[why 9/11 was not a hoax]

I have recently run across several sources suggesting that the attacks of 9/11 were somehow an inside job, staged by our government to keep us in a state of fear. I would like to address this idea from my own perspective, which is that the attacks were indeed a surprise staged by Al Qaeda militants intent on harming the United States.

One argument is that various people predicted the attacks. Unfortunately, while some of these predictions were prescient, none of them were specific enough to suggest any real knowledge. That terrorist attacks on the United States — and on the World Trade Center in New York — were likely was a matter of public record; after all, the World Trade Center was bombed by Al Qaeda-associated militants in 1993, and Al Qaeda had staged subsequent attacks against the USS Cole and US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. There is nothing startling in someone having predicted that this pattern would continue to escalate, nor in arguing that the US response to a serious attack, if and when it came, would be to invade Afghanistan and go looking for Al Qaeda in caves.

A bit more prescience would be needed to imagine the War on Terror as it came to pass, complete with an invasion of Iraq and the installation of mechanisms for endless war and social control. A relatively small number of people did indeed make such predictions, pulling together ideas from Orwell and suspicions that Bush Jr. wished to complete Bush Sr.’s work in Iraq. These predictions turned out to be the right ones, as opposed to the many, many other predictions made by knowledgeable and thoughtful people. This doesn’t prove foreknowledge, but only that the events of 9/11 and its aftermath were not so utterly unlikely that no one could have guessed.

There are other signs and portents trotted out to demonstrate that the 9/11 attacks were somehow an inside job. The difficulty with believing any such scenario is that it would require that the Bush administration accomplished an incredibly complex, spectacularly criminal covert operation with such precision and efficiency that no one in the United States or elsewhere — and that includes a lot of very pissed of NYPD and FBI and Pentagon people — ever managed to find anything like incontrovertible evidence of their involvement. This would stand in contrast to the spectacular incompetence of the administration in just about everything else it has ever tried. I needn’t go through the litany of failures here, but it’s worth nothing that the efforts at secrecy — around the CIA black sites, the outing of Valerie Plame, the inaction on Al Qaeda before 9/11, the rapid decision after 9/11 to focus on Iraq — have been consistently ineffective. The idea that there is somehow a darker, more sinister, more competent force behind the overt bumblers in power is in some ways reassuring, but it is far less plausible than the widely accepted scenario on 9/11, which is that a small band of fanatical terrorists pulled off an attack that turned out to be surprisingly murderous.

So why haven’t we been attacked again? A weird inversion of the idea that the Bush administration attacked America on purpose is the idea that they have subsequently not attacked America on purpose, and that this proves Al Qaeda is really a hoax. The lack of a terrorist attack since 9/11 is considered evidence that the Bush administration must have staged the first one, because our security couldn’t possibly be good enough to thwart a second attack for this long.

For one thing, this argument demands that we believe our security forces are incompetent — the same security forces that secretly staged 9/11, remember, and covered it up. It also demands that we somehow ignore or explain away the bombings in London, Spain and Bali, which are evidence that Al Qaeda is indeed hard at work. Is Al Qaeda in league with the Bush administratioin? Is that why they’ve attacked elsewhere but not here? This seems highly unlikely. The War on Terror isn’t going so well, nor is the Bush plan for government control through endless war. Bush and his party would be far better served by the capture of Osama bin Laden than by getting caught making friends with him.

The current administration has done more than enough horrifically bad business that we know is true: thousands of American fighters killed and wounded, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, the sanctioning and use of torture, the indefinite detention of thousands of innocents, the gutting of American environmental laws while we look the other way on global warming, the devastation of our global image and influence, the incompetence on North Korea and Iran, the undermining of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the utterly bungled response to the destruction of a major American city, the corruption and scandal at every level of government.

The Bush administration is bad enough. There is no need to give them extra credit.


Strange thought: Is the fall of Kabul to a resurgent Taliban America’s best hope? I can imagine no stronger Katrina-like event that would wake Americans from their self-deceptions on our foreign policy and completely reshape the debate over what to do next.

Boy, things have gotten ugly.

[hermit kingdoms]

In a New Yorker article on Burma, John Lanchester notes that “Burma … has long been preoccupied with isolation, and the desire to be cut off from the world recurs in its history.”

But Burma is not alone in one sense: it is hardly the only nation in the world that has sought to isolate itself from all outside intrusion. Korea was long known as the Hermit Kingdom, and North Korea maintains that tradition to this day. Bhutan is less militantly cloistered, but it strictly limits its contacts with the rest of the world. For many centuries, Tibet and Nepal held themselves aloof, as did a number of the kingdoms of Central Asia, and not only from Europeans, though from Europeans more intently than with close neighbors.

Indeed, dotted across Asia, from Japan and Korea to the landlocked mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan, were forbidden kingdoms. I have studied Asian history more closely than some other regions, but I wonder whether Asia is uniquely rich in hermit states. Certainly the territories of Persia and Rome, whatever the ruling state may have been at the time, have not lent themselves to such isolation. Nor has the easily traversed European peninsula, with its superabundant coastline and its many rivers flowing to every sea. About other parts of the world, I’m less certain. But I do wonder whether there is anything in common among the hermit states beyond geographical potential.

[koreans in uzbekistan]

There is a beautiful shot about a quarter of the way through the South Korean film Wedding Campaign that captures as well as anything the dislocating loneliness of the foreign. Man-taek, an aging bachelor farmer who has come to Uzbekistan in search of a wife, is standing at his hotel window, gazing out into the Tashkent night; a trolley crawls along the street below, its cables giving off irregular showers of blue-white sparks that light up the empty, alien street. The dancing shadows, the sensation that even light has become something strange and incomprehensible, sent a little chill of recognition through me, and I thought of our first night in Korea, gazing out the car windows at hundreds upon hundreds of red neon crosses floating in the night, their meaning obscure.

Wedding Campaign — the Korean title, Naui Gyeolhon Wonjeonggi (나의 결혼 원전기), more literally translates to “My Arranged Marriage” — is the story of Man-taek (Jeong Jae-yeong/정재영) and his best friend Hee-chul (Yu Jun-Sang/유준상), a taxi driver. They are nearing 40 and unmarried, a near-hopeless situation in Korea, especially in the countryside, whose towns have come to resemble old-age colonies as the young have migrated to Seoul in search of education and opportunity. The opening scenes, which are very funny, introduce us to Man-taek’s aimless, pathetic life of nocturnal emissions, drunken binges and bad karaoke over civil-defense loudspeakers.

Fate intervenes when Man-taek’s grandfather discovers a mysterious being who speaks Korean but looks white, or sort of white, and has to ask about the meanings of certain words. It turns out this strange creature is the new wife of someone in town and is from an unpronounceable place far away: Ooz-bek-eess-tuh? Something like that. Soon Hee-chul is arranging a journey for the two bachelors, through an expensive matchmaking service, to this mysterious country far away where there are Koreans who apparently want to marry aging men from the motherland so they can move there. (The film gives a cursory explanation of how Koreans ended up in Uzbekistan: basically, Stalin deported 172,000 ethnic Koreans from the Far East to Central Asia in 1937 as part of his broader policy of genocide through deportation.)

Once the pair arrives in Tashkent, along with two other bachelors whose stories (and terrible suits) provide additional comedy, there are plenty of twists, turns and complications, but it’s obvious from very early on that Man-taek will forgo the various pretty girls paraded in front of him in favor of his translator, Kim Lara (Ae Su/애수). Indeed, the film falls back on a number of romantic-comedy conventions — the oaf who turns out to be loveable, the agonized howling of separated lovers, the inevitable romantic success of the protagonists — but there are two things that make it all hold together. The first is the unusual plot and setting, involving not just the community of Korean Uzbeks, but also the sleazy business of marriage-fixing for the sake of visas and the precarious situation of Kim Lara, who turns out to be a North Korean refugee who hopes to earn enough to buy a forged South Korean passport. The film was actually shot in Tashkent, and the strangeness of Koreans among mosques, and of mosques among Soviet buildings, lends an atmosphere of unpredictability.

The second strength of the movie is Jeong Jae-yeong’s performance as Man-taek. I’ve always been annoyed by movies about losers or unpopular girls who suddenly get a makeover and get the boy or girl of their dreams, because the character in the initial loser phase is usually played by an attractive, talented actor and is typically more attractive and fun than your average real-world non-loser. The actor just has to switch gears, from playing an oaf to playing a romantic lead, which is something that any capable actor should be able to do.

Jeong Jae-yeong manages to avoid this clichá by playing an oaf who remains an oaf, yet somehow manages to be believably attractive to Kim Lara. Man-taek never ceases to be the sweaty, stuttering, stubborn, sloppy-eating, binge-drinking fool, yet he manages throughout to express an underlying dignity that the audience believes well before Kim Lara falls in love with him.

Adding to the believability of the central romance is the film’s layered examination of what it means to be alone and alienated. Man-taek is never alone — he has a best friend and a family and lives in a small town — but he is nevertheless a man apart, aging into a role for which his society has little respect. His experience of Uzbekistan is, of course, all about being somewhere alien, while Kim Lara, as a North Korean refugee, is also alone in the world, living in fear of discovery by the authorities.

That Lara is North Korean adds to the layers of alienation. In some sense, the Uzbek Koreans are a proxy for the lost Koreans of the North: a group of people who are Korean in a way that is recognizable to South Koreans, yet who are obviously from a different world. There’s a touching moment when Kim Lara takes Man-taek to a Korean restaurant, where the half-starved bachelor wolfs down a meal that is at last familiar. He asks Kim Lara what she thinks of the food and whether it’s too spicy for her (Koreans rightly believe that a lot of foreigners can’t handle the amount of pepper paste they slather on everything). She says it’s delicious, using the formal mode. Man-taek corrects her, telling her she should say it in the informal mode appropriate between friends. Then he grins, with a mouth full of food, and declares that he’s never taught anyone anything before. Kim Lara tells him that whoever he takes back with him to Korea, he should teach her all about South Korean manners and customs.

The obvious emotional subtext, of course, is that Kim Lara secretly wants to be that woman. Less obvious, but perhaps more important, is her own sense of awkwardness in terms of South Korean manners, to the point that a South Korean could mistake her for someone foreign-born. Has the North really drifted so far from the South? It’s hard to know for sure, but we are approaching the time when there will be no one left alive who remembers Korea as a unified entity. (Even today, Koreans who remember an undivided Korea are recalling not a unified independent country but an annexed territory of Japan.) As the language of each country moves in its own direction, as the cultures drift ineluctably apart, will North Koreans become as foreign as Korean Uzbekistanis?

I don’t think they will, but Wedding Campaign manages to hit on a number of Korea’s fears: that its farms will be abandoned, that the countryside will be emptied of young people, that the population as a whole is aging too rapidly, that the North is drifting away. Still, these themes never weigh down the movie, which stays funny and light on its feet while giving its main characters enough depth and complexity to keep the viewer sympathetic. If you have the chance, go see the second showing this Sunday afternoon at BAM Cinematek.


When Ghengis Khan died, his legacy was so powerful — and so disputed — that his family homeland was closed to all outsiders and remained closed until after the fall of the Soviet Union nearly 800 years later. This and other fascinating and bizarre facts about history’s most prolific conqueror can be found in Jack Weatherford’s engrossing if somewhat undercritical biography, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. And what better time to learn about this astonishing figure, who really did reshape the political landscape from Manchuria to Central Europe, than now, as the Mongolians celebrate his octocentennial?