One event at the start of the third millenium anno domini changed the face of US foreign policy, US domestic policy, and, correspondingly, the security policies of most of the world. Travel by air has always exposed one to insult and humiliation by the airlines, but now the government itself has stepped in to ensure that every single traveller is treated with the same respect and decency as a common criminal. The "privilege" of habeas corpus has been suspended, a measure only licensed by the Constitution "in cases of rebellion or invasion." Yet questions still remain about the exact nature of the events that transpired that day and where exactly they fit in the historical map of US foreign and domestic policy. Even if a fully comprehensize answer to these questions is impossible, some kind of stopgap account is needed, and those presently available are far from adequate.
Questions about the events of 9/11 are often framed in terms of "official story" versus "conspiracy theories." Yet this dichotomy is spurious. For one thing, unlike in the cases of the JFK assassination, Pearl Harbor, and most other events which have inspired "conspiracy theories," the "official story" here also involves a theory about a conspiracy. Thus, the choice is quite literally between rival conspiracy theories (I have yet to see a non-conspiracy explanation for these events). Furthermore, it is a mistake to think there is a single, uniform "official story." The only unifying feature of advocates of the supposed "official story" is a kneejerk rejection of any criticism of the behavior of the US government or its officials concerning the events of Sept. 11. The 9/11 Commission Report does not provide an "official story" along these lines for a variety of reasons. First, it is far from complete, failing to address many issues potentially relevant to the events of Sept. 11, 2001 (e.g. the collapse of Building 7). Second, it is actually quite critical of various government agencies as dramatized in The Path to 9/11. Third, the findings of the commission on certain key issues, in particular the scientific explanation for the collapse of the Twin Towers, are no longer a part of the consensus view. Strangely, the abandonment of the "pancake theory" in favor of the (slightly) more sophisticated NIST account vidicates early "conspiracy theorist" criticisms of both the theory itself, and the willingness to accept such an absurd theory on the part of the investigative committee.
However, it is not only the "official story" which has been unjustly treated as a well-defined and comprehensive account, the "conspiracy theories" as well are far from homogenous. "Conspiracy theories" can differ dramatically in both the nature of their accusations and the extent to which these diverge from the "official" consensus. Here's a sampling of the widely divergent nature of the accusations and sources:
Gross incompetence was demonstrated by the government in the years and months leading up to Sept. 11, 2001. In particular, adequate information on both the danger of bin Laden / al Qaeda and the specifics of the attack was available to the FBI and CIA, yet administrative red tape and cowardice prevented them from acting.
~ The Path to 9/11
Gross incompetence or criminally poor judgment was demonstrated by the government in planning a domestic defense exercise which would leave our nation's skies uncharacteristically unguarded on Sept. 11, 2001.
~ The 9/11 Commission Report
The government knowingly and with malicious forethought not only permitted the hijackings but furthermore assisted them and manipulated the events of Sept. 11, 2001 for maximum shock value on the American people.
~ Loose Change, Painful Questions, etc.
Either gross incompetence of deliberate malice has been demonstrated by the government in the events since Sept. 11, 2001 as it has fabricated an organization (al Qaeda) which actually has no substantive existence outside government imagination / delusion.
~ The Power of Nightmares
Deliberate malice and blatant opportunism has been demonstrated by the government in its behavior since Sept. 11, 2001. In particular, it willing failed to pursue bin Laden with maximum prejudice and instead merely juggled information until it could drum up enough public support for a war in Iraq.
~ Fahrenheit 9/11
This is only a rough sampling of the variety of accusations and theories out there. Rather than focus upon where exactly in this continuum of possible positions to demarcate the "official story," the crackpot "conspiracy theories," or the legitimate criticisms, I think there are pragmatic questions which can be answered without fomenting sectarian rivalries.
1. For domestic policy: Were there security measures in place before Sept. 11, 2001 which, if implemented correctly, would most likely have prevented the attacks from succeeding? This question is abosolutely crucial. The gross disruption of liberties, the denial of habeas corpus, the legalization of warrantless government spying, etc. which have been perpetrated upon the American people over the last 6 years depend for their justification on the thesis that the 2001 attacks succeeded because sufficient preventative measures were not in place. If it turns out that sufficient measures were in place, they were merely were not implemented as designed, then our focus should not be on giving government more power, but on reforming the existing government power structures to remove the threat of incompetence. I believe the evidence (including that of the "official" Commission Report) points overwhelmingly to an affirmative answer to this question; however, there is no consensus.
2. For foreign policy: Was interventionist US foreign policy in the decades before 2001 a major causal factor in the attacks of Sept. 11? If the answer to this question is "yes," then the US should reconsider its strategy for preventing future terror attacks with an aggressively interventionist foreign policy. The answer to this question most certainly is "yes," with the consensus overwhelming. In fact, so far as I know, the only group in the world which wouldn't answer in the affirmative here is the Republican presidential hopefuls. Nevertheless, I repeat, there is widespread consensus on this point, yet our foreign policy proceeds along interventionist lines without the subtle and convincing arguments needed to justify this strategy in a post-9/11 world.
3. For the peace of mind of the American people, for the dignity of the US in the eyes of the world, and to provide a consensus on the answer to (1): Is there sufficient cause to initiate a new independent investigation into the events of Sept. 11, 2001? Here, again, I believe the answer to be "yes." The fact that we have no consensus answer to (1), the single most important question for the daily lives of the American people, is reason enough for a new independent investigation.
I do not expect to ever discover the "truth" of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Furthermore, such a goal is unnecessarily ambitious. Nevertheless, pragmatic considerations alone prove our current understanding of these events inadequate. The only responsible behavior for the US government is to a) initiate an independent investigation which will deliver a definitive answer (at least) to (1); b) heed the consensus position on (2) and, at the very least, offer the American people a more robust and nuanced justification for its current foreign policy choices (ie one sensitive to the role of an interventionist foreign policy in instigating the 2001 attack).