Tuesday, October 07, 2008

9/11 truthers in Russia -- and Russia's own terrorist bombing conspiracy theory

My Weekly Standard article on the broadcast of the 9/11 conspiracy "documentary" Zero, and the studio discussion that followed, is now up. It expands on my earlier blogpost on the topic, and is based on a viewing of the entire program rather than the last 20 minutes. The first half of the discussion was a little less skewed, but the result was still appalling. The article also includes an interesting quote from an interview (not mine) with the host of the program, Alexander Gordon, when he was asked whether its airing was connected to the deterioration in relations with the U.S.

Last night, after receiving a few emailed from truthers urging me to open my mind, I watched the BBC documentary "Conspiracy Files: The Third Tower." What never ceases to amaze me (apart from the belief that any group of people in the U.S. government would have the competence, coordination, and diabolical smarts to pull off this kind of vast conspiracy) is the sheer idiocy of truther arguments about the motives for various aspects of this conspiracy. The truthers argue that Tower 7 (which collapsed despite not being hit by a plane) was brought down by controlled demolition, with explosives planted inside. But why? Apparently because that's where the local office of the CIA was, and was that office that served as the secret control room for the 9/11 plot, and the evidence had to be destroyed. Really? Those plotters were so dumb that they had their super-secret control room in a CIA office right next to the WTC? And couldn't think of a better way to dispose of the evidence than creating a mystery explosion? If they were that dumb, how could they have possibly successfully carried history's biggest cover-up?

In my WS article, I refer to "the fairly credible allegations that the FSB, the KGB's post-Soviet heir, was involved in the 1999 apartment-building bombings in Russia that took nearly 300 lives and were blamed on Chechen terrorists, helping generate public support for the war in Chechnya." Why do I think these allegations, unlike the ones about 9/11, are fairly credible? Because I'm willing to believe that kind of thing about "them," but not about "us"? Well, no. As much as I loathe Russia's ruling clique, I'd rather not believe that they engineered terrorist acts against their own people. Because, if those are the kind of people who rule Russia, we are all less safe.

I think those allegations are vastly more credible than those of the 9/11 "truth" movement because of vast differences between the two situations.

One, the alleged FSB plot is fairly straightforward: explosives planted in apartment buildings. There are no bizarre claims of faked hijackings, nonexistent planes, passengers being taken to secret locations and murdered to supply the bodies, etc. etc.

Two, there was never an independent investigation of the bombings in Russia, only an FSB one; the State Duma voted against an investigation and ordered all documents pertaining to the case to be sealed for 75 years, and several MPs who tried to conduct an investigation of their own had an unfortunate tendency to get assassinated or meet with fatal accidents.

Three, no Chechen separatists ever claimed responsibility for the bombings. Four, at least one officer of the Russian secret services admitted to FSB involvement, though he made this statement in Chechen captivity and later claimed it was extracted under torture.

Five, and most damning, FSB agents were caught red-handed planting explosives with a timer in the basement of an apartment building in Ryazan. FSB director Niklai Patrushev claimed it was an "emergency readiness training exercise." After that, by the way, the bombings stopped.

Read the full story here.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The "space of freedom" in Russia: some good news

Under the resurgent authoritarianism of the Putin/Medvedev regime, a "space of freedom" has still remained in Russia: in the print media, to some extent even on the radio (Ekho Moskvy), and of course on the Internet; in independent groups that are harassed if they get too political, but nonetheless exist. There are many reasons to fear that this space has shrunk after the Russia-Georgia war, when Russia's airwaves looked more like Soviet-style propaganda than at any time since the collapse of Communism. But, as one villainous representative of oppressive state power says to another in Russian writer Evgeny Schwartz's play The Shadow, "Sometimes, just when it looks like our victory is complete, life suddenly rears its head." And sometimes, in the most unexpected places.

Last month, Russian prosecutors, acting on a complaint from religious groups, went after the 2 x 2 television channel that specializes in "smart" cartoons, such as The Simpsons and South Park. One of the offenses named in the complaint was the South Park episode "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Special," in which characters including Satan, Hitler and an anthropomorphic turd named Mr. Hankey perform in a Christmas show. The prosecutors concluded that the episode might be "extremist" since it was demeaning to Christians and Jews.

In the meantime, 2 x 2's broadcast license expires on October 17, and there was understandable speculation that it might not be renewed. Alarm bells went off, in particular, when Pavel Tarakanov, chairman of the Duma Comittee on Youth Issues, publicly stated that if 2 x 2 lost its license, its frequency could be given to a young adults-oriented channel that would "reflect the government's position with regard to youth policy." "We need to raise a generation of 21st Century Russians who are proud of living in a civilized nation, therefore we need our own media conduit that would reach the greatest possible number of people," he told the Interfax news agency on September 23.

But suddenly, the Russian public, notoriously apathetic in the past few years, rose up in indignation. In late September, there were pickets, flash mobs, and demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg to protest the attempts to squash 2 x 2; the September 21 rally in Moscow drew about 700 people, who clashed with the police at one point. The protesters carried signs saying, "Hands off 2 x 2! We do not want censorship!" (which rhymes in Russian -- something like, "2 x 2 is here to stay -- censorship must go away!"), "Today they came for Kenny, tomorrow they'll come for you" and "Kenny lived, Kenny lives, Kenny will live!", a play on the once-ubiquitous Soviet slogan about Lenin. (Russians have not lost their knack for sharp political humor.) In just a few days, the protesters collected 34,000 signatures on petitions to keep 2 x 2 on the air.

Russian protester with a poster: "Today, they come
for Kenny; tomorrow, they'll come for you." From EJ.ru

On September 25, the Federal Competitive Bidding Commission on Television and Radio Broadcasting -- the Russian equivalent of the FCC, ironically with the Russian initials FKK -- voted unanimously to recommend that 2 x 2's license be renewed. The final decision is up to the State Committee on Communications Oversight, but it is expected to follow the FKK's recommendation. In the meantime, The Simpsons and South Park will continue to be shown on 2 x 2 except for the "offending" episodes.

The day before this decision, human rights activist Alexander Podrabinek wrote on the EJ.ru website:

Sophisticated opposition activists might wince: vulgar cartoons, ill-mannered youths, aggression in the streets. True, this is not about ideas, or compassion for people who are dying in an unjust war [in the Caucasus], or the struggle for democracy and the future of Russia. And yet these events give cause to hope that not everything is lost in this country, that not everyone in Russia is under the yoke of submission, fear and indifference. People who have nothing to do with politics have come out into the streets to defend their right: the right to watch the TV channel they love. It doesn't matter if this channel is worthy of universal love, or of the love of refined conoisseurs of quality television. Its viewers want it, and that's enough reason for it to stay on the air, no matter how revolting it might be to religious fanatics, television aesthetes, or the General Prosecutor's office.


Perhaps the future belongs to those who, no matter how little they care about politics, come out into the streets to defend their personal choice, their right to live without following the guidance of the authorities -- even if it's only a matter of a TV channel that shows cartoons.

By the way, Podrabinek vastly underestimates the extent to which South Park and The Simpsons are about "ideas." He's not the only one. In a verse commentary on the 2 x 2 controversy in Ogoniok magazine, the writer, poet and astute political satirist Dmitry Bykov describes the victory as a bittersweet one:

The days of liberty are now behind us,
And yet here is a fact we can't avoid:
As long as we can say, "Don't have a cow, man!",
Freedom in Russia cannot be destroyed.

Today, we won't be rescued from oppression
By Pushkin, Tolstoy, or a Joan of Arc;
Instead, it seems, the torch is in the hands of
The Simpsons and the kiddies of South Park.

Bykov describes 2 x 2's fare as "the usual jokes on all things excremental." The Simpsons and South Park may not be the Pushkin and Tolstoy of our day, but perhaps Bykov should try watching them. The idea of 2 x 2 as a bastion of freedom (hopefully, not the last) is not that depressing.

More: Some great photos of the 2 x 2 protests here and here.