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America is Somehow to Blame: German Public Television on 9/11

Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2007

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]."

Next Page: straining to cast doubt on the most ludicrous arguments . . .

When the ZDF "investigators" manage finally to cast doubt upon one or another of even the most ludicrous arguments of the "theorists," moreover, it is only ever after a seemingly immense intellectual effort -- when simple common sense ought to have sufficed. Thus, for example, the ZDF documentarians, in perfect harmony with the paranoid mindset of the "skeptics," treat it as being inherently suspicious that the hijacked passenger jets that crashed into the World Trade Center were not shot down by American fighter jets -- elements of "the best air defense in the world," as the narration repeatedly emphasizes. They thus reason as if the use of passenger jets as projectiles against buildings was a commonly known practice before 9/11 and, furthermore, as if the obviously knotty ethical question of whether it would be acceptable to shoot down passenger jets under such circumstances had already been resolved. Needless to say, there had never been any real world occasion even just to pose this question, much less resolve it, prior to 9/11. Moreover -- as Michael Renz, the German co-director of the documentary, must know -- it remains to this day a subject of vigorous debate even in Germany.

It is only after speaking with Stephen Trimble from Jane's Defense Weekly, who politely explains to them various technical details of the American air defense response on 9/11, that the filmmakers allow that the inaction of the fighter jets might not, after all, be evidence of a government conspiracy. "Many experts agree," the narration of the segment concludes, "the mightiest military machine in the world completely failed." Never mind that Trimble has not in fact quite said this. He has merely pointed to the fact that U.S. air defense was not prepared for the scenario presented by the 9/11 attacks: noting, among other things, that while fighter jets were indeed eventually scrambled, they were not given definite orders. But for the ZDF documentarians the premise that the inaction of the fighter jets is "surprising" must be preserved -- and thereby too the pretense that the "doubts" of the "skeptics" are reasonable.

It is indeed on the question of shooting down passenger jets that the filmmakers, in effect, show their hand: inadvertently revealing that what they present as reasonable "doubts" or "skepticism" amounts instead to simple irrational prejudice. Thus, in a later segment of the documentary devoted to the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa., evidence is presented that is supposed to suggest that UA93 was indeed shot down and not intentionally crashed by the hijackers, as according to the "official version." The filmmakers eventually reject these indications, while noting -- in the ever ominous tones of the narrator -- that the U.S. government is continuing to hold other evidence classified: such, for example, as the bodies of the hijackers. "Why?" the narrator asks, as if there was something deeply troubling about this. Note that in the earlier segment, the fact that U.S. authorities did not shoot down passenger jets is supposed to provide prima facie evidence of a U.S. government conspiracy; in the Shanksville segment, however, alleged evidence that U.S. authorities did in fact shoot down UA93 is supposed likewise to provide prima facie evidence of a U.S. government conspiracy. This is to say, in effect, that for the filmmakers -- as indeed for the "theorists" -- everything and its opposite is prima facie evidence of a U.S. government conspiracy.

The final abiding message of the ZDF documentary is that America is, in any case, somehow to blame: if not perhaps for the attacks themselves, then at least for the fact that the "skeptics" believe that America was responsible for the attacks. Thus, as in the Shanksville segment, the narration repeatedly pillories the American government for its alleged "secretiveness" [Geheimniskrämerei]: which, we are told -- twice -- "provides the ideal soil for conspiracy theories." The main evidence the filmmakers adduce for this charge is that the authorities that they contacted were evidently less than enthusiastic about meeting all the demands of ZDF. There was, ZDF concludes, a "conspiracy after the conspiracy": an ambiguous formulation, which appears to imply that perhaps the U.S. government was also in on the "first" conspiracy, after all.

In the same spirit, when Alex Jones notes that "there are countless examples of the U.S. government lying to its own people," the ZDF narration wholeheartedly agrees, helpfully providing the examples: "Richard Nixon and Watergate, the Iran-Contra Scandal, Clinton and Monica Lewinsky" -- and, of course, the clincher: "Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction." As the latter words are spoken, the viewer is treated to an archival clip of a Donald Rumsfeld press conference. This is then followed by extended footage of George W. Bush awkwardly joking about missing weapons of mass destruction at the 2004 Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner, artfully inter-spliced with infrared camera shots appearing to show American troops breaking into Iraqi homes and taking civilians prisoner.

The implication is unmistakable: if the Bush administration could lie about the reasons for going to war in Iraq, why could it not lie about 9/11? And if one can be so sure that the Bush administration did "lie" about Iraqi weaponry as the ZDF producers appear to be: why not indeed? (Ironically, in the archival clip used by ZDF, Donald Rumsfeld can clearly be heard saying that "we know" that Iraq has "active weapons programs" -- thus highlighting the actual justification of the Iraq War that has been obscured by the narrow focus on weapon stocks in the habitual "Bush Lied!" scenario. On the whole matter, see my "16 Words, 500 Tons and 28 Kilograms".)

ZDF's supposed "revelation" that the fire insulation in one of the two twin towers was not up to regulation standards represents yet another variant on the same central motif of, so to say, "internalizing" the blame for the death and destruction of 9/11. The source of these allegations, a former New York City Fire Department official by the name of Vincent Dunn, can be heard pathetically "confessing" that "we all have responsibility": which in the ZDF translation becomes "we are all responsible." (The ZDF "investigators" manage erroneously to identify Dunn as "the former Fire Department Chief of Manhattan," thus providing additional gravitas to the charges.)

Never once in the ZDF documentary, however, is serious attention drawn to the responsibility of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks and their al-Qaida enablers and co-conspirators. The results of a ZDF online poll that appears on the promotional page for the documentary are thus hardly surprising. Asked to identify "who pulled the strings" in the 9/11 attacks, fully 66 percent of respondents, as of this writing, have chosen either "George W. Bush" (26 percent) or "U.S. Authorities" (25 percent) or the "Armaments Lobby" (15 percent). The fourth and remaining choice, "Osama Bin Laden," is given the nod by only 26 percent of respondents.

Such a marked lack of interest in the real background to the 9/11 attacks is especially curious in the case of a German public television network. As is well known, three of the four lead hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks came from Hamburg, Germany. As is equally well known, a fourth member of the so-called "Hamburg cell," Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, was denied entry into the United States, but continued to facilitate the attacks from German soil. The Hamburg terrorist cell has often been described as a "sleeper" cell. But one knowledgeable German observer has noted that the members' behavior was so flagrant that this description is misleading. (See here, for instance, from ARD's "Panorama".) The author of this observation is not some marginal "conspiracy theorist" like radio show host Alex Jones or the 23-year-old Dylan Avery. It is none other than Kay Nehm: Germany's Chief Public Prosecutor at the time of the 9/11 attacks. This is perhaps a subject to which ZDF will want to devote a documentary on the seventh anniversary of 9/11.

John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic relations. He is a WPR contributing editor.

Image: A still from the ZDF documentary.