Conspiracy theories have their uses. They explain the otherwise inexplicable. They confirm beliefs and prejudices, no matter how screwy. They also allow true believers to feel superior to everyone else because they think they have inside knowledge. Usually conspiracy theories are based on a few stray facts that are then woven together to uphold a grand design, but they may also be based on nothing more than the desire to believe in a conspiracy. Consider, for example, the theory that American right-wingers orchestrated the attacks on Sept. 11. There are no facts at all to support this, but it is widely believed in France.
According to the New York Times</>, the book L'Effroyable Imposture, or the "The Horrifying Fraud," is now at the top of French best-seller lists. It says the Pentagon was hit by a guided missile fired on the orders of U.S. government right-wingers. It also says the same government right-wingers programmed the two jetliners that flew into the World Trade Center. Osama bin Laden, the book insists, was blameless.
Apparently the French press has dismissed the book as fantasy, but no matter. It has sold more than 200,000 copies, while foreign publishing rights have been sold in 16 countries. A Spanish edition is already on sale. Meanwhile the book's author, one Thierry Meyssan, whom the Times described as a "former theology student" who "dabbled in leftist politics," has also traveled to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to argue his case about the right-wing conspiracy.
But much, and probably most, of the Arab world -- it depends on which poll you read -- is convinced that Sept. 11 was a Jewish conspiracy. You may take it for granted, though, that inventive minds are now weaving the two conspiracy theories together, and using the one to uphold the other. Meyssan says, for instance, that photographs of the Pentagon crash site did not show any jetliner wreckage; therefore a missile and not a jetliner was responsible for the disaster. Arab conspiracy theorists can now incorporate this, while still arguing, of course, that Jews were behind the attack.
Meanwhile the Times calls Meyssan "an unlikely purveyor" of screwball theories, but surely that's not correct. Meyssan, in fact, is a poster boy for conspiracy theorists. Since he is a former theology student, we may assume his God has failed. And as the Times reported, he has dabbled in leftist politics. And, as the Times also reported, in 1994 he formed a "political research company." Among other things, its website fights homophobia, and campaigns against Jean-Marie Le Pen's right-wing National Front.
So think of a disappointed theology student who embraces leftist politics, and considers himself a political researcher. Already he is a candidate for the lunatic fringe. Then he concludes, as Meyssan does in his book, that the right-wingers who organized the Sept. 11 attacks were planning a coup unless Bush agreed to go to war to protect their oil interests. Voila! He is no longer just a candidate for the lunatic fringe; he is a member in good standing.
But does Meyssan actually believe what he writes, or he does he just want to serve the left, and doesn't care how he does it? Or, as Oliver Stone apparently did when he made JFK, is he only working out his personal problems?
Most likely, all of the above are more or less true. Meyssan wants to serve the left, and does not really care how he serves it. At the same time, he no doubt is also working out some personal problems. But that does not mean he does not believe what he says. Meyssan looked at a photograph of the Pentagon crash site, and saw what he wanted to see. Then everything else probably fell into place almost immediately. A little imagination, the will to believe, and yes, it's screwy, but there you are: 200,000 books and still counting.