Tikkun’s Critique of David Griffin’s “The American Empire and 9/11” (Tikkun March/April 2007)


Michael Lerner

(In the March/April 2007 issue of Tikkun we published an article by David Ray Griffin—which many of you have already read—that revealed the inconsistencies in the official 9/11 report, raising disturbing questions about the Bush administration’s possible involvement. We didn’t have space to print our Tikkun response and critique there, so we are doing it here. Click here for a full version of David Ray Griffin's article.)

I am an agnostic on the question of what happened on 9/11. I’m convinced that there are huge holes in the official story and contradictions that suggest that we do not know the whole story.

I would not be surprised to learn that some branch of our government conspired either actively to promote or passively to allow the attack on 9/11. For those who watched the reactionary political uses made of this tragedy, it’s easy to conjure up a variety of possible conspiratorial motives that would have led the president, the vice president, or some branch of the armed forces or CIA or FBI or other “security” forces to have passively or actively participated in a plot to re-credit militarism and war, which had been losing their appeal after the collapse of communism. We’ve learned enough about the subsequent ways that the Bush administration lied to the American public to no longer be shocked if they had been some active involvement by them in these deeds. But saying that I would not be surprised is NOT saying, “I believe that this is what happened.” I don’t personally believe it.

Nor did Tikkun publish Griffin’s account because we believe it, any more than we published Jorge Ferrer’s call for polyamory in the last issue because we support polyamory, and I could go through every issue and point to articles that most of us disagree with. We choose our articles because they present cutting edge analyses of the world that are aimed, directly or indirectly, at developing the consciousness of people that could become part of a movement to heal our society and our planet—not because we necessarily agree with them. If you want our perspective, read our editorials. But our perspective is not always (in fact, if we are talking about my personal perspective, almost never) reflected in the articles we print.

So why am I responding to this one? Because a Jewish magazine that has had a long history of ignoring, trashing or distorting what I and Tikkun stand for has done it again with a headline suggesting that I’m now on board with the conspiracy theorists. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As I wrote in a piece that was published in a collection of articles by people who are seeking the truth, I would not be surprised if when all the archives were opened and all the communications revealed, it turned out that there was some other non-conspiratorial explanation for elements of the story that currently seem to make no sense. I’m not an expert in physics or chemistry and am in no position to devise such explanations, but wouldn’t be surprised if someone could do so. I believe that many of the aspects of the story that have not been explored—and should be to put this issue more to rest, so Id’ support a new and more serious and more neutral body exploring the whole story once again. When this happens, I believe that we will find what I’ve found in all my connections with government, corporations, and even with my tiny little staff at Tikkun: that it is always a mistake to underestimate how many things that are logical or expectable to happen don’t happen the way they are supposed to, day after day after day. And that is just as true of bureaucracies that pride themselves on their efficiency and detail-oriented approach.

I am not, however, a fan of a politics that concentrates on conspiracy theories, even when there are real conspiracies. At one point in my life I thought that real conspiracies were a left-wing fantasy, and that sophisticated Marxists and other social theorists would not have reason to want to acknowledge the existence of such conspiracies against the left or against anyone else. But in 1970, I was one of the “Seattle Seven” indicted in a federal trial for “conspiracy and using the facilities of interstate commerce with the intent of inciting to riot,” because of a demonstration I had organized to oppose the Vietnam war and support black liberation, a demonstration which turned violent after police attacked the demonstrators. I soon learned that my organization, the Seattle Liberation Front, was totally infiltrated by police agents. Indeed, many of those most vociferous in denouncing me and other leaders for being “too timid” at the time we were planning the demonstration were actually paid FBI informants or members of various law enforcement agencies. When one such agent changed his mind and began to reveal his story of having been solicited by the FBI to try to engage us in violence that would have led to some of us being killed, I understood that conspiracies do sometimes happen—and are paid for by the U.S. government.

But I also learned another lesson at the time: it doesn’t always help build a movement that focuses on governmental conspiracies. That focus leads people to believe that the major problems we face are those generated by evil people in powerful positions, not on something more systemic.

True, when we exposed Nixon on Watergate we managed to get him pushed out of office. But in so doing we also managed to validate the perception of many that he was the problem and that once he was gone, America could return to a new age of goodness, and politics could be safe in the hands of the politicians. “The system worked,” we were told, and most people believed it.

In retrospect, I suspect that the focus on Nixon’s conspiracy undermined our capacity to educate people to a far more important element in our society: the elites of wealth and power and their attempts to ensure American corporate dominance of the global markets, sometimes using force. While Nixon’s conspiracies were real, the focus on Watergate actually freed the ruling elites from having to give an accounting of how they—including the mainstream of the Democratic Party—had bought into assumptions about the world that led us into the Vietnam War.

I’m afraid that the focus on 9/11 conspiracies could have the same effect in American politics; Democrats who share many of the same militaristic assumptions about the world as their Republican colleagues could use this exposure of criminal acts as path to a reaffirmation of liberalism with all its limitations and willingness to support the militarist economy and global expansionism.

The major challenge facing those of us who want peace today is not to show that there was a conspiracy against peace by some part of the government. It is to uncover the underlying ideological consensus that leads people in both parties, including many who would never have dreamed of being part of any conspiracy, to believe that violence and war are the means to achieve a world of peace, and that the goal of our policies should be to advance U.S. interests rather than, as we at Tikkun/Network of Spiritual Progressives argue, to advance the interests of all humanity, life on the planet, and the sustainability of the earth. .

In my latest book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right, and in the campaign we are now running to put an ad in major newspapers calling for an Ethical Way to End the War in Iraq (please read about it at www.tikkun.org/iraqpeace), we argue for a strategy of generosity that would commit the U.S. to lead the G8 countries to use one to five percent of the gross domestic product of each of those countries every year for the next twenty years, with the U.S. leading by example, to eliminate global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, inadequate healthcare, and to repair the damage done to the global environment by 150 years of irresponsible forms of industrialization. Winning support for this kind of thinking requires a very different kind of argument and focus than asking whether the towers could have fallen as a result of strikes by airplanes.

One could argue that there is room for both conversations, and there is. In fact, the kind of psychic trauma that would happen were the charges of intentional involvement in 9/11 by the president, vice president, other high office holders, or our security apparatus ever proved in a court of law would almost certainly open up political space for a serious discussion of the kinds of radical changes I’m suggesting, especially regarding our approach to foreign policy and homeland security. Indeed, people might be open to establishing much more forceful checks and balances on the imperial presidency, reaffirming and even strengthening civil liberties protections that have been undermined by the Patriot Act and other policies of the Bush administration, securing democratic forms by eliminating the electoral college and establishing instant-runoff voting and fully, publicly financed elections that forbid any direct or indirect contributions or support for campaigns or the parties that run them, establishing firm public control of electronic voting and strict public control over lobbying to ensure that money plays no role directly or indirectly in the process, and other measures to reclaim the democracy that has eroded since 9/11.

These are important changes that could be won if 9/11 lies are exposed, if in fact they were lies (about which I am agnostic).

But my own experience in American politics leads me to believe that those who wish to expose the 9/11 conspiracy must simultaneously provide an alternative framework that includes the Spiritual Covenant with America and the specific suggestions for how to repair the damage done by these crimes, or else risk the debate being defined by media that are more concerned to prove the viability of the system than to change it.

For these reasons, I wish people were putting the energy and commitment into building Generosity Sunday (read about it at www.spiritualprogressives.org) that they put into activities like exposing what’s wrong with the 9/11 report. In theory, people could be doing both. In practice they are not.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine. He can be reached at RabbiLerner@tikkun.org.