If I had to list the columnists I admire least, Mark Steyn would rank high. However, give the man his due, he has a point when he decries the conspiracy theories about 9/11 that have gripped much of the public. Many of his arguments betray a woeful lack of imagination: he quotes a web-logger who asks why people who believe in the grand conspiracy don't pack up and leave the United States, without telling us where someone who wanted to get out of bomber range of the White House and its current occupants could go. But he makes a solid argument; it simply does not make sense, at any level, that any conspiracy within the United States government to bring down the twin towers and bomb the Pentagon could have succeeded and remained hidden to this point.
Such a conspiracy would have had to find several thousand people, many with very specialised skills, willing to commit high treason and mass murder. If they hoped to involve an expert on explosive demolition, the conspirators would have had to approach one of only a few hundred with the required expertise. If even one person they sounded out had talked to a grand jury in the five years since 9/11, the conspirators would have found themselves on a gurney at Terre Haute, following in the footsteps of Timothy McVeigh.
By Occam's razor, if nothing else, the simplest explanation applies: Al Qaeda, a terrorist organisation formed in Afghanistan and Sudan, led by Osama bin Laden, hijacked four planes. They flew two into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, one into the Pentagon, and one crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers overcame some or most of the hijackers.
The increasing popularity of conspiracy theories that purport to offer alternative explanations challenge the Left and the Right alike. To the Right, the popularity of even the most improbable conspiracy theories indicates an clear, if unpalatable reality: huge numbers of people have so lost faith in the "War of Terror"® (now the Global Struggle against Violent Extremism"®) that they will believe almost (literally) anything of the people charged with conducting it. And why should that surprise anyone?
Perhaps the time has come for members of the right to admit the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan created Al Qaeda, and the policies of the Reagan administration bear some responsibility for that. If the Bush administration has completely lost the confidence of millions of Americans and others, perhaps they accomplished that by informing us all that we faced a struggle for survival, then voting their wealthy friends a huge tax cut and telling everyone (except the long-suffering soldiers faced with stop-loss programs) to go and shop 'til they dropped.
The Bush Administration has piled up a sad record of blundering into Iraq in search of non-existent weapons, and with an incoherent plan for democratising the Arab world. Maybe the people who believe the Bush administration rigged the towers with explosives would rather believe anything but the obvious and frightening conclusion: the events of the past five years really represent the Bush Administration's best efforts at a strategy. The Right might reassure some people, even capture some of that lost faith and trust, if they would acknowledge the problems, and perhaps even apologise for the many mistakes of conservative governments in the past.
The Left faces a different and tougher challenge. The basic premise of the anti-war left holds that we have to learn not to make war, because without an end to war, we do not have much of a future on this planet. To do that, we have to learn to love our enemies. To love our enemies, we have to face the reality that they exist, that they really hate us, and not all for good or understandable reasons. We have to look our enemy in the face, strip off all the explanations and excuses, and face the ugly truth about the Salafist Jihadists, in the same way, and with the same courage, that we face ugly truths about ourselves and our own civilisation.
Members of Al Qaeda want to kill millions of us, and enslave the rest. We have to love them anyway. The Taliban wants to impose a medieval patriarchy on the women of Afghanistan, and they have allied with Al Qaeda. We have to love them anyway. After twenty centuries in which the Christian world recited Jesus's words in the Sermon on the Mount in church, and then went out to do battle on the field, we have come to a point when heeding those words has gone from a matter of morality to a matter of survival.
In war, the biggest weapon wins. In an advanced technological society, the biggest weapons can raze cities, poison huge areas, and trigger epidemics that will kill millions, even billions of people. If we do not make and end to war, war will make an end, if not of the human species, then of our civilisation. In Christian terms, that means we have to look past the ugly horror of the ideology that motivates our enemies, and find a way to reach, and love, the human beings who hold that ideology. Evading and escaping the face of that ideology, not facing the ugly truth, will do nothing for us. Mohamed Atta took over a plane and used it as a flying bomb. The passengers on the planes hijacked that day included children too young to walk. The Al Qaeda jihadists had to know this, so they had to believe that God would reward them for child murder. Evading that fact with fantasies about some elaborate government plot will not do us any good at all. We have to look into the cold eyes of men prepared to commit any depraved act, face the anger they provoke, and then, somehow, find a way past the anger. Otherwise, their anger justifies their flying planes into towers, and our resulting anger justifies our dropping GPS-guided bombs on women and children, which justifies some other outrage, until someone feels justified in doing something which makes the whole sorry history irrelevant.
We will never break this chain of horror if we comfort ourselves with fantasies. We will have to look honestly into the face of it. We will have to forgive. We will have to return good for evil. We will have to do all the hard, hard things involved in making real and lasting peace. And we will have to begin with the truth.