This interview was conducted by Tom Graham for American Buddhist Net News by email correspondence with Graeme MacQueen between 09/14/06-11/17/06.
Graeme MacQueen is a member of the Religious Studies Department at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, where he is currently Associate Professor. His academic specialization is Buddhist Studies, in which he received his doctorate from Harvard University.
In 1989 Graeme helped found McMaster’s Centre for Peace Studies, of which he became director from 1989 until 1996. He was also a founder and co?director of the Centre’s War and Health programme committee, which has carried out research and activities on behalf of victims of war in several zones of armed conflict (including Sri Lanka) and is currently carrying out the project “Media and Peace Education in Afghanistan” with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency. He remains committed to developing the fruitful connections between health and peace, on the one hand, and spirituality and peace, on the other hand.
Graeme has been a social activist for years. He was a member of the Alliance for Nonviolent Action and he has at various times chaired the Hamilton Disarmament Coalition, the Board of Directors of Peace Magazine, and the National Coordinating Committee of Peace Brigades International (Canada).
ABN: I believe, as you do, that we already possess very strong evidence indicating that 9/11 was an inside job, but let’s pull back from that for a moment. What do you think is the best way to get people to start looking at the evidence and begin to see other explanations for the events of 9/11? From the point of view of Buddhist practice—or any religious or ethical practice—what do you think is the best way to approach people who still believe the official version of the events of that day? I am sure that you are well-aware that it can be profoundly unsettling for most people simply to doubt the official story, let alone suspect that elements within the US government were behind the attacks. What is the best way to compassionately show these people that the official story is very weak and that it is highly probable that there is another explanation for the 9/11 attack?
GM: I suppose I’d give the same advice that I’d give with respect to any of the unsettling news we feel we have to share with others. Take climate change. Maybe we ourselves were in denial about it for years. Maybe we just had as much suffering in our lives as we could cope with already—in our families, in our work life, in our friendships and in the depths of our own selves: why would we want to take a peek into this particular closet and see if there’s a monster there? We just close the door and try not to think about it, using all sorts of rationalizations. But one day we looked, and there it was.
So, having learned about climate change (or loss of biodiversity or the peaking of oil extraction, or the possibility of nuclear war or…the dynamics of 9/11) we run around telling others, and we’re angry and upset when they resist our call to action. We’re baffled when they don’t find our evidence convincing or when they even start calling us names. There’s a great temptation to respond by calling them names in return. And the whole thing unfolds with the typical dynamics of conflict: mutual demonization; each of the conflicting groups having its code words and its leaders and heroes; each lost in the beauty of its own arguments.
So, I’d say, let’s start with humility and patience. Even if we just promised to go a month without name-calling, the air would become more breathable. The internet, in particular, doesn’t always encourage respectful debate (there’s an understatement) and I think it takes conscious effort to find a different way to speak.
I’d like to see the Buddhist community make a contribution here. Speaking without subservience to power but with respect and patience in the giving of bad news. After all, this is a community with lots of practice, historically. (“Hi, I’m hear to give you some news. All things are impermanent, decay and death are inevitable, and suffering pervades the universe…”)
There is good news too, of course, but it comes with a bitter pill that cannot be avoided.
The next thing I think we have to do is to focus the dialogue on the mutual discovery of truth, not on ideology or loyalty. We can say: “I may be wrong here, but the evidence I’ve looked at so far suggests to me that…” Or, “I haven’t got it all figured out, but I’m really disturbed by the following facts…”
We have to allow people to have their own position. Let me give the Noam Chomsky example. Noam Chomsky is someone who has contributed a great deal to movements for social change. He’s also someone I know and like. If he doesn’t agree that 9/11 was an inside job, so what? I don’t think we have to call him a “left gatekeeper.” I think we just say: he disagrees, that’s fine. It would be great to have him with us on this one, but we don’t, at least for now. It’s ok. We’ll be ok without him.
ABN: Why do you think it is taking so long for people like Chomsky, or those in the mainstream TV and print media, to really focus on the evidence surrounding 9/11? I read many of their “conspiracy theory” rebuttals, and honestly, find a good many of them almost embarrassing—they are filled with ad hominem attacks, poor understanding of the issues, and so on. If some 40% of the American people, and even more world-wide, can see and understand the anomalies and contradictions within the official story, why is the US mainstream media taking so long to look seriously at this issue?
GM: Let’s start with the mainstream media. Yes, I agree, the rebuttals in the mainstream media are generally embarrassing. You look at them, blush, and turn away. They show a great unwillingness to examine arguments and evidence. I think we could easily classify the main rebuttals according to level. First and most common level: general name-calling. (“According to the tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy buffs and their hate-filled, revisionist fans in blogistan…” By the way, although I’m making up these quotations, they aren’t much of an exaggeration). Second level: arguments from authority. (“Several hundred acknowledged experts with doctorates in engineering and physics from ivy league institutions and with tens of thousands of peer-reviewed articles to their credit, after studying millions of pages of written evidence and analyzing thousands of hours of video footage, concluded that there is no evidence of an “inside job” and announced definitively that…) Third level: ad hominem attacks on particularly significant members of the 9/11 truth movement. (“Professor Snodgrass, well known on his campus for his interest in UFOs and for his appreciation of a short skirt…”). Only when you get to the fairly uncommon levels four and beyond do you get any actual engagement with evidence and argument, and it’s usually peppered with half-truths, red herrings, non sequiturs and straw men.
9/11 as product of “Islamo-fascism” is a crucial pillar of the Global War on Terror and therefore of the newest wave of Western imperialism, which seeks to corner the earth’s rapidly disappearing oil and natural gas. This wave of imperialism grows out of early waves but is, arguably, the most dangerous in human history, because as a species we’re being faced with increasingly urgent choices. Are we going to build on the most fruitful institutions of the post-war period—civil society organizations (like the many groups in the peace and environmental movements) and intergovernmental organizations (like the UN) —or are we going to fall back on one of the old models—the model of warring states in ad hoc alliances or the model of the imperial state? If we choose the former options we may increase both our overall level of social intelligence and our ability to act cooperatively as a species to face our terrible problems, whereas if we go with warring states or imperialism we are back to ancient, out-moded, brutal ways of solving problems, which will be a disaster for human beings, who are currently living on phantom carrying capacity, and a disaster for other living beings, whose place on the planet we continue to deny but whose “revenge” (I don’t mean conscious revenge, of course) may be beyond anything we can imagine.
I’m saying all this to remind us of why the issue of 9/11 is so important. It’s not just a huge crime, it’s a part of much huger crime that is gradually unfolding.
When we consider this, we will be less surprised by the treatment of the issue in the mainstream media. The mainstream media in the West are, by and large, committed to “business as usual” —unsustainable growth of economies, governments that keep their populations in thrall to suicidal myths (such as the myth of human exceptionalism and the myth of limitless growth), and a war system that directly consumes over $1000 billion dollars (US) per year and that directly blocks the emergence of an alternative, creative world order. These mainstream media are tightly linked to, and dependent on, the very institutions (corporations and governments) that have proven themselves incapable of coming up with ideas and actions appropriate to our circumstances. They will not leap to uncover the scandal of 9/11 and the collapse of GWOT and of new-wave imperialism.
A journalist in the mainstream media who came out solidly in favour of the “inside job” theory would probably not get their piece published, or, if it were published, would lose professional credibility, and perhaps job and career. The situation in academia is a bit better but still quite gloomy.
I think we have to go directly to the people. Talks, books, the internet. And, occasionally, TV talk shows, where we will initially be brought on as attention-grabbing nuts but where we may actually make some headway. (TV feeds off display, conflict and ridicule, and it is sometimes possible to turn this to advantage).
So much for the mainstream media, but what about leading dissidents? Why have some of them been reluctant to look at the “inside job” theories? I think that, once again, the importance of 9/11 is at the heart of the issue. I think many of these dissidents sincerely believe that the “9/11 truth movement” (not really a social movement in the classic sense but certainly an increasingly important factor in public opinion) is not only a distraction from the crucial work of political resistance but, in so far as it threatens the credibility of genuine political work, is actually very dangerous. Remember that some of these dissidents (Chomsky is an example) have spent much of their adult lives being accused (by the right, the center, and some parts of the political left) of being “conspiracy theorists.” They’re not going to put at risk the credibility they’ve gained over the years, and the credibility of the movements they’re working for, until they’re convinced the case is solid. They’re jittery; they’ve got a lot to lose. As for their refusal to look seriously at the evidence, I’m not going to defend that. I’m also not going to say we shouldn’t debate them, but I believe we should keep the debate respectful. I think we should give them some space. I’m even tempted to say: let them be, let’s just concentrate on doing our job well. If we do it well enough, they’ll join us.
We have to remember that there is a lot of nonsense out there on the internet that’s linked to the 9/11 truth movement, and it’s not hard to see why someone who has a quick peek on the internet might be less than impressed. So we have to do some self-criticism and raise the standards of our work.
ABN: What do you think is the right thing for Buddhists to do with the 9/11 information? For the moment, let’s assume that a Buddhist practitioner has come to believe as we do that the official story about 9/11 simply cannot be true as stated. What should this person do with this belief? As you know, a fair number of Buddhists believe that everything that happens is due to karma and that the whole world is delusion, so it is best for the individual to ignore politics and/or the larger social order all together. Can you speak about this a bit?
GM: Let’s start with the question about Buddhists and Buddhism. I think I’d better avoid getting into disputes about Buddhist doctrine, but I can’t resist a couple of comments. First, I think the early Buddhist nikayas are pretty clear that as far as the Buddha was concerned (and let’s not get into whether this is the historical Buddha or the textual Buddha) it isn’t true that everything that happens is because of karma. Some things are the result of karma and some aren’t. Some things have other causes. The awareness of this complexity helps us avoid a claustrophobic universe where karma seems to rule everything and where (I think this is really dangerous) everyone seems to get what they deserve. Second, the idea of the world as a delusion is also an oversimplification. Even in the texts that stress the illusory nature of the world most powerfully, which I’d say are the Perfection of Wisdom texts within Mahayana, it’s said clearly that the bodhisattva is one who recognizes this illusory nature but who does not abandon living beings. The key mystery, says these texts, and the defining character of the bodhisattva, is the ability to hold both of these apparently contradictory positions at the same time. The bodhisattva, says the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, sees all beings as if they are on the way to a slaughter. He or she is agitated and filled with compassion for them.
So the question becomes: How do we manifest this compassion for living beings right here, right now?
I don’t believe in folding Buddhist spirituality into any neat ideological package. The ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries will undergo transformation in the next period of world history, as we face terrific ecological challenges. What’s necessary at this moment is to get back to the moral and spiritual bases of all ideologies. The idea systems will change, but the basic moral and spiritual insights have greater durability. We revise them too, but more slowly and with great care and respect. When I say we need to get back to moral and spiritual bases I do not mean we need to reiterate old religions in unchanged forms. I reject any form of “fundamentalism,” any position that implies that insights and revelations came to humanity once in the past and that the best we can do for the rest of history is to reiterate these. I believe that as we face our own unique challenges, so do we, here and now, receive our own insights and revelations.
I am what Sulak Sivaraksa calls a “small b buddhist.” I have been profoundly influenced and shaped by Buddhism but I am not a “card-carrying” Buddhist and I am not interested in being bound by the authority of scripture or dogma. I am aware that many will call this a typical modernist approach to religion, but I don’t actually agree. The ancient world had its free thinkers too.
I believe we must be careful never to destroy the creativity of the religious impulse. We don’t just have the right to be creative; we have the duty.
I’ve also been deeply influenced by Socially Engaged Buddhism, which insists that the world-denying and world-transcending impulses of the tradition (which are genuine; they’re certainly a major part of Buddhism) are not the only valid impulses in the tradition. Engaged Buddhism seeks to honor the Buddhist tradition while helping it creatively and compassionately take on the challenges of our world.
When it comes to 9/11, I think it can be approached like any other issue. First, we ask what’s true. Surely anyone studying Buddhism, even at the first moment of its birth in ancient India, must be struck by the high value it puts on truth? It values truth more highly than faith; it says that people have a duty to ask questions, to look for evidence, to reason. Buddhism was not alone in these tendencies. It was one of those schools of thought and practice in the Axial Period of world history—India had these schools, and so did Greece and China and several other regions—where authority and tradition were questioned. In many ways, early Buddhism was radically empiricist. So, that’s how I’d start. And, of course, I’d want Buddhists to work closely with people of good will in all other religious traditions.
After insisting on the importance of the truth, I’d try to encourage a wider political and ecological analysis. As I’ve said before, I don’t believe the events of 9/11 are significant simply because they constitute a one-time crime, but because they have helped promote a radically destructive approach to the world (anthropocentric “growth” combined with militarism and imperialism) at a moment in history when this is most dangerous, when we most need to develop wisdom and the ability to work together cooperatively as a species. Some Buddhists avoid political and ecological analysis, but if we do this we disempower ourselves.
Then I’d say, what does a compassionate person do with this knowledge? I’m not sure I have any special insights here. We participate in the movement for awareness and change. We carry out our own research where we’re equipped to do it; where we aren’t equipped to do it we acquaint ourselves with the research others have carried out. We make information available to others. We make reasonable and moderate demands, such as the demand for a new and genuinely autonomous enquiry and the demand for the release of secret information. We use whatever networks we have. We encourage study groups, discussion groups.
We are respectful of others and their opinions, but we speak up. We have to be strong, brave and insistent.
ABN : Serious contemplation of 9/11 usually results in one of the three following interpretations of that day’s events: 1) The official story is basically true—19 hijackers attacked the US and caught everyone by surprise. 2) Some people within the US gov’t knew that the attack was going to happen, but did nothing to stop it, and may even have done some things to help it. This is often called the “let it happen on purpose” (LIHOP) interpretation. 3) A rogue group within the US gov’t pretty much did the whole thing themselves—they blew up the buildings, got the air force to stand down, destroyed evidence, and got the 9/11 Commission to basically cover-up their crime. This interpretation is often called MIHOP or “made it happen on purpose.” I realize that entire books have been written on each one of these interpretations, but could you please briefly explain which of them you find most plausible? And could you briefly explain why?
GM : I’ve moved through these three stages, as I think many people have. For some time I assumed the first option (official story) was probably true, although I was not impressed by the evidence for it and was aware of anomalies; then I moved fairly quickly to think LIHOP was probably closer to the truth. It’s only in the past year that I’ve decided MIHOP fits the facts as we know them best.
I’ve given reasons for this earlier in my discussion of the fall of the 3 WTC buildings. Controlled demolition can’t be explained, in my opinion, by either of the first two options. It is inherently MIHOP. Someone with the ability to move freely inside highly secure buildings over a substantial period of time must have prepared these charges. If someone has a convincing alternative explanation—one which allows controlled demolition to be carried out by al-Qaeda or a similar group without very serious inside help—I’ll be happy to consider it, but I haven’t seen one yet.
There is evidence of a great deal of coordination in the events of 9/11—the absence of air defence, the numerous simulations taking place on the day, and so on. Again, this can’t be explained by outside agents, in my view. Someone inside was pretty firmly in control.
As to who, specifically, was in charge, I haven’t a clue. We may speak of a “rogue group” within the US government, but I don’t really know what this means. Were they “rogue” or were they mainstream, blue-blooded prep school insiders with flawless credentials? I don’t know. Were they a long-lived faction firmly embedded in government and determined to prevent American plutocracy from becoming democracy, as Webster Tarpley maintains? I don’t know. I do not have any expert knowledge of US government such as would qualify me to make guesses about this.
I did come to gloomy conclusions during the early 1980s as I studied the imperial systems then in place in the world, especially those of the US and Soviet Union. I concluded at that time that there were no moral barriers at all that the people in charge of these empires would not transgress. Massacres, killing and even torture of children…..you name it, it was done.
I visited women in the women’s prison in San Salvador in the late 1980s and they described their torture to me. (“They blindfolded me. They tied something…I think it was nylon around my breasts. I could feel the blood, I thought they had cut them off. I wanted to die. And then they hung me by my breasts.”) These women knew who had trained many of the military commanders in charge and they knew who was propping up the government. The School of the Americas…Washington. This is when I lost my political and moral innocence.
A couple of years ago a few of us published an article (in the journal, Medicine, Conflict and Survival) showing how the US government knowingly destroyed, and kept in a state of ruin for years, the Iraqi water and sewage system, despite their knowledge that this would result in epidemics. As the deaths of Iraqi children were documented, and as they mounted into the hundreds of thousands, these controls were kept in place. It’s simply wrong to say this was not known—it was known from an early stage.
If these people were capable of killing about 500,000 Iraqi children in cold blood, why should we be surprised to find they would kill 3000 Americans? There’s no reason to be surprised.
What is surprising is why we let these people keep doing this. What are we thinking?
ABN : Graeme, what do you think is the mind-set of the perpetrators of 9/11? Can you imagine what their ethics or morality might be? How do you think they see themselves and what they are doing? Do you think that it is helpful to think about them like this?
GM : I have no special knowledge of these things so I have to guess at motives like everyone else. My guess is that some of the perpetrators are working for what they see as a higher purpose and some are just “doing their jobs.”
The higher purpose is likely patriotism—that’s probably been the most deadly of higher purposes in the last couple of hundred years. A person feels enveloped in the collectivity. For example: “I’m not doing this for myself, I’m doing it for the nation, for America. The American people are too dim to realize they’re squandering the biggest and maybe the last opportunity for this nation. They’re going to let other peoples—the Chinese, the Russians….the Arabs—take what should belong to America. The oil, the military leadership, the prestige. Pretty soon we’ll be a second rate nation that can’t even run cars let alone tanks. Our freedom, our glory, it’ll all be at risk. It’s sad but true that we have to shock the American people into action. We have to stir them up a bit. It’s too bad, but sometimes you have to do it. The tree of Liberty, the blood of martyrs, all that…”
Or possibly the higher purpose is religious. In the recent Left Behind series (a dozen or so novels about the Rapture and the End Times) there’s a Tribulation Force that has to hunker down and be ready to take action in the end times. There’s a fascination with planes and technology in the series; there’s a tolerance of violence—in fact, God is very violent here. (One reviewer summed up the series by saying, “God so loved the world that He sent World War III.” ) The antichrist is the Secretary-General of the UN in these novels. I find this literature very unsavoury, frankly.
It worries me that there are apparently (I haven’t researched this myself) fundamentalist Christian connections to Florida flight schools where some of the “Arab hijackers” received training….
I’m not making accusations here, I’m just speculating.
As for the others, the ones who are just “doing their jobs:” in an operation of this complexity there would probably be a lot of these sorts. They’re told what to do and that it’s important they keep quiet about it. There’s a “need to know” regime in place so that most people don’t know very much—they see the bit they have to do but they don’t see the complete picture. Maybe they’re told it’s a simulation…
The thing that bothers me most is the sense of privilege or entitlement that the senior people in this kind of operation must have. They must really have contempt for the rest of us. I’m not sure how you successfully reach someone who’s encased in this entitlement. It’s the same entitlement that allows people to invade other nations, putting the lives and welfare of millions of people at risk. They just think they know best, I guess. “It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.”
I have no solutions to the problem of how we reach such people and convince them to come clean. They’re in deep now, and it’s going to be very costly to confess.
ABN : I imagine that at least some of the “senior people” you have referred to would resort to an argument such as this: if we do nothing now, there is a very high probability that within a few centuries or less, some group will possess the means and the will to annihilate our descendants and others, and therefore, we must prevent all groups or nations in the world from ever acquiring those means. This argument is similar to what you have just said, but not exactly the same. The emphasis here is on preventing annihilation at the hands of some group in the near or distant future. A “senior person” might say that this argument is perfectly decent and based on normal ethics as his group is seeking world-domination only in order to prevent the annihilation of their descendants and others. To do this, they would claim that killing a few thousand or even millions of people now is entirely justified as it will prevent even worse killing in the future. To counter the argument that there is only a small likelihood that a group bent of annihilating them would ever arise, these same “senior people” might respond by saying simply, “Well, we have arisen, and we can well imagine a group that is even worse than us.” Or they might say, “Nonsense, the history of the world is filled with groups like that. You are thinking like an ordinary person along the lines of ordinary social morality, while we are thinking as leaders of a great nation who are forced to think in different terms. We may look like monsters to you, but actually we are good people trying to steer the entire world toward its next stage of development during which there will be more peace and prosperity than ever before.”
Needless to say, I do not accept this argument and would never condone any policy that arose from it, but it does contain a certain logic and can be seen as persuasive from some angles. Most of us accept a dilute form of this argument when we agree that a psychotic person should not be allowed to own firearms or that drunks should be prevented from driving automobiles. I wonder if you have any thoughts about how an argument of this type can be defeated in philosophical or ethical terms. I believe that this question is interesting in and of itself, but I am also somewhat fearful that an argument of this type may begin to arise in the minds of ordinary American citizens.
GM : Not sure I quite understand the question, so let me try to unpack it. Somebody says: if I don’t take action now, kill a few thousand people, some really bad types may get hold of technology of annihilation, and eventually they’ll kill even more people than I’ve killed—especially my blood descendants, for whom I have a special liking. Therefore….
If this is the scenario, then, yes, I can see some people using it to justify all sorts of violent action. This is one of the arguments (one of 27, I believe, if I remember the research correctly) that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq and that is currently being used to drum up support for an invasion of Iran. I suppose you are connecting this to 9/11 by saying that 9/11 may have been staged by people who felt Americans weren’t sufficiently worried about these possibilities so they had to have a little fire lighted under them?
But we have been living with these possibilities since 1945; they are part and parcel of the nuclear age. And, conceivably, other sorts of WMD, especially biological, may have as much destructive potential as nuclear weapons (not there yet but easily conceivable).
It’s clear there are people who think this way, but we have to argue against this way of thinking, and it’s not merely a moral argument. There are, after all, only two genuine solutions to this dilemma that I’m aware of. (1) international agreements, international law, international enforcement agencies. This is a far better route in the long run that an imperial solution. It’s like the difference between having your city policed by a good police service accountable to law and the courts and letting your city be the scene of gang warfare, with the occasional godfather who’s more powerful than all the rest of them and can act as an “enforcer.” There’s no point complaining about the state of international law, courts and the like: have a look at how much we spend on them compared to the $1000 billion/year on national militaries. Have a look at how resolutely the Bush administration (and other countries, but they’re not as powerful) has tried to squash the Geneva Conventions, the Security Council, the International Criminal Court, etc. How can we complain about their weakness when we continually allow them to be weakened? (2) energy depletion. It’s possible that in the next hundred years or so the total amount of energy available to human beings will have declined so much…air forces in decline, nuclear weapons rusting in their silos, tanks nothing but aging hulks useless without fuel…that we may reach our solution this way. It may simply not be possible to annihilate whole continents anymore. It may be that mass, sudden genocide will have been a brief possibility in the age of cheap energy…and perhaps we’ll pass out of this age without having experienced the worst.
Either way, we can understand but we can’t accept the arguments about unilateral and imperialist solutions.
By the way, if you read Rebuilding America’s Defenses, the famous report of the Project for the New American Century, you won’t find that these elites (many of whom have had great power in the Bush administration) are worried about being annihilated by Iraq, Iran, and the like. They say quite clearly that they’re worried about these countries acquiring WMD because then they would be able to DETER the U.S. from doing whatever it likes to them. In other words, we don’t want countries to get these weapons because then we might not be able to mess with them, steal their oil, etc. These guys are pretty frank about all this.
ABN : You mentioned to me once that you are planning to contact some of the NYC fire fighters whose recorded testimonies you used in you article [link]. Since that time, I have listened to several of them speak in public and have heard from reasonably credible sources that some 70% of the NYC fire and police departments believe that the official story about the Towers’ collapse is false. Have you contacted any of the fire fighters yet? Do you still plan to go ahead with this part of your research? Since many of those fire fighters are now in poor health due to the toxic air at ground zero, it would seem that this issue is more urgent than ever. Can you speak about these questions and about what you may know about the attitudes of the NYC fire and police departments?
GM : I sent my article to two men—I won’t mention their names without their permission. One is in a position of responsibility in a firefighters’ union; one is editor of a journal concerned with firefighting. I received no reply at all from the first. The second began entering into a very humane conversation with me: essentially, he said he would probably disagree with my analysis but he accepted that I meant well and he would read my paper and get back to me. Never heard from him again. So, at the moment I’m not in any dialogue with the firefighters, and that is very sad because my research is meant to honour them, honour their perception and their witness, and help to give them a voice. If any of the readers of this interview can help put me in touch with some of them, I’d appreciate that. This is a group that sacrificed many lives and, as you’ve pointed out, is still sacrificing lives for their role in 9/11. It’s crucial that they be heard.
ABN : Do you think that the recent election results in the US will have any effect on your study or on the 9/11 truth movement in general? Does the movement, in your view, have sufficient energy to force the US Congress to establish an independent investigation of 9/11?
GM : Hey, I’m a Canadian and I’m no expert on the US political and cultural system! I lived in the US for three years, but I can’t pretend that I understand what’s going on there now.
My sense from up here is that Congress is not ready to establish an independent investigation of 9/11. I haven’t heard many brave statements by Democrats. But I suppose if the neo-conservative house of cards really collapses anything will be possible.
It would be a good start if Mr. Rumsfeld were to decide that he cannot travel outside the US without fear of being nabbed for war crimes. This would be a sign that the mighty are beginning to fall. Then, gradually, a space for creating a proper investigation into 9/11 and other major crimes might open. This is not a matter of revenge, it’s a matter of accountability. The international legal system is part of the answer to the war system. We must rehabilitate and strengthen it before it is irreparably damaged.
ABN : Here are a few things I have noticed about the 9/11 truth movement: 1) Most people have to be pushed a bit to really look at the evidence. 2) Everyone who does look at it experiences many days and weeks of “cognitive dissonance” when they realize that the facts of the case show that the official story has a very low probability of being true, while the alternative theories of controlled demolition of the buildings and deliberate stand-down of US air defenses have a much higher probability of being true. 3) Almost no one who really looks carefully at the evidence goes back to believing that the official story is true as stated. Maybe you have noticed this too, or something closely resembling this progression. Can you say something about this and about the psychology of people coming to grips with the facts of 9/11 and the very high probability that the official story is false?
GM : Well, Tom, I think you’ve got it right: that’s the progression I’ve seen in others, and I guess it’s pretty much the progression I’ve seen in myself.
First, let’s remember that 9/11 has become a key event in the modern world, especially for Americans. It’s now part of official American history and the sacred myth of the nation. The “9/11 wars” carried out under this justification (according to the latest research, which has appeared in the Lancet since my earlier comments in this interview) have directly killed over 600,000 people. So when we say this was a false flag operation we’re questioning the history and the myth and a very significant part of the meaning-structure that’s been assembled over the past few years. We’re also saying to people: there are folks at high levels in your governmental structure who are criminals and who will not hesitate to kill you. (This is different from realizing they’ll kill people in other nations. It’s turning against what people thought was their in-group; it’s betrayal of the basic contract people make with their government, to keep them from harm.) And think about the other things that then have to be re-thought. After all, we’re not talking about secret evidence here: the crucial evidence has been accessible for some time. The media have not looked at it; they’ve protected the absurd official narrative. So this is another big betrayal, because these are the sources from which populations get most of their information about the world . At this point people feel they don’t know where to turn. Who can be trusted?
There are certain dangers at this point. One is that people will deny the information they’re now trying to process, just to protect the basic assumptions of their deep culture and to keep themselves psychologically afloat. Another is that they’ll withdraw entirely from the world of social and political action. This is a big danger for Buddhists, especially. “The whole world runs on greed, hatred and delusion, so it can’t be trusted. We should just withdraw and meditate and work out our own liberation.” A third danger is paranoia. I’ve seen this take root in some people, and it’s very sad. I’m not sure whether this kind of political paranoia ever leads to diagnosable DSM-4 paranoia or not, but it has many of the same features. When people take this route, unfortunately, they become psychologically, spiritually and politically maimed.
ABN : From the point of view of Buddhist practice—or any spiritual or intellectual practice for that matter—I find the cognitive dissonance that results from looking at the facts of the case to be enormously interesting and valuable. After just a few hour of research a person can be rewarded with entirely new view of the world they live in. This new view of the world seems to agree very much with some of the most basic teachings of the Buddha—that an unconsidered life in this world is fundamentally based on greed, anger, and ignorance, and that we live in a social and psychological context that is permeated with self-serving delusions, lies, and emotional blindness. Can you say something about this—about the value of the cognitive dissonance, the value of reappraising the political conditions of our lives, and the value of pursuing the truth, however difficult that may be?
GM : Well, I think you’re right about how political awareness at this point in history tends to reinforce the Buddhist notion of greed, hatred (anger, ill-will) and ignorance (delusion, etc.) as a basic part of the human reality. Fortunately, as you also imply, they are not the only part of the human reality. Just as we can get caught in downward spirals, in which deceit and violence feed off each other, so mindfulness, compassion and the basic moral principles can lead to upward spirals in which we reconstitute decent communities and societies. We find goodness everywhere—in every religion, social group, ethnic group, part of the world. Even in the middle of wars, we find people who act with compassion and decency. I have been amazed to find such people when I have visited, or worked in, war zones. We have to keep the positive side of the human reality before us, or we will fall into despair and take others down with us. I think that with your view of positive cognitive dissonance you are working toward a conception of political enlightenment. All enlightenment, I think, results from struggle and from the confronting of contradictions. Life in the palace is beautiful, but when you go outside it you see old age, sickness and death. The effort toward enlightenment is the effort to resolve this contradiction. I think political enlightenment is urgently needed in Buddhist thought and practice. Political enlightenment, for me, means a resolution of contradictions in which we achieve a clear awareness of the forces that are driving current politics and of “the way out” of a politics in the grip of the greed, hatred and delusion. Political enlightenment does not liberate our minds in any ultimate sense, but it liberates us in several ways that are crucial for the human species at this point in history. The survival of civilization and of many, many species of living beings may depend on this kind of enlightenment. We become liberated into a politics of generosity and of decency.
I’m also glad you spoke of truth and the need to pursue it. One of the dangers of postmodernism, which has such an influence in universities at the moment, is that it thinks it’s shown that “truth” is an impossible and outmoded concept. So academics speak their arcane language and retreat to their own little constructed universe, having given up as impossible or Stalinist the idea that there may actually be truth beyond particular constructions. Those in charge of the current, corrupt politics must laugh at this: it sidelines the universities and keeps them domesticated.
ABN : Graeme, I am personally quite curious about your response to this one, and also believe that this question is crucial to Buddhism in the “modern” world. How do you understand the Buddha’s teachings on karma? How do you think Buddhists should understand these teachings? What is their practical value?
GM : For the purposes of this interview, I’m going to give my personal view of how to approach this issue, and I’m going to speak in broad terms rather than go deeply into the interpretation of ancient texts.
I do not believe Buddhists should be fundamentalist in their approaches to Buddhavacana (the “words of the Buddha”). We have enough fundamentalism in the world at the moment, thank you very much. I do not believe in worshipping scripture, I do not believe in holding on for dear life to every letter of it, I do not believe what was written down a long time ago can ever be a complete guide for our lives in the present.
As the great Chuang Tzu said, the people of old took with them much of what was of value when they died…the words they left behind are the chaff and dregs and cannot, of themselves, give life. Hence the idea in Zen tradition that the transmission does not rely on words and letters.
Against this, of course, we have to remember to value the people of the pasttheir insights, revelations, struggles and breakthroughs. We cannot be like those who throw away everything that is not new, or who are faddish with respect to spirituality.
How do we balance these two convictions? We carry on a dialogue with the texts and the communities of the past. We learn humbly from them but we also challenge them. It cannot be a one-sided conversation. We must continually strive to reach a position that transcends both the common wisdom of our time and the common wisdom of the tradition. This is the challenge of remaining alive, of swimming instead of sinking.
There are times when tradition saves us from the stupidity and banality of our time—our consumerism, for example, our myth of limitlessness, our arrogance toward other living beings, our distractedness. There are other times when the tradition itself becomes samsaric, claustrophobic, part of the problem. Here I think, for example, of some of the ancient monastic teachings about gender and sexuality. Why would we remain attached to all these teachings? Some seem to me to conducive to liberation and some conducive to ill-will and entrapment of ourselves and others. Do we have nothing to bring to this dialogue? Are we to be completely passive in the face of ancient Indian patriarchal asceticism? Certainly not. Our own age has its insights too, and we demean it and ourselves if we devalue them.
Now, as to karma, I find this another case where dialogue with the tradition is necessary. I simply do not see the emacipatory value of a “doctrine” of karma taken on faith. According to the ancient texts, the Buddha directly perceived the working of karma during his enlightenment. Fair enough, but if I haven’t directly perceived it am I to take it on faith or to allow it to be open to question? I choose the latter. It is possible to affirm the importance of moral action in the world without such a “doctrine.” Moreover, in the earliest Buddhist texts I find a set of concepts and convictions in flux rather than a worked out and finalized “doctrine.” In many of the old stories there is a grappling with karma, a testing of limits. In the story of Angulimala, for example—the murderer with a garland of severed fingers—the “doctrine” of karma as later enunciated would probably have had him work off his enormously bad karma over many lifetimes of suffering in lower levels of rebirth. But the story as found is old and the idea of karma is in flux. So in many versions of the story, including the Pali one, he suffers only rather trivial bad effects of his deeds, after which the Buddha says: you’re free now, you’ve paid off your karmic debts. For that matter, how could this serial killer have merited in the first place the meeting with the Buddha that led to his transformation? The oldest versions of the story don’t try to explain this through karma: they seem just to accept that the compassion—what some traditions would call the grace—of enlightened beings flows out not just to those who merit it but also to those who do not merit it. We receive compassion and kindness because we need it, not because we merit it. I think this idea—so important and powerful, not just for Buddhists but for all of us in all our human interactions—is subversive of certain overly tight formulations of the “doctrine” of karma.
I’m not sure this interview on 9/11 can stand too much of a digression into karma and rebirth, so let me stop here and just say that I see little merit, little emancipatory power, in the acceptance of any doctrine on faith.
ABN : I believe that each of us learns at least one or two very important things about religious practice—in your mind what are the most important aspects of religious practice? What is most valuable and how does one attain it?
GM : I like the way you’ve framed this question. I certainly have no legitimate authority, no reason to claim wisdom, on the subject of practice. But you ask very kindly, saying: “each of us learns”. So I suppose if I am put on the level of everyone else I can risk a comment.
In my life I have found mindfulness essential. I am a poor practitioner and am often unmindful in my dealings with others, but at the same time I feel I would be lost without such mindfulness as I am able to achieve. I am not even speaking about the formal practice, although that can be a powerful source of daily mindfulness if a person is able to stick with it. I am talking about the informal practice we establish over time of being mindful of our body, heart and mind—being aware of what their state is, how it’s changing, how it’s reacting to what is happening externally and internally. I haven’t found that this removes me or distances me from life. Quite the opposite. To the extent that I am mindful I am able to be present and I am able to have some freedom from my obsessions and bad habits.
To tie this issue to the main theme of this interview, I would say that mindfulness supports us in maintaining independence. It is a powerful ally against efforts to make us stupid and conformist. We become aware of our own pride and craving and fear and all the rest of it. They have taken up residence in our minds and hearts, and they are ready to serve those who would block our intelligence and compassion. Although we may pay our respects to these forces, as we remain mindful of them we become less subservient to them.
ABN : Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and how you personally became interested in 9/11 research.
GM : I was trained as a scholar of Buddhism, but I went into Buddhist Studies because of certain values and perceptions of the world. These, not mere curiosity, were the basis of my interest in Buddhism. So it was a natural development when I began, a bit over 25 years ago, to get increasingly involved in social and political action. My actions were the fruit of the same values and perceptions. And I became increasingly convinced that contemplation and social action were not contradictory but complementary processes—at least for me.
So for most of my adult life I have actively opposed war and militarism and sought peace and reconciliation. I helped create and direct the Centre for Peace Studies at my university but also, at various times and in various ways, was a grassroots peace activist. My interest in 9/11 grows directly out of these concerns and involvements. I could see, of course, that the Sept. 11 attacks were going to be watershed events.
Out of curiosity, I’ve just looked up the statement that our Centre for Peace Studies issued on September 15, 2001, and among the things it says (after regretting and condemning the attacks) are the following:
“We commend the U.S. government for its patience in refraining from rash acts of retaliation while it seeks the perpetrators of this crime.
“We believe the perpetrators must be held accountable for their actions and we support efforts to find them and bring them to justice under international law.
“We reject the principle of vengeance and strongly urge the United States and the United Nations to ensure that this act of violence is not permitted to engulf further innocent victims and embroil future generations in war and hatred.
“Our experience in Afghanistan leaves no doubt in our minds that the great majority of the Afghan people do not support acts of terror committed or coordinated from their soil and do not share the goals of terrorist individuals or groups.”
There are a few things to note here.
First, we say we don’t know who did this and we support the effort to find out who it is.
The second is, we want this to be dealt with by law, not by war. This is important for many reasons, but one of the reasons is that if you use law you actually have to make your case. You have to support your position with evidence, and you have to come up with a chain of argument linking the position and the evidence. War, on the other hand, neither requires nor seeks truth. War has never had a positive relationship to truth: even in the earliest manuals on war from the ancient world it’s clear that the task in times of war is to mobilize whatever forces you need through whatever myths, lies and rhetoric is necessary: truth is, indeed, the first casualty of war.
The next thing is that you can see in our statement that we’re very afraid of retaliation. Imperial powers, which the U.S. obviously is, tend to take many, many lives in response for the loss of lives among their own people. I figured that, based on previous wars, I could assume that the ratio would be at least 20:1. That is, if 3000 people were murdered on 9/11, then at least 60,000 people would be killed in retaliation. And I think it you add up Afghanistan and Iraq (check out Iraq Body Count website, which is extremely careful and modest in its tabulation) we’re about there nowwe’ve reached the imperial retaliation baseline.
Finally, you’ll see in our statement that we talk about Afghanistan. We’d been involved there since about 1993, but especially since 2000. In fact, in February of 2001 a group of us was in Peshawar, Pakistan holding dialogues with Afghans of virtually all political persuasions (there was a huge Afghan community there with its own university, which served as our host) and trying to figure out how to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflicts in Afghanistan. Johan Galtung, one of the founders of peace research, had joined forces with us and was leading the dialogue sessions. I was participating, listening, learning. The group of about 110 Afghans (political leaders, former mujahideen, professors, human rights activists, journalists) was coming up with all kinds of good suggestions—interestingly, none of them involved an external invasion of Afghanistan. So, when the events of 9/11 happened we were very worried that retaliation against Afghanistan was going to take place and make the condition of that tortured nation even worse than it already was.
I suppose this is a rather long-winded answer to why I was interested in 9/11 initially. In the years since then I had tried to keep an open mind about who may have carried out the deed—for example, I read some of Barry Zwicker’s work on this, having respected his work in Canada for many years—but as I look over the various talks I’ve given in the years since 9/11 I see a bit of intellectual laziness creeping in. It’s like: I don’t have the time and energy to devote to this issue and in any case it’s probably a labyrinth in which a person could get lost for their whole lifetime, expending good energy that ought to be used working for peace and justice. So I seem to have come to accept that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda probably carried out the attacks, even though some of the evidence presented to us, such as the absurd “smoking gun” video found in late 2001 Afghanistan, seemed to me clearly fake.
ABN : Graeme, thank you for your time. We appreciate it very much.