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The Truman-Byrne Show

The Guardian’s Comment is Free section is certainly no bastion for solid, conscientious journalism. In fact, I’ve come across less non sequiturs and discombobulated arguments in the writings of pre-pubescent Korean children. However, it was still something of a shock to come across Agnès Poirier – vainglorious Myspace photo included – profile on the Guardian’s website.

The first two articles I read contained:

1. The most frivolous defense of Foie Gras I have ever encountered.
2. A violin sonata on the arrest of Roman Polanski.

You’d be tempted to think she was some sort of postmodern and oh-so-sophisticated French correspondent. Wait…

Here is her – oh isn’t it all just a big joke? – argument regarding the potential banning of the pâté:

Another pleasure to go down the drain after smoking, drinking and parental spanking. If we ban foie gras, I suggest we also ban human force-feeding, you know, obesity, and make it a crime for all who encourage it and all who indulge in it. Cadbury should be forced to close down, so should Häagen Dazs and many others, and let’s lock up everyone with a BMI above 25. Yes, you, filthy foie gras eater.

And here she is on the arrest of a self-confessed statutory rapist:

There is a feeling in France that the US justice department is acting out some kind of prudish revenge against a great talent who never abided by American rules even when he was the most celebrated director in Hollywood.

Sometimes I really think it’s all a big scripted joke.

Kindergarten Con

A gaudy crucified Jesus, painted blood flowing down his wilted body, stared down at me in the silent classroom. My Italian classmates, also staring at me, sat around a circle of dilapidated desks that looked to be built out of detritus reclaimed from one of Mussolini’s tanks. The teacher was waiting for my reply. Under pressure to defend my doubts about the existence of God, I was trying to translate something my father had once challenged me with:

If God is omnipotent, can he create a stone so large he cannot move it?

I scratched my head. What was this? It sounded like a trick; maybe he was trying to make me look stupid.  If God could create such an object he was not omnipotent, and if he couldn’t, he had the same problem. I thought it through again. The answer confirmed my suspicions. It was a trick, the old smug bastard. Maybe this was part of the ruse though… Maybe he was still going to come out on top? I stayed silent. He took the fag out of his mouth and looked over at me, “Well?”

I explained my problem with the question. “What does that tell you about God then?” he asked. I still didn’t get it. Best keep quiet. “It shows that there is a problem with the idea of omnipotence.” It was slow to dawn on me but I finally got it… there was a problem there! Furthermore, it was one without an immediate solution. Well, at least one that a dull eight year old could think of.

Anticlimactically, however, delivering the Problem of Omnipotence had no discernible epistemological effect on my Roman Catholic teacher and comrades. There was no problem, they replied, God can do whatever the blue fuck he likes, whenever he likes. I tried to explain that that was precisely the problem. But it was no good; they’d grown up in a tiny village in the mountains with catholic parents, teachers and priests. Some of them believed that clouds were made out of cotton wool and that metal teaspoons would float in water.

Of course, this is the problem with children: they’ll believe any old shit. Unfortunately, however, this is not a feature particular to children. The Revd Jan Ainsworth, the Church of England’s chief education officer, believes that parents have a right to raise their children in any philosophical or political framework they wish. Here she is on the issue:

If parents wish their children to be brought up as Christians, or, for that matter, atheists, what right do others have to stop them?

And again:

It is surely central to the role of a parent, whether committed to a religious faith or not, to want to pass on to their child the things they value most, the beliefs and world view that shape how they live. It is also consistent with that role to want to have those beliefs and world view acknowledged and affirmed as part of their children’s education.

First off, it is worth noticing Ainsworth’s rhetorical ploy in her first quote. The inclusion of Christians and atheists in the same question is a deployment of the same tired old rhetoric that there is no relevant epistemological difference between these positions: both are fundamentally faith based. However, as I’ve argued before, this is false:

To have faith is to detach belief from any evidential issue; belief becomes evidentially invariant. That is to say, no change in evidence brings about a change in belief. Atheism, by indexing belief on the evidence, does exactly the opposite.

Atheism, the probabilistic doubt in the existence of God, is a straightforward consequence of our knowledge gathering processes. The same processes would return a higher probability of his existence were there any good evidence. If God, in his infinite mercy, decided to unequivocally reveal himself to all of us miserable unbelievers tomorrow there would be none of us left by dinner time. However, as we already know, God works in mysterious ways. So mysterious, in fact, that he’s convinced a large fraction of the world’s population to not believe in his existence. Funny that. The salient point here though is that raising children as Christians is fundamentally different from the atheistic equivalent. Whereas the former requires threats of everlasting violence, manipulation and dogma to establish its primary ontological belief, the latter does not  –  as far as I can remember, I have never been threatened with even a mild kicking for a failure to believe in the non-existence of God.

The second, and perhaps more relevant, point is Ainsworth’s claim that no one has the right to interfere with what parents teach their children.  Does she really believe, however, that Ku Klux Clan parents should be permitted to “pass on to their child the things they value most, the beliefs and world view that shape how they live”? Is she of the opinion that many conspiracy theorists’ demented belief that our governments are run by a shape-shifting reptile bourgeoisie from the constellation Draco should be ‘acknowledged and affirmed as a part of their children’s education’? Of course not. None of us, apart from those in the grip of these delusions, think such things should be taught to our children. Why? Precisely because there is no good reason to believe them in the first place. If you want others to believe claims about the existence of gods, vampires, perpetual motion machines, shape shifting lizards or anything else for that matter, then you are shouldering the burden of proof.

The Dawkinsian point is that raising children in a religious framework, one based on faith and often other surreptitious methods of inducing belief, is taking advantage of a child’s cognitive vulnerabilities. Apart from the inherent dishonesty, Dawkins goes on to say that:

…the mental abuse constituted by an unsubstantiated threat of violence and terrible pain, if sincerely believed by the child, could easily be more damaging than the physical actuality of sexual abuse. An extreme threat of violence and pain is precisely what the doctrine of hell is. And there is no doubt at all that many children sincerely believe it, often continuing right through adulthood and old age until death finally releases them.

Making a child believe there is a hell where the misbehaved are forever castigated is a merciful and necessary favour if true. If it is false, however, and if there is no good reason to believe it, the theist has done the child a serious harm.

John Stuart Mill, “Negro Cocaine Fiends” and Contemporary Drugs Policy.

The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. – John Stuart Mill. On Liberty.

Of the 1st of July 1908 a certain Dr. Hamilton Wright was appointed as the United States Opium Commissioner by the then U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Two years later Wright claimed that Black workers were being dosed with cocaine to increase their productivity[i]. These claims, or the practices they alluded to, were likely the cause of the reports of “cocaine crazed Negroes” misbehaving in Southern society. The New York Times published this distilled piece of racism in an article entitled “Negro Cocaine Fiends, New Southern Menace” in 1914[ii]. The article claimed that “most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of the ‘cocaine-crazed’ Negro brain” and that “Negro cocaine fiends are now a known Southern menace.” These delusional and racist claims coupled with the general apprehension regarding increasing narcotic consumption led to the Harisson Narcotic Act of 1914[iii]. Although the act was originally intended as a means of controlling the distribution of these drugs through physicians its wording eventually led to their legal prohibition in the United States. Now, of course, that a given policy was implemented for prejudicial reasons doesn’t mean it still is.

Prohibition, however, has been the orthodoxy in the western world since the early 20th century. Tens of thousands of people have been punished for the possession or distribution of drugs in the form of fines, incarceration and the associated cascading costs of being convicted. The execution and implementation of this policy also costs our governments tens of billions of dollars a year; an economic burden which is ultimately, and in its entirety, born by the normal citizen, you.

The net human and economic costs of these drug policies are immense. Of course, if our governments are right, this is just the cost of doing the right thing. Conversely, if they are wrong, not only would they be implicated in the considerable injustice of persecuting these individuals, but also in squandering your money in the process. Given the stakes, one might hope that there are better reasons for shouldering these costs than fearing ‘cocaine crazed rape fiends’ and other blatant demagoguery. In fact, it would not be optimistic to hope that the policy of destroying tens of thousands of people’s lives at an enormous fiscal cost to other members of that society would be shored up by implacable evidence and argument… We’ve got our best people on this right?

Unfortunately not. The people who have historically perpetuated these policies and those currently in charge of doing so are a collection of prejudiced, confused and epistemologically incompetent arseholes. Invectives aside, the arguments for the prohibition of drugs are premised upon principles most of us believe are false. Their conclusions are in direct tension with key tenets of individualism and, ipso facto, western liberalism. The main argument promulgated against the use of drugs is motivated by a paternalistic concern for citizen’s health.

  1. The state has a responsibility to prevent its subjects from harming themselves.
  2. The use of drugs causes direct and serious harm to the individual and is likely to cause others to also begin harming themselves.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, the government is morally required to place a prohibition on drugs and punish anyone involved in their consumption and distribution.

This is a basic form of the anti-drugs argument and as well intentioned and reasonable as it might seem at first glance it is a load of rot. Premise one is false and most of us already believe it so. The falsity of premise two is becoming increasingly clear with mounting empirical evidence.

Premise 1: The Legitimate Scope of State Action.

Most of us believe that the realm of state action and personal recreational activity are, to use one of Gould’s phrases, non-overlapping magisteria. The vast range of activities that we partake in including rock climbing, horse riding, scuba diving, boozing, smoking cigarettes (in a private place), butter eating, boxing, and cheese rolling are not legitimate targets of state intervention. This is despite the fact that each year thousands of people are seriously injured or die as a direct result. People do these activities because, despite the risks, they enjoy them. Drugs are no different. People take drugs, despite the risks, precisely because they enjoy them. Here it is often replied that the comparison is false, that drug use causes large swathes of collateral damage in the form of crime, poverty and homelessness. However, there is good evidence that these social problems are a product of the illegality itself. Government sponsored Heroin trials run across the world have found that supplying the addicts results in a decrease in crime, homelessness and addict mortality rate.

Government prohibition of the aforementioned practices would be unjust because, as Mill famously concluded:

Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

The liberty principle, the right to decide for one’s self what to do with their body (provided they refrain from harming others in the process), is why we believe that the state would be committing a serious injustice in prohibiting any of these activities. Furthermore, it is in direct contradiction to the first premise of the anti drugs argument. For a democratically elected representative to presume that they know what is best for you, what risks you should and should not take, and what goods you should and should not consume is nothing but bigotry. It is a pejorative and derogatory assessment of your abilities as a rational adult. The insult does not end there though, for not only are they perfectly qualified in deciding what is best for you, but they are also, funnily enough, capable of deciding what is best for them. Since we do not believe this nonsense is acceptable in any of the previous cases neither should we in the case of drugs.

This is not to claim that the state has no role here, it does. The state should provide non-partisan, empirical evidence on the dangers of these activities, including drugs, such that individuals can rationally weigh the benefits and risks. The government also has a job of regulating the drug industry. Industry would have to meet standards of quality, transparency and consistency. Currently illicit drugs would be government regulated like any other products on the pharmaceutical market.

Premise 2: Drugs, Harms and the Empirical Issues.

For those who have kept up with the recent scandal in Britain it is probably no surprise that the putative harms of taking these narcotics is minimal. The evidence is now widely available online and it won’t be rehashed here. The final interesting point though concerns the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, and his attitude towards the results of this empirical work, as espoused by the Chief Government Drugs Advisor David Nutt. Here he is on the issue:

Professor Nutt is indeed a reputable scientist whose views on drugs policy are well known. However, his role as my principal adviser was to (unsurprisingly) present advice. It is the job of the government to decide policy.

Professor Nutt was not sacked for his views, which I respect but disagree with (as does Professor Robin Murray, who wrote in your newspaper on Friday).

He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy. This principle is well understood and long established.

Of course, this last paragraph is no surprise: If empirical evidence is in tension with party policy then your circulation of it will result in dismissal. This is brazen and unrepentant bigotry; the primacy of dogma over intellectual honesty.

Back in 1859 John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty got it right. Our systems of government generally reflect these ideals in allowing citizens to live free and autonomous lives. Maybe it is no great surprise that a few residual and surreptitious dogmas linger from more religious and unscientific times. And while a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a dogma enshrined in policy still emits an olfactory malaise.  

[i] David F. Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotics Control, 1973.

[ii] The New York Times, “Negro Cocaine Fiends, New Southern Menace” February 11, 1914.


The Marx of the Beast

Until yesterday I’d thought, naïvely, that music journalism was free from the ethnocentric identity politics common in Marxist and postcolonialist cultural studies. But then I read a review in Dusted Magazine in which these hermeneutical tools are used to scan Animal Collective’s seemingly innocuous new EP, Water Curses, for traces of racism. I’ll spoil the ending for you: It’s seething with the stuff. Yes, capitalist hegemony might be blinding them to the fact, but the band are thoroughly racist, classist and colonialist all right.

I should note, though, that said hermeneutical tools are like a Geiger Counter with a knob of enriched uranium jammed in its spout – faulty, in short, prone to false positives. So the off-the-scale reading is hardly a surprise. We’d have seen the same result had the subject been a packet of crisps or a thunder cloud.

Animal Collective, though, were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. The review could have hijacked as his vehicle any sentimental “white” folk record. While music is ostensibly the subject at issue, it’s a façade. In reality, the reviewer had three noxious and clumsily-prosecuted aims: to introduce a tangential third-party article, to pass it through the prism of his own politics and, lastly, to somehow crowbar the whole bloody abortion into a record review.

Said third-party article – linked in the review – is the postcolonialist “Race, Rock and the New Weird America” by one Kandia Crazy Horse. It attacks as racist the New Weird America movement as a whole and Devandra Banhart specifically; Animal Collective are scarcely mentioned. If her piece is representative, this Ms. Horse is a demented race nut. The review describes her language as “a bit purple”, but her spectrum is limited to two more prosaic colours. The reader will guess which.

There is a tendency in a number of these musicians, Animal Collective being at the forefront, to fetishize nature in the way that, say, Devandra Banhart fetishizes Karen Dalton, saying of her, as Crazy Horse quotes, “…she’s got the most far-out, fucked up, amazing soul. She’s the most soulful singer in the universe.” In other words, her music and the way she sings cannot just be a natural function of her life or her cultural or historic context, but somehow surpasses that, takes on a mystical quality, becomes unnatural and in doing so, transgresses the boundaries, becomes something strange or alien, wholly Other. In doing this, Dalton is fetishized for who she is, and the agency for creating her art is taken away from her, replaced instead with this “far-out, fucked up” quality.

So, Animal Collective fetishise nature and Banhart, someone with no direct connection to Animal Collective, fetishises Karen Dalton. How do we know? Well, he described her music as “far-out” and “fucked-up”. That Banhart could have been using the terms typically – to mean “extraordinary”, “eccentric”, “disturbed”, etc. – has apparently been disconfirmed, by a process the review doesn’t judge necessary to explain. No, the forces behind Banhart’s choice of term must have been malevolent: he must think she “transgresses the boundaries” and so cannot be the creative force behind her own work.

(Dalton, incidentally, was half white, so her “white half” presumably must have been the victim of the same injustice. That, though, mightn’t be the way it works. Identity politics can quickly get confusing – confusing and fucking daft.)

But it’s worth looking at the original interview for context: “She is one of the most amazing musicians in the universe. Forget about the amount of soul she’s got — she’s got the most far-out, fucked up, amazing soul. She’s the most soulful singer in the universe. But the technicalities, her timing and her phrasing is perfect. It’s beyond perfect. You can’t even try to imitate it because it’s like beyond, it’s brilliant. She’s also an incredible song interpreter… She makes every one of the songs that she covers her songs.” Numinous though the terminology might be, it’s clear that praise of ability is its crux.

Anyway, Animal Collective, the review tells us, fetishise nature – a concept – in the same way someone else entirely, Banhart, fetishises Dalton – a person. Thus, Animal Collective are tacit racists. This, incidentally, was meant to have been the “deeper” of two criticisms.

Elsewhere, the reviewer intimidates the reader into submission instead of persuading them with argument – a tactic common in cultural theory.

One particularly nasty example is the claim the band are too ignorant to realise their racism or insufficiently righteous to atone; as a corollary, we are too, if we don’t agree. (In a dazzling a non sequitur, a Chomsky quote is offered in support.) The reviewer, of course, stands rare and rarified, enlightened and virtuous both.

That’s the most egregious instance. The stupidest, though, is where we learn part of Animal Collective’s “problem” is they inhabit an area designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also built parks: building parks is depraved, apparently. The reviewer’s implied mastery of Hegel is then presented as a forged intellectual passport under which he smuggles this gibberish past the reader.

Perhaps there’s nothing in the reviewer’s environment to tell his as much, but, in sum, the review is a foul smear and the magazine should apologise. As both Noam Chomsky and Panda Bear say, coolness is having courage, courage to do what’s right.

Cop Out

It is a fact of studying ethics that you are always dealing with hypothetical baby torturers, genocide, or drowning children. These examples are of course used because they jar so strongly with our intuitions. The original “drowning child” example was used by Peter Singer as a prelude to arguing for our duty to the poor of the world, but it is very rare that these situations actually occur. This is why I was struck by this article, and the response of the agents involved. The situation can be reduced to a few basic points:

  • Young boy attempts to save younger sister from drowning (not necessarily morally relevant, but indicative of what we would consider good moral conduct).
  • Two anglers jump into the water and manage to save her, but the boy has become submerged.
  • Two Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) arrive on the scene quickly but do not attempt to rescue the boy, instead they call for trained officers to help.
  • The boy dies as a result of the time he spends submerged.

Now, the reason the drowning child example is used in ethics is that it is generally assumed that there is a prima facie duty to help those in need if it is possible to do so. The example emphasizes this point as a child is generally considered less capable of helping themselves and there is very little weighing against the action. In other words, nothing of significance is going to be lost by saving the child. In such a situation there is a strong moral obligation on us to attempt a rescue.

As such the only reason why such a duty would change in nature – with the exception of an overriding obligation to attend to something on land – is that attempting such a rescue would put the attempter in danger themselves. Given the cost of the death of a child, we can assume that this risk of danger must be high in order to alter the duty; either that the rescuer is unable to swim, or perhaps that there is a strong and dangerous current in the water. In the case referred to in the article the water was still, it was a standing body, and there is no reason to believe that both the PCSOs were non-swimmers. Furthermore, given the fact that the anglers attempted and succeeded in rescuing the young girl, it seems unlikely that the water was overly treacherous. Thus it seems that the PCSOs have committed a serious moral wrong by not attempting the rescue.

The response of the police was:

PCSOs are not trained to deal with major incidents such as this. Both ourselves and the fire brigade regularly warn the public of the dangers of going into unknown stretches of water so it would have been inappropriate for PCSOs, who are not trained in water rescue, to enter the pond.

The reply gives two justifications for the action. Firstly, that PCSOs are not trained to deal with this situation, and secondly that it would, in some way, contradict their general advice if the PCSOs had acted.

As training is not a necessary condition of the action needed, as we can see from the anglers, this justification is clearly invalid. The second reason is ludicrous. The rule that the police and fire brigade advise surely does not apply here. If it did, it would imply either that those working for the police have lesser moral duties than the public as a whole, or that nobody has a duty to rescue a drowning child if the “stretch of water” is unknown.

This seems to be a very unfortunate example of how rule-following can undermine virtuous moral agency.

Fisking Fisk

It’s perhaps something of a clichéd observation, but whenever someone clears their throat by appending “I’m not a racist, but…” to the start of their sentence, you can be all but sure that a racist remark of some kind or another will follow. In a similar vein, Robert Fisk claims that he’s “not a conspiracy theorist” in today’s Independent, and then goes on to perform a flawless impersonation of one. In my experience (and that of many rationalists), conspiracy theorists have a habit of claiming that they’re “just asking questions”; this term is then abbreviated, by said rationalists, to “JAQ” and further corrupted to form its own neologism: “JAQing off”. This undeniably pejorative colouration is due to the fact that the questions the conspiracy theorists are “just asking” are usually of the “Have you stopped beating your wife?” variety. Fisk’s are no different.

If it is true, for example, that kerosene burns at 820C under optimum conditions, how come the steel beams of the twin towers – whose melting point is supposed to be about 1,480C – would snap through at the same time?

This particular question serves as a classic example. Firstly, note the internal confusion over whether the steel is supposed to have melted or snapped: He begins by talking about the temperatures of the fires and the melting point of steel and finishes by asking how the “steel beams” (I think he means columns) could “snap through at the same time”. However, the two don’t appear to have any obvious and necessary connection. Secondly, he misleadingly places undue significance on the role of the kerosene itself: While kerosene-like Jet A-1 fuel undoubtedly accelerated the fires in the towers, it was not the only substance fuelling them; once they had taken hold, they had an abundance of office contents and aircraft wreckage available to work on. Thirdly, the question serves to straw man the position it purports to interrogate: No one is claiming that all of the columns snapped at the same time. Nor are they claiming that any of the steel melted. The following is from the National Institute of Standards and Technology FAQ on the collapse:

In no instance did NIST report that steel in the WTC towers melted due to the fires. The melting point of steel is about 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,800 degrees Fahrenheit). Normal building fires and hydrocarbon (e.g., jet fuel) fires generate temperatures up to about 1,100 degrees Celsius (2,000 degrees Fahrenheit). NIST reported maximum upper layer air temperatures of about 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800 degrees Fahrenheit) in the WTC towers (for example, see NCSTAR 1, Figure 6-36).

However, when bare steel reaches temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celsius, it softens and its strength reduces to roughly 10 percent of its room temperature value. Steel that is unprotected (e.g., if the fireproofing is dislodged) can reach the air temperature within the time period that the fires burned within the towers. Thus, yielding and buckling of the steel members (floor trusses, beams, and both core and exterior columns) with missing fireproofing were expected under the fire intensity and duration determined by NIST for the WTC towers.

One might be excused for thinking that Fisk should have made at least a passing attempt to familiarise himself with the basics of the subject matter – perhaps by having actually read the above – before putting pen to paper.

They collapsed in 8.1 and 10 seconds.

This claim is particularly odd. The following is again from the National Institute of Standards and Technology FAQ:

NIST estimated the elapsed times for the first exterior panels to strike the ground after the collapse initiated in each of the towers to be approximately 11 seconds for WTC 1 and approximately 9 seconds for WTC 2.

It seems that Fisk (or the conspiracy theorist who deceived him) has taken these figures and deducted a second from each for good effect. In doing so, however, he’s caused himself something of a problem. Even in a vacuum (in other words, unimpeded even by air-resistance), the time it would have taken for an object to fall from the roofs of the towers to the ground is 9.22 seconds. So, we can see from the off that Fisk’s lower figure of 8.1 seconds is simply physically impossible. Further, it’s important to note the wording of the NIST quotation. The figures they cite are the “elapsed times for the first exterior panels to strike the ground after the collapse initiated”; they are not the total times for the collapses of the entire structures.

What about the third tower – the so-called World Trade Centre Building 7 (or the Salmon Brothers Building) – which collapsed in 6.6 seconds in its own footprint at 5.20pm on 11 September?

World Trade Centre 7 did not collapse in 6.6 seconds. Conspiracy theorists arrive at this figure by timing only the collapse of the visible exterior (the façades, etc.) of the building.  They ignore the fact that the collapse had initiated some eight seconds prior when the east mechanical penthouse began to sink into the main superstructure. Further, the building did not fall into its own footprint: The collapse caused significant damage to surrounding structures such as 30 West Broadway and The Verizon Building, and minor damage to several others.

Incidentally, World Trade Centre 7 was also known as The Salomon Brothers Building. Personally, I’ve never heard of “The Salmon Brothers Building”. Perhaps it’s a Fish ‘n’ Grill.

Why did it so neatly fall to the ground when no aircraft had hit it?

Indeed, World Trade Centre 7 was not hit by an aircraft. It was hit, however, by a collapsing 110-storey skyscraper. It then suffered approximately eight hours of widespread fires. It’s rather odd that Fisk simply failed to mention those rather important contributory factors.

The American National Institute of Standards and Technology was instructed to analyse the cause of the destruction of all three buildings. They have not yet reported on WTC7.

Well, I suppose that Fisk must have applied his structural engineering expertise to the interim report on the collapse and concluded that it’s not really a report at all. Further, the final version of this report is due for release later this year. The investigators are indeed taking their time over it, but I imagine this is because they are dedicated professionals who actually care about getting things right.

Journalistically, there were many odd things about 9/11. Initial reports of reporters that they heard “explosions” in the towers – which could well have been the beams cracking – are easy to dismiss. Less so the report that the body of a female air crew member was found in a Manhattan street with her hands bound.

I have to admit to being somewhat unsure of the point Fisk is trying to make. Presumably, we’re to conclude that the idea that the terrorists might have handcuffed a flight attendant is absurd – so absurd that the existence of a massive conspiracy is at least comparably likely. (Let’s not forget that said terrorists are believed to have murdered individual passengers and crew while initiating the hijackings.)

OK, so let’s claim that was just hearsay reporting at the time, just as the CIA’s list of Arab suicide-hijackers, which included three men who were – and still are – very much alive and living in the Middle East, was an initial intelligence error.

This is a tactic Fisk applies liberally throughout the article; it’s the rhetorical equivalent of humming the theme music from The X-Files: He raises and then superficially dismisses a number of supposed anomalies in the official narrative – presumably with the intention of fostering further suspicion without actually having to commit himself to the fallacious claim in question. One might call this the passive aggressive school of conspiracy theory.

I suppose it could be considered poetically appropriate that the “Some of the terrorists are still alive” canard just won’t die. The claim generally stems from this BBC article, which has since been superseded; the uncertainty in question seems to have originated from cases of mistaken identity. From a more recent article:

The story, written in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, was about confusion at the time surrounding the names and identities of some of the hijackers. This confusion was widely reported and was also acknowledged by the FBI.

The story has been cited ever since by some as evidence that the 9/11 attacks were part of a US government conspiracy.
We later reported on the list of hijackers, thereby superseding the earlier report. In the intervening years we have also reported in detail on the investigation into the attacks, the 9/11 commission and its report.

We’ve carried the full report, executive summary and main findings and, as part of the recent fifth anniversary coverage, a detailed guide to what’s known about what happened on the day. But conspiracy theories have persisted. The confusion over names and identities we reported back in 2001 may have arisen because these were common Arabic and Islamic names.

Fisk then goes on to cast suspicion on lead hijacker Mohammed Atta’s final religious writings; we’re informed that Fisk’s Middle-Eastern Muslim acquaintances are mystified by them. Well, that doesn’t seem all that suspicious to me. I suspect that Atta’s religious justifications for murdering three-thousand innocent people might leave them scratching their heads, as well. To be frank, I’d be rather concerned if his final thoughts didn’t confound a Muslim or two.

Now that the specifics are out of the way, allow me to indulge in some conspiratorial thinking of my own: According to one Robert J. Hanlon, one should “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity”. Wise words though they are, Hanlon’s Razor, as it is known, only goes so far. It just doesn’t seem particularly feasible, for instance, to think that an experienced journalist like Fisk could have written such a straightforwardly error-ridden and innuendo-laden article due to incompetence alone. Further, he’s also reasonably well known for both fostering and manifesting a Westerner’s self-loathing of the most wretched kind. So, it seems at least possible that Fisk wrote this piece for purely ideological reasons: To spread misinformation and doubt about the core premise for some of the United States’ least popular actions – to groundlessly and cynically call 9/11 itself into question.

Offence Trumps Reality, Again

From Drama over Casualty plot as BBC bans terror script in today’s Guardian:

The BBC has abandoned plans to screen a fictional terrorist attack by Muslim suicide bombers in the primetime drama Casualty after internal clashes over whether the highly sensitive subject matter would cause offence.

BBC drama executives were keen to push the storyline and may even have started filming, a source close to the production told The Observer. But they were overruled by the corporation’s editorial guidelines department, which ordered that the episode be changed so that the Muslim characters were replaced by animal rights extremists

Well, what a good idea. The BBC should be doing everything it can to shield religious people from potential offence – even if that means shielding them (and, as a corollary, the rest of us) from reality. The decision, of course, is a pathetically snivelling one, but it’s also flatly insulting for two reasons: Firstly, it’s insufferably patronising towards the large section of moderate British Muslims who acknowledge that Islamic terrorism both exists and is an undeniable part of the current zeitgeist. Secondly, it serves to scapegoat animal right activists as the indiscriminate bombers of public transport. However, these are small concessions to make if they go some way to appeasing rage boy and his ilk, I suppose.


According to this article in the Guardian, it turns out that the decision to replace the Islamic terrorists with animal right activists was actually made by the writer. So, my apologies to the BBC!

[T]he series editor of BBC1’s Casualty, commenting on newspaper reports that the editorial policy unit had insisted that two Islamist terrorists in a script were changed to animal rights activists, insisted that the switch had been made by the writer, who apparently feared inviting a reaction from extremists.

I’ve learned my lesson, so I won’t try to speculate over whether “inviting a reaction” were the Guardian’s words or those of the writer, but they’re rather depressing either way.

Thanks to Matthew in the comments section for the update.