David Benson

David Benson - actor, writer, singer, director

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Journalistic Ethics Part II: The box-cutters that weren't

Posted by David Benson on November 2, 2009 at 7:55 PM

Further to my email tussle earlier this year with Deborah Orr, then of The Independent, on the subject of the G20 police attacks (which somehow ended up, to my mingled dismay and delight in Private Eye's Street of Shame) I find myself in a less-candid but equally revealing exchange with a journalist for whom I have a lot of time and was on one pleasant occasion interviewed by, Johann Hari, also of The Independent.

What brought it on was a sentence in this recent article about our occupation of Afghanistan:

“The 9/11 atrocities were planned in Hamburg and Florida by 19 Saudis who only needed to know how to use box-cutters and to crash a plane.”

It is the ‘box-cutter’ reference that leapt out at me. Did he not realise that the existence of these knives (similar to our Stanley knives) has been thoroughly debunked by no less an authority than Slate Magazine, the online political and cultural commentary site that is home to, amongst others, Hari’s one-time hero Christopher ‘I luxuriate in the warm bath of his charisma’ Hitchens; also by political writer Edward J. Epstein, hardly a swivel-eyed conspiracy theorist. Prof. David Ray Griffin has provided a thorough debunking of the box cutter claims and outlines the creepily bizarre circumstances of them being made.

Yet, ‘nineteen Saudi hi-jackers armed with box cutters’ remains one of the defining ideas in the 9/11 mythology, a cliché that instantly resonates with the perception most people carry in their heads about the events of that day. Just that single sentence of Hari’s contains myth upon myth: the alleged hi-jackers (many of whom turned up alive and well and rather puzzled after the event) were not only Saudi but from UAE, Lebanon and Egypt; and the entire back-story about how the attacks were planned in Hamburg and Florida was pieced together using confessions extracted under torture; and is therefore, totally unreliable and indeed unethical to cite as evidence.

Hari posted a link to his Afghan article on his Facebook page so I decided to take the opportunity politely to bring this error to his attention. I left a comment under his article to that effect, with links to the Slate and Epstein articles, very curious as to what his response would be.

Anyone who saw my 2005 Edinburgh show Conspiracy Cabaret (about which Hari interviewed me that August for a piece on how Iraq and 9/11 were being covered by the Fringe, though my comments did not make it to his final article) will know that I have a bee in my bonnet about 9/11. I know very well that anyone who has questions about the Official Version risks being dismissed with perjorative cliches: ‘frothing-at-the-mouth-tin-foil-hat-wearing-cyber-loons’ type of thing. The BBC has laid on a series of conspiracy-busting documentaries over the years, mostly attacking the wilder fringes of 9/11 ‘conspiranoia’ but without ever subjecting the Official Version to the same scrutiny. If it were to do so, it could only reveal a tissue of evasions, obstructions and bare-faced lies, culminating in the duplicitous document known as the 9/11 Commission Report, which even its attributed authors have now all but repudiated. It has been calmly, skilfully and definitively taken apart by Professor Griffin in a series of books and articles.

Yet it remains the number one journalistic taboo, despite the grotesque saga of the WMD deception by the same actors, to raise even the slightest doubt about what the Bush administration has told us on the subject of 9/11. So perhaps it is not surprising that Johann Hari completely ignored my question to him on Facebook, despite answering many other points raised by his Facebook readers in the same thread.

Next day, thinking he may have missed my comment, I posted a message directly to his ‘wall’ politely making the same point and again supplying links to the supporting articles. No reply. I checked again a day or two later and to my dismay, my question had been deleted from his profile. I mean, really!

So I sent him a private message asking why he had deleted my post. His reply was brief: “Don't know, I don't really have time to endlessly discuss these things, sorry!”

I am afraid I suspected that this was his way of politely saying, “Sod off, you loony.”

I decided to press him on the matter. Whilst I do not think it would be right to print his verbatim replies, as they were made privately (Ms. Orr’s exchange with me I published as it was made via a public email address and therefore, I reasoned, fair game), all I got back was to the effect of, “Sorry to be terse but I am far too busy to look into it and I don’t remember your post anyway”.

I pushed it by sending another private message reminding him of the subject of my question, to which he replied with a final-sounding, “Sorry, don’t remember that,” with a ‘x’ at the end, which was sweet but hardly served to mollify me. I nearly wrote back to say, “You could have gone back and checked it if you hadn’t deleted it!” but decided I had pressed far enough.

I am left writhing with frustration at this exchange, which never once actually addressed the substance of the information I was making available to him. It may well be that he really is too busy to address this issue; I read his articles regularly and am always impressed by the range of topics he covers and how well-researched and argued they are, even when I don’t agree with him. I told him to his face that I respected his volte-face on the Iraq occupation, which he initially enthusiastically supported, only later honourably to recant. In doing so he showed more courage and intelligence than the likes of Hitchens, Burchill and Cohen, who continue to brazen it out in the face of the calamity that is The War on Terror.

I cannot help but regret that I was not able to engage his attention on this matter. What could be more important to all of us alive on earth now? The 9/11 Event palpably changed everything for us, shredded international law and human rights, stigmatised Muslims everywhere and triggered the terrible agenda of President Bush’s ‘National Security Strategy’ Document Advocating Pre-emptive War (September 2002), at the cost of countless thousands of innocent lives. [The author of that strategy, incidentally, was Dr. Philip D. Zelikov, the completely ‘independent’ Executive Director - and principal author - of the 9/11 Commission Report.]

True, the box cutter issue may only be a tiny detail in the mythology of 9/11 but is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the Official Version: almost every aspect of it crumbles to dust upon cursory inspection. Detailed and cogent narratives, not to mention blockbuster movies, have been coaxed out of facts which turn out to be totally unsupported by evidence. Yet to question these generally accepted truths is to be treated like a heretic or worse, a dangerous lunatic. When the redoubtable Robert Fisk tried it, by asking some searching questions about some aspects of the 9/11 event, even he was subjected to the same pathetic schoolyard taunts in the Independent’s comments section under the article.

But our collective attitude to mythology goes to the very heart of Hari’s work. He is one of the loudest opponents of organised religion, along with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, enthusiastically decrying those who “deny inconvenient facts and invent a fantasy world”; and in his excellent article on the lunatic scare-mongering of US Republicans he gives a trenchant theory on why such propagandistic mythologizing is so effective on a highly religious constituency:

“How do they train themselves to be so impervious to reality? It begins, I suspect, with religion. They are taught from a young age that it is good to have "faith" – which is, by definition, a belief without any evidence to back it up. You don't have "faith" that Australia exists, or that fire burns: you have evidence. You only need "faith" to believe the untrue or unprovable. Indeed, they are taught that faith is the highest aspiration and most noble cause. Is it any surprise this then percolates into their political views? Faith-based thinking spreads and contaminates the rational.”

Quite. And anyone who faithfully persists in believing something for which there is no credible evidence, lacks any authority to criticise others for the same folly.

It is up to each of us to decide for ourselves what we think is the 'truth' of 9/11. You may well strongly disagree with my belief that the Official Version is a catalogue of disinformation. But if we are to pride ourselves on being rational creatures, we must be sure that the strength of our belief is proportionate to the weight of our evidence; and reflect that, as Samuel Johnson wrote, “We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies…”

Categories: Pre 2009 articles and blogs

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