The 9/11 Servility Reflex

The Future of Freedom Foundation posted online today my Freedom Daily piece on the tidal wave of groveling that swept America after 9/11.

THE 9/11 SERVILITY REFLEX                 Freedom Daily, December 2008

by James Bovard 

Many citizens react to their rulers like little kids who recognize that a stranger is acting suspiciously and may be up to no good — but then decide whether to trust the man depending on the type of candy he pulls from his pockets. It is as if a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup trumps the beady eyes, sweaty forehead, and out-of-season trench coat. Likewise, adults may be wary about a politician — but if the guy promises free prescription drugs or protection and safety, many take the bait.

The naive response to politicians triumphed in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks. By the end of September 2001, almost two-thirds of Americans said they “trust the government in Washington to do what is right” either “just about always” or “most of the time.” Amazingly, the attacks even boosted Americans’ confidence that government would protect them against terrorists.

Many of the most respected and prominent media commentators saw 9/11 as the great sanctifier of government power. The New York Times’s R.W. Apple announced, “Government is back in style.” Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt proclaimed, “It’s time to declare a moratorium on government-bashing.” Los Angeles Times columnist Ronald Brownstein declared on September 19, “At the moment the first fireball seared the crystalline Manhattan sky last week, the entire impulse to distrust government that has become so central to U.S. politics seemed instantly anachronistic.” Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam effused,  “I think there is the potential that September 11 will turn out to be a turning point for civic America…. There could be some good coming from it if it causes us to become … more open-minded about the role of government.”

The 9/11 attacks produced many such summonses to elevate and glorify government. Yet it was U.S. government foreign policies that stirred up the hornets’ nest, breeding hatred that led to the attacks themselves. After two skyscrapers collapse and the Pentagon is in flames, the government is hailed for failing to protect Americans from the enemies its policies helped create. The 9/11 attackers were mass murderers who had no right to kill Americans. But to pretend that the attacks originated out of nowhere or out of hatred for freedom fraudulently exonerates the U.S. government.

The Bush administration did all it could to exploit 9/11 to promote presidential and governmental greatness. However, a 2002 Senate Intelligence Committee investigation found a vast array of federal-intelligence and law-enforcement failures prior to the attack. Because the Bush administration often stonewalled the Senate investigation, 9/11 widows and widowers pressured Congress to create an independent commission to investigate the attacks. Bush and Republican and Democratic congressional leaders stacked the commission with former congressmen, high-ranking government officials, and others entwined in the Washington establishment. Beverly Eckert, a 9/11 widow and activist, complained, “We wanted journalists, we wanted academics…. We did not want politicians.”

Philip Zelikow was appointed executive director of the commission. Zelikow, the co-editor of a Harvard study entitled Why People Don’t Trust Government, had worked closely with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and had co-authored a book with her in 1999. He had also been in charge of the Bush White House transition team on national security matters, had been involved in numerous transition briefings on the subject of terrorism, and was called as a witness before the commission. He recused himself from the commission hearing at which Rice testified. She was the one government official who perhaps most deserved perjury charges from her testimony, yet there was not a single word of criticism of her in the commission’s final report.

The 9/11 report

The 9/11 Commission became the Bush administration’s most famous faith-based initiative. The commission appeared far more concerned with restoring trust than in revealing truth. Bush and Cheney were allowed to testify without a transcript and not under oath. Americans never heard what they said. Instead, the commission offered a synopsis of their comments — as if it would have been impious to quote them directly. The White House was allowed to edit the final version of the commission’s report before it was publicly released.

The commission’s final 568-page report quickly became a bestseller, widely praised in part because it assiduously avoided judgment. There was no mention in the final report of how Bush and Cheney exploited falsehoods about 9/11 to lead the nation to war against Iraq. But, as Amherst professor Benjamin DeMott noted in Harper’s, the report was useless to historians because of a “seeming terror of bias.” He was especially appalled that the commission accepted without challenge Bush’s assertion that the August 6, 2001, President’s Daily Brief was “historical in nature.” DeMott observed, “There’s little mystery about why the Commission is tongue-tied. It can’t call a liar a liar.” He noted,  “The ideal readers of The 9/11 Commission Report are those who resemble the Commission itself in believing that a strong inclination to trust the word of highly placed others is evidence of personal moral distinction.”

The 9/11 Commission report provided a litany of government missteps while carefully avoiding raising any ire against the government. The failures often appeared to be more acts of God than failings by specific identifiable individuals. It strived for a balance of criticism between the current and prior administrations and between the two political parties. Thus, there was nothing to be done except count our blessings, celebrate our two-party system, and go whip the terrorists.

The 9/11 Commission also compiled ample evidence of government lying. Yet the commission effectively ignored or “rose above” all the falsehoods. There was no sense that the lies of the most powerful officials in the land posed any threat to America. Instead, there were “communication problems” between government agencies.

The mainstream press

The establishment aided the government by heaping derision on nonbelievers. The Washington Post, in an October 2004 article headlined “Conspiracy Theories Flourish on the Internet,” examined the problems of those who had not accepted the government’s latest version of 9/11. The Post noted sympathetically, “The ready and growing audience for conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has been particularly galling to those who worked on … the bipartisan panel known as the 9/11 commission.”

In Washington, “bipartisan” is the ultimate test of credibility — as if there is no chance that the two parties would ever conspire against the truth. Zelikow bemoaned, “We discussed the theories. When we wrote the report, we were also careful not to answer all the theories. It’s like playing Whack-A-Mole. You’re never going to whack them all. They satisfy a deep need in the people who create them.”

The Post turned to a Syracuse University political scientist, Michael Barkun, for psychological insights into nonbelievers:  “Conspiracy theories are … usually wrong, but they’re psychologically reassuring. Because what they say is that everything is connected, nothing happens by accident, and that there is some kind of order in the world, even if it’s produced by evil forces.”

The Post never ran any articles on the psychological maladies of people who insisted on believing the government’s statements on 9/11 despite the contradictions or who insisted on clinging to earlier government claims after the government revised the facts.

Zelikow, who was hired by Rice as her top counsel at the State Department a few months after the Post article appeared, commented, “The hardcore conspiracy theorists are totally committed…. That’s not our worry. Our worry is when things become infectious, as happened with the [John F. Kennedy] assassination. Then this stuff can be deeply corrosive to public understanding. You can get where the bacteria can sicken the larger body.”

(If the government was so forthright in its investigation of the Kennedy assassination, why were the Warren Commission records sealed for 75 years?)

Not a single one of the top 300 American newspapers or magazines archived on the LexisNexis database commented on Zelikow’s “bacteria” and “infectious” characterization of disbelief in the government’s version of 9/11. Yet his comment sounded as if the 9/11 Commission saw itself as America’s mental-health czar. Private doubts are the bacteria, and government assertions are presumably the disinfectant. As long as people believe what the government says, no one will get sick.

Some of the allegations regarding 9/11 — such as the charge that no plane had hit the Pentagon — were easily verifiable as false. New American, the magazine of the John Birch Society, ran an article harshly criticizing some of the 9/11 conspiracy theories, though carefully avoiding embracing the government. Yet, as with Waco, the Establishment invoked outlying loons in order to seek to undermine the credibility of all criticism of the government. But the existence of conspiracy nuts does not make the government honest.

The Washington Post never portrayed government officials who put out false statements about 9/11 in the same light as it did the private conspiracy buffs. Despite the fact that private citizens have no power over other Americans and that they have no authority to coerce them or drag them into an unnecessary war, their false statements are presented as a greater threat than those of government officials. The obsession with private lies is misplaced, when the real danger is the government lie — a lie embraced and disseminated by a subservient media, vested with all the prestige and aura of the state, and protected by an iron curtain of government secrecy. And regardless of how many times the government changes the official story, people who continue to distrust the government are delirious.

The government’s appearing to be a necessary evil does not oblige people to trust it. We face a choice of trusting government or trusting freedom — trusting overlords who have lied and abused their power or trusting individuals to make the most of their own lives.

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy [Palgrave, 2006] as well as The Bush Betrayal [Palgrave, 2004], Lost Rights [St. Martin’s Press, 1994] and Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave, September 2003).


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19 Responses to The 9/11 Servility Reflex

  1. alpowolf March 24, 2008 at 6:56 pm #

    While I don’t subscribe to any of the various alternative theories on 9/11, that is only because they haven’t convinced me yet. I don’t dismiss them out of hand just because they didn’t emanate from the Dear Leader’s posterior.

    One needn’t be a conspriracy theorist to believe that the government doesn’t know everything that happened and didn’t tell all it did know.

  2. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit March 25, 2008 at 9:53 am #

    Trench coats are *never* out of season!

    Since your email still hates me, let me publically ask that you check out The Casey Lartigue Show!, at, a blog I get to guest host, and, if deemed worthy, please add same to your blogroll.

  3. Dirk W. Sabin March 25, 2008 at 10:30 am #

    In this low rent remake of the Treasure of the Sierra Madre entitled “Sh**fest on the Potomoc”, we are treated to that stirring line by some Banditos from the Office o the Executive “Conspiracy?… , we don’t need no stinken conspiracy”.

    Who needs conspiracy with this public? Nah, this public likes the zippy little frisson of passive aggressiveness that lends this era all the charms of a suicide ward for patients that didn’t actually want to kill themselves, they just wanted to be noticed.

    Newspapers , taking their cue from television have become digests of the Quotidian, pouring forth a steady stream of conventional ..well…in a manner of speaking, wisdom. No wonder the populace is a tad skittish and wondering if anybody is looking farther down the road than their nose….they aint.

    Nice one here Mr. Bovard. But , to be indelicate here, it’s not very nice of you to keep illustrating the fact that we are surrounded by pettifogging reprobates who cannot muster the sense God gave a Bloodsucking Leach.

    Maybe you need to go for a stroll through those Cherry Blossoms soon to spout, ponder the glory and wonder of the monuments surrounding you and then go drink yourself into a serious haze pondering how we’ve done the equivalent of appointing Lizzie Borden to run the Family Services Administration.

  4. Marc March 25, 2008 at 1:17 pm #

    If questioning government lies “can sicken the larger body” then I’ve apparently been a Typhoid Mary for most of my life.

  5. Dave "knowbuddhau" Parker March 25, 2008 at 1:29 pm #

    OMG! Sir, you have blown my mind. This is exactly what I’ve been on about for a while, right down to the cast of characters. Thanks for writing it.

    Did you see Zelikow on Democracy Now! 07 Feb 08?

    He tries to cast a spell of unknowing over the obvious fact that he used evidence manufactured to order by torture. When Center for Constitutional Rights President Michael Ratner adds it up, Zelikow interrupts to say, “He doesn’t know that, we don’t know that, NO 1 knows that” (emph. added).

    Who does he think he is, the Buddha? Of course we can add 2 + 2 and get 4! Only authoritarian pinheads can’t think for themselves.

    Is this what you mean by the 9/11 servility reflex: do as you’re told, and not only will you not be tortured, NO 1 you know will be tortured. But if you even so much as think about stepping out of line, we got a suit tailored for you at Gitmo.

    As a Zen poet, grad student of research psychology, and devoted student of comparative mythology, I’ve come up with a name for this process: myth-jacking.

    A myth is not a lie, it’s a metaphor; a metaphor is a vessel for going from ignorance to enlightenment; thus, to take captive an entire nation all at once, by applying Goering’s infamous formula (declare an attack and denounce the pacifists) you can myth-jack them to Hell, and then stick them with the bill.

    [(Absolute Supremacy) //NO 1’s Land// (Absolute Subjugation)]

    Can’t you just see every Wall of Denial ever built erupting from NO 1’s Land? Do you see the prison bars and razor wire? Do you see the paraphernalia of public isolation in which Jose Padilla was paraded in order to put the FEAR of Gitmo in us? Do you now see where the “cracks in the system” come from?

    We put them there with our assumption of the inviolability of the Law of the Excluded Middle. It’s the only law BushRoveCo ever obeys.

    beloved /UNION/ Beloved

    This is a more perfect Union. In this cosmos, empathy and compassion are easily seen as the proper bases of human social intercourse, not antipathy and perpetual war.

    I’m thrilled to have read you piece today. Can you tell? 😀

  6. Dave "knowbuddhau" Parker March 25, 2008 at 9:32 pm #

    Dear Sir, I’m sorry, but I must second the comment about your email. I hope you’re accustomed to this.

    Here’s what I alluded to earlier.

    Ratner expresses his surprise to hear Zelikow say we can’t assume evidence from the interrogations was torture.

    Ratner: “Can I say it 100% ? No.”

    He goes on to utterly demolish Zelikow’s story, demonstrating that anyone who can do 1st grade math can add this up. Oh, and need to be able to do something Zelikow and other authoritarian royal pains in the ass can’t do: think for yourself.

    | [ 2 (Report Relies on Interrogations of KSM et al.)]
    |+[2 (Hayden says, yes, we tortured those very people by waterboarding.)]
    | 4!

    Ratner: “You get 4.”
    Zelikow: “[Ratner] doesn’t know that, we don’t know that, no one knows that.”

    This is logical positivism at its worst. Right now, you must overlook these very spaces in order to continue reading these very words. But, by Xeno’s paradox, even “empty” spaces could become impassable. So how does this “reading” thing even work?

    By intuition! Look carefully: there are not “spaces:” there is only the one background, out of which these squiggles seem to arise ex nihilo.

    O sister my Sister! O brother my Brother!

    We find our common ground in the spaces “in between.”

  7. Jim March 25, 2008 at 9:50 pm #

    Dirk – I like your idea about combining cherry blossoms and booze, but I might switch the sequence.

    Seen one cherry blossom, seen ’em all.

    But the same is not true for great beer.

  8. Jim March 25, 2008 at 9:56 pm #

    Dave Parker – thanks for the info on Zelikow.

    The dude has been a rascal going back at least a decade. And that is aside from his association with the University of Virginia.

    I don’t know how much of a role inciting fear of Gitmo has played in the government’s tactics. I have heard a number of folks speak of this as a reason to not speak up or complain. But I don’t know that it is on the radar of the average American.

  9. Jim March 25, 2008 at 10:02 pm #

    Marc – great quip on Typhoid Mary.

    I wish more people were intellectually infected like that.

  10. Ryan March 26, 2008 at 12:33 am #

    “Conspiracy theorist”– By today’s usage is nothing but a throwaway term by govt. shills and their media allies who can’t come up with a belivable argument against those who are capable of using logic, reason and critical thinking when questioning their nonsense.

  11. Mace Price March 26, 2008 at 2:36 am #

    …We’ll have more to say about this fuckin’ Nut Roll Phillip Zelikow tomorrow…For now? Trust me: He’s started something in US Occupied Iraq that he can’t finish. Rather like Mikey Mouse did in the 1939 Disney Cartoon “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” This with the Original Sorcerer being Don Guantanamo Rumsfeld…i.e. better an Old Demon you know, than an intensely neurotic one that one that you do not.

  12. Mace Price March 26, 2008 at 2:40 am #

    …Don’t you guys fall for his shit!…He’s a MASTER Doublethinker; and anyone so inclined is both nuts and dangerous.

  13. Original Steve March 26, 2008 at 2:44 pm #

    I personally know very few people who have even heard of Padilla, but thats even scarier than his being used for intimidation.

  14. bill jones March 27, 2008 at 9:56 am #

    “two skyscrapers fell” only two?

  15. Dave "knowbuddhau" Parker March 27, 2008 at 10:30 am #

    Q: What’s a Zen poet & Kucinich supporter doing hanging out with the likes of supporters of McCain and Paul and “worse?”

    A: Being aware of becoming America!


    I come to this out of a background of studying psychology as a natural science. I’ve been studying the role of our psychophysiology in empathically-mediated altruism since the late 80s.

    I’ve seen pictures of kittens dressed up in the same paraphernalia (sans orange jumpsuit) as was Jose Padilla. The objective of it all is CELLF-imprisonment, the acceptance of a mere mechanical receptacle in place of these very *cisterna mystica.*

    Are we human BEINGS, or mere machines? In what cosmos are we presently enacting our insane political theater?

    I pick on the APA because I’m an American student of psychology (I used to be an AP Society member, the one more for natural scientists than for therapists), but it’s the mechanization of Life in general that’s the real target of my ire.

    Both the APA and the APS believe in a mechanical cosmos. Both base themselves on an impossibility: the Newtonian point particle. Doing so implodes our shares of Psyche into black holes–and misconceived ones at that!

    That wasn’t legit back at the founding of modern psychology; it still isn’t legit. Our psychology is unfounded.

    Our psychology conceives of the cosmos as a political machine: one in which absolutely separate parts are forced into order from the outside by a Creator/God/King/Man among men. In this cosmos, TORTURE IS THE ORDER OF THE DAY.

    We’re dealing with authoritarian pinheads who can’t think for themselves. I believe the medical profession to be the controlling authority to which BushRoveCo is listening when it demands the right to torture. They listen to the doctors and psychiatrists and psychotherapists oh my! and so feel relieved of responsibility for inhuman cruelty against our neighbors. For example, what is a polygraph but an electromechanical Iron Maiden?

    Torture by isolation, the specific type practiced at Gitmo and elsewhere; torture by abuse of religion, which James Yee has said has become a weapon to break human spirits; torture by ever-present surveillance, by the implicit threat of Gitmo in the background; for psychologists, it’s what we do.

    Witness the treatment of climatologist Jim Hansen: his science was shaped to fit the policy, just as the intelligence was “fixed around” the policy of war with Iraq. Same thing goes on with psychology.

    I propose a new fundamental unit for a living, breathing, organic psychology: the *cisterna mystica.*

    The fundamental property of a mystic vessel is {self-filling/self-emptying}, aka kenosis. Our brains, our lungs, our hearts: all are kenotic vessels.

    Neuronal models of stimuli are the {self-filling/self-emptying} vessels of Mind: into which experience is pouring; from which awareness is arising; and out of which we are {Mater & Pater flowing in Water}.

    So even while we are here, now, being eternity; we are yet aware of becoming time- and space-embedded. This is a mystery to behold, within which we stand in awe.

    Shall we trade our inalienable birthright: Divinely Being Eternally Aware of Becoming enmeshed in space and time; for reduction to mere mechanical receptacles of whatever our dear herdsmen decide to pump us with?

    Shall we place our faith in the likes of Zelikow and Rice and Cheney and Rove? Or in our own experience?

  16. Mace Price March 27, 2008 at 11:18 pm #

    …In our own experience, and mine’s been singularly bad. The only consolation is that a bad life makes for a more than prescient man. Past that? I’d give it up and go back to the Car Wash for a night with Pamela Anderson

  17. Jim March 28, 2008 at 3:47 pm #

    Lawhobbit’s new blog looks like a fine piece of work — his humor and insights shine through.

  18. Tory May 10, 2008 at 4:32 am #

    Bush ran over the Constitution like it were the Communist Manifesto. He proved the unbelievable – that a President could be so dumb so crooked with so many obvious lies and create so much destruction. We are ruled by Hitler reincarnate. The entire country got down on it’s knees (to get the enemy the govt created).

    Bush demonstrated that any person could be President.

    Americans are paying for their servility and ignorance because the newsmedia respects political correctness and ignores Constitutionalism.

    After 9/11 any person opposing war would be attacked; but the time is coming when a person who defends war will be attacked.

    The smart Americans are the ones who know enough to avoid military service. Usually those who refuse are the least servile. Almost nothing is gained by enlisting (unless it’s done only for employment.) Joining the military exacerbates our problems because it allows our govt to engage in dysfunctional activity (empire building.) Enlisting is unpatriotic and counterproductive. But the only way to avoid being stygmatized is to know our history and founding principles, and to be able to understand that America will always do exactly the opposite of what it should do.


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