Perhaps the film, by depicting the vulnerability and suffering of citizens during the attacks, offends against the dominant media framing of the event. For most of us, our mental picture of 9/11 is the one that was reproduced across almost all of the newspapers following the event: the searing, archetypal image of the towers engulfed in flames. The widespread reproduction of this image - which recalls nothing so much as a scene from a blockbuster action film - sent the message that the West was at war with the forces of darkness and that bloody vengeance must ensue. But it didn't have to be that way. Other, less martial and more human-scaled images of the attacks could have prevailed. As Brad Evans wonders in the preface to his book Liberal Terror, 'how [...] would the world look today if the images of the falling victims had become the defining emblem of the 9/11 attacks?'
While the public reaction to Guigui's film is undoubtedly tied up with these struggles over how 9/11 should be represented, the blanket obloquy directed against the movie surely also has a lot to do with Charlie Sheen's earlier, apparently unforgivable involvement in the 9/11 truth movement. Indeed, while we still don't know very much about how the event of 9/11 really happened, to express doubts about the official 9/11 story, even today, is to court lasting derision. The jokes about 9/11 'truthers' never stop - and challenges to the received narrative of 9/11 tend to be regarded as a ludicrous outgrowth of the Internet's degraded digital free-for-all. As Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) puts it in his ironic diatribe in the recent Trainspotting sequel, "Choose rape jokes, slut-shaming, revenge porn and an endless tide of depressing misogyny. Choose 9/11 never happened, and if it did, it was the Jews".
Liberals and leftists have tended to be even more disparaging of the 9/11 truth/justice movement than conservatives. Noam Chomsky's response to a question about the authorship of 9/11 was, infamously, "who cares"? I am not the first to point out that this was a strange thing for the world's foremost critic of US foreign policy to say about the biggest terrorist attack on American soil or that that the families and friends of those who were murdered on 9/11 might just have a passing interest in whether their loved ones were killed by Muslim terrorists or by 'their own' government. And does Chomsky really believe that nobody in the US will 'care' if 9/11 were revealed to be, say, an 'inside job'? After all, he himself points out that such a revelation would destroy the Republican party forever and would result in "firing squads".
I must admit that for many years after 9/11, I myself tended to dismiss with a smirk anybody who questioned the official narrative about the attacks as a 'conspiracy theorist'. In doing so I was merely following the crowd. There was little appetite for critical questioning in the wake of the atrocities; after all, it's hard for those exposed to seismic acts of terror to retain their critical faculties. On the contrary, traumatized people often take refuge in group think and myth-mongering or indulge in fantasies of violent retribution. That's why it was so easy for politicians and journalists in 2001 to spin the attacks as an assault on the US and its values by an evil, non-Christian Other. In line with the propaganda dynamics outlined in Naomi Klein's 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, the view prevailed that 9/11 was an attack on 'our way of life' that demanded not critical analysis, but immediate, bloody revenge against the supposed perpetrators.
Over the last few years I have, rather belatedly, read many books about 9/11 and listened to a lot of the professional critics of the official account. And like many others (a 2016 study suggested that more than half of Americans believe that their government is concealing information about the attacks), I've concluded that the official version of events makes no sense at all. It is undermined by, inter alia, the failure of all air defences (for which multiple, mutually contradictory explanations have been supplied by officials); the lack of any photographic evidence that the alleged attackers even boarded the planes; the mismatch between the alleged hijackers' extraordinary aerial manoeuvres and their almost total lack of pilot training; the refusal of official investigators to consider first-hand accounts of multiple explosions before the planes hit; the near-miraculous discovery of an incriminating passport amid the ashes of the Twin Towers (shades of the London 7/7 attacks there); and so on. The full catalogue of absurdities and improbabilities was usefully summarized back in the noughties in the books of David Ray Griffin, but they have never been adequately dealt with by defenders of the official story. Of great significance, too, are the so-called 'intelligence failures' at Alec Station, whereby the CIA did not pass its information about Khalid al-Mihdhar and Salem al-Hazmi to the FBI, and the recently recrudescent question of Saudi complicity in the organization of the attacks. To discuss these questions is not to fall prey to 'conspiracy theory', but to acknowledge that we still lack a coherent account of what happened on 9/11. There are still more questions than answers.
We should, I think, be highly critical of those who use the term 'conspiracy theory' in order to dismiss dissenting opinions about 9/11. After all, conspiracy theories, even though they are not identified as such, are integral to the maintenance of the status quo and mainstream media promote them regularly. Just consider the various evidence-light anti-Russian confections in the British and US media recently, most notably that of the alleged hacking of the 2016 US election (indeed, it is becoming more and more obvious that 'Russiagate' has been coordinated by Western intelligence services). Indeed, it is hardly outlandish to regard the 9/11 Commission's story that the attacks were carried out by 19 Muslim hijackers directed by a very unwell man in Afghanistan as a mainstream conspiracy theory. Even Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, the chair and vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, state in their 2006 book Without Precedent that their investigation was underfunded and 'set up to fail' and that they were lied to by officials.
Precisely which organizations and individuals were behind, or had knowledge of the 9/11 attacks is still unclear. Plenty of ludicrous theories about the attacks have been put forward by assorted lunatics and even intelligence agents. Remember David Shayler, the MI5 officer who, during the high-tide of the 9/11 truth movement, argued that the planes that struck the Twin Towers were in fact missiles camouflaged by holograms? Perhaps in order to ensure that nobody could take his theory about 9/11 seriously, Shayler also claimed to be the Messiah (move over, David Icke) and to be able to control the footballing fortunes of Middlesbrough F.C. The preposterous assertions of Shayler, like those of the absurd Alex Jones, have served over time as a useful distraction, discrediting anybody who dares to ask probing questions about the attacks. But the doubts and questions of independent investigators and victims' family members are not so easily laughed off. To this day, many people are aware that, in the title of Jon Gold's useful recent collection of interviews, We Were Lied to About 9/11 and they are looking for an honest and coherent account of what actually happened.
So what about the 'inside job' theory? I think that it is possible that elements the US state either played a part in orchestrating 9/11 or allowed the attacks to happen, something the US has certainly done before as a pretext for war (Griffin, perhaps the most coherent and persistent of all the inside job advocates, famously termed 9/11 'the new Pearl Harbour', borrowing the Project for a New American Century's phrase from 1997). Contra Chomsky, it would be worth knowing if this was indeed the case. For one thing, it would provide the families of the victims with closure. It might also help to convince those who need convincing that the bourgeoisie is thoroughly Machiavellian. Indeed, fear of being labelled a conspiracy theorist (a fear that is widespread among Marxists and anarchists, it seems to me) should not prevent us from recognizing that ruling classes the world over shroud their activities in secrecy and disinformation. Power prefers darkness.
As Richard Jackson pointed out in his 2005 book Writing the War on Terrorism, the use of the term 'ground zero' to describe the scene of the 9/11 crime recalled the phrase 'year zero' and thus signalled that the attacks had inaugurated a new era requiring different techniques of securitization and counter-terrorism. To paraphrase the U.S. political machinator Rahm Emanuel, the capitalist class never let a serious crisis go to waste. Whoever was responsible for them - and here Chomsky does have a point - the 9/11 attacks were used as a pretext for subsequent resource-grabbing invasions of Middle Eastern countries that have cost trillions of dollars and killed hundreds of thousands of people. They were also a pretext for a refreshed assault on civil liberties and human rights across the world. For the US and most other ruling classes around the world, 9/11 has provided a golden opportunity to ramp up the repression and surveillance of Muslims and other 'suspect communities'. Judicial and spatial 'states of exception' have multiplied, from the Patriot Act and Guantánamo Bay in the early days of Bush's War on Terror to the Uyghur internment camps of China's Xinjiang province today. Attitudes and priorities have also shifted towards xenophobia and paranoia. A World Values Survey in 2015, for example, found that in the decade following 9/11 U.S. citizens more and more prioritize 'survival' above 'self-expression'. The rhetoric of the War on Terror has also normalized anti-Muslim prejudice, so that Boris Johnson's recent quip about burka- or niqab-wearing Muslim women looking like 'bank robbers' seems almost unremarkable (it certainly didn't seem to do his career any harm at all).
Perhaps these points should not be pushed too far. In their 2012 book Icons of War and Terror, John Tulloch and R. Warwick Blood cautioned that the proposition '9/11 changed everything' - widespread among opportunistic politicians and CEOs following the attacks - was always problematic and ideological, eliding among other things the longer history of terrorism. Tulloch and Blood also point to the arguments of Slavoj Žižek, who has suggested that 9/11 represented not a break with the past, but on the contrary a kind of resetting of the U.S.'s basic ideological co-ordinates. Yet be that as it may, from the vantage point of 2018, the post-9/11 world looks and feels more dangerous. Shortly after the attacks, U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld declared that 9/11 presented 'the kind of opportunities that World War II offered' to 'refashion the world'. In numerous big and small ways, 9/11 has helped the world's rulers in their attempts to do that - although the U.S. bid to become the sole global hegemon has arguably failed.
The events surrounding 9/11 itself remain, to a great extent, cloaked in mystery. I have no idea whether we might one day have a clearer understanding of what happened on that day, or whether a new official investigation would be useful or even possible; at this point, the 9/11 truth movement has been largely dormant for a decade. But the families and friends of those who died, and of those tortured and killed across the globe in the name of the war on terror, certainly deserve answers.