Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11: A Call to Reflection and Action by David Ray Griffin. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006. ISBN 0-664-23117-9. Pb., 246 pp. $17.95.
reviewed by Christian T. Iosso
What does a rationalist do when so many irrational things are happening?
As David Ray Griffin summarizes them, we have a global warming crisis, continued nuclear proliferation, massive death by preventable poverty and growing social inequality in the United States, still the world’s most militarily powerful nation and hence the most responsible for these trends. But why does the US government focus about 58% of our federal budget–inclusively calculated–on a unilateral militarism that alienates most of the world and blocks social progress? The reason given is the “war on terror,” and the defining moment of that continues to be 9/11.
For two years, retired Disciples of Christ theology professor Griffin believed the official storyline: that four planeloads of Saudis took down two massive office towers and a neighboring building in Manhattan, hit the Pentagon, and were overcome by brave passengers en route to the White House. During those two years, however, the official Iraq storyline took more and more hits. High officials like the treasury secretary and a counter-terrorism expert revealed the pre-existent fixation on Iraq within the Bush Administration leadership, a fixation that led to “fixing” the evidence around Iraq in the words of the “Downing Street memo” from British Intelligence. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has now admitted that making a false case for “weapons of mass destruction” before the United Nations was not his finest hour. Then the Bush Administration’s prosecution of the war in Iraq showed them to believe their own inventions, while mocking as weak those who have seen corrupt and misguided policies invite in actual terrorists and unleash a brutal civil war. Billions of dollars and millions of enemies later, however, every new terrorist threat is still used to justify what looks very much like a venture in empire-building urged on by neo-conservatives. (Although he notes that a good number of key policy players were Jews interested in protecting Israel from Saddam Hussein, Griffin sees control over oil as the fundamental motivator for US interest in the Middle East.)
Griffin spends part of his book describing what he means by empire and imperialism, and then connecting Christian faith to resistance against the Roman Empire. Following Richard Horsley and many others, he sees in the Gospels and early Christian communities a challenge to idolatry of nation and empire, most graphically portrayed in Revelation. To follow Jesus is still to challenge domination systems and their claims of benign intent. Looking at the growth and power of the United States through its many interventions and control of many nations (Mexico, Philippines, support for military coups in much of South America, Iran, parts of Asia, etc.), Griffin sees an empire and labels it, Revelation-fashion, as demonic.
Griffin never actually calls specific individuals “demonic.” But his forceful depiction of the “powers and principalities” will put to rest most claims that Process theology takes evil lightly. By tracing the potential for resistance in “creaturely creativity” back to the pre-existence of matter in a chaotic state before God’s initiative (not creation ex nihilo), Griffin sees a somewhat limited God striving against a willful destructiveness that is gaining momentum. (Despite the theological differences, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’s Ransom arguing with the demonically vacuous Un-man in Perelandra.) From Griffin’s point of view, God will not be able to save us from ourselves if we do not begin to take Jesus’ approach to power, truth, and community much more seriously. The demonic has active and passive poles, thriving on blind trust of authorities and blind fear of opponents. Just as “perfect love drives out all fear,” so a wise pastor told me, “perfect fear drives out love.”
Thoroughly distrusting the folks who brought us the Iraq war, finding them negligent in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and company, cruel in sponsoring torture and propaganda ventures like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and manipulative in exploiting popular fear, Griffin re-approached the official story of 9/11. From an academic point of view, it is clear that he grades the logic and documentation of the Report of the 9/11 Commission rather low–many omissions and contradictions. Then he looks at the rapid collapse of the World Trade Towers directly into their foundations, just as if they had been controlled demolitions, with explosives forceful enough to melt structural steel and produce clouds of dust. He notes that the delayed fall of building seven, also allegedly from fire and exact to its footprint, is hardly mentioned. What about the flight trajectories, the total failure of radar and defense systems to mobilize even after the first hijack reports, and oddities of evidence at the Pentagon and for the flight he suggests was possibly shot down over Pennsylvania?
Griffin, as his publisher notes, is no slouch in trying to put together available evidence, arguing consistently that his case–that of the “9/11 Truth Community”–is more coherent than the government’s. Certainly he is alleging a conspiracy to use rather than prevent a terrorist act, and he notes the chief 9/11 investigator’s effective membership in the Bush Administration’s neo-conservative wing. Did the Administration even want to have a 9/11 Commission? Do we remember Condoleezza Rice terming “ancient history” the vacation briefing memo given to the President shortly before the attack: “Bin Laden determined to strike within the US?” If nothing else, Griffin shows many loose ends and great incompetence. But we may also remember the aphorism: “never attribute to malice what you can credit to turpitude.” Could the Bush Administration–even if it wanted to–keep such a traitorous secret from the American people for five years?
This is where Griffin’s “false flag” argument seems weakest. Certainly empires, including our own, allege that “the other guy started it,” even if the provocation is manufactured. Griffin is careful with the historical detail on the Gulf of Tonkin incident triggering the Vietnam War, and acknowledges that the deliberate sacrifice of one’s own compatriots to frame some other power is rare. He does list a number of “false flag” incidents at least to illustrate the strategy if not suggest guilt by association. Would an Administration so awash in explicit appeals to patriotism be able to silence genuine patriots within it who gained an inkling of its preparation for terrorist acts and subsequent cover-up?
However my own suspicions work against the book’s argument, there is no doubt that it contains many truths and asks many acutely painful questions.1 Certainly no government in power can be trusted to investigate even its failures, if not its crimes, very aggressively. Early on Griffin calls for experts to challenge and test his allegations. He especially calls on The New York Times, perhaps the only newspaper with the independence and capacity to re-study the evidence and re-interview witnesses never investigated thoroughly enough.
Why did an agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) publish such a book? Genuine intellectual freedom is the reason given, and I support that reason, as it guides the entire wide-ranging list of books Westminster/John Knox publishes. It may also be that the author’s courage in going “against the stream” seems to be very dependent on his Christian faith, and that the Christian community needs to be a place where such independence from the State and other powers must be protected. It may be, in fact, that true education always has prophetic character, challenging even the most likely (and likeable) assumptions out of a “divine discontent” with the way things are.
Christian T. Iosso is coordinator for social witness policy, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville, Ky.
1 Disclosure: I have met and respect former Representative Lee Hamilton, the vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, who spoke at a conference of the National Council of Churches during the first Bush administration. The recent book by Hamilton and Tom Kean, the 9/11 Commission’s chair (Without Precedent) documents some of the roadblocks the Bush Administration placed in the way of the Commission at every point.