were a scam, and that black helicopters controlled by the United Nations engage in mutilating cows in the American Midwest — among many other theories of mischief that provide entertainment and excitement for some. Elevating such theories into a debatable level in otherwise respectable cultural circles is, among others, an unfortunate waste of intellectual energy that ought to be spent on a legitimate exploration of the nature of society, culture, and political order in the United States — such an exploration would indeed provide, as a by-product, an utter refutation of the mischievous pseudo-arguments of conspiracy theorists. The more important question to ask, in the Arab context, beyond the failure to understand US reality, is why is such an "alternative" account viewed as potentially valid by some with intellectual credentials? Has the enmity to the United States reached such depth that statements that do not stand even a cursory scrutiny are not potentially acceptable? The fear is that behind the claim to objectivity, some of Arab culture is sliding further towards nihilism, while its US counterpart entrenches itself in further isolation.
The need for a genuine engagement is today higher than ever.
Hassan I. Mneimneh is the Director of the Center for Global Engagement at the Institute for American Values.