So if polls find that more than a third of Americans believe the 9/11 attacks to have been an inside job by their own government, and around half still believe Saddam Hussein had something to do with it, does that mean only about 15% have any idea at all?
The fact that the straightforward, evidence-based truth about the terrorist attacks fares so poorly in the American public consciousness says something about the path away from 9/11 - I'm just not sure what that something is.
Certainly, the leadership isn't setting a good example. Only days after yet another official report - this one from a US Senate Intelligence Committee - concluded the obvious: that Saddam Hussein had no relationship with al-Qaeda, and in fact saw it as a threat, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was gamely insisting the exact opposite.
The old axiom about truth being the first casualty of war seems barely adequate to cover the rise and rise of unreality in the past five years. The conflict which has dominated the last three of those years, in Iraq, has been a veritable engine of unreality. The case for it was cherry-picked and fabricated; its key actors never what they seemed; the weekly news always to be taken with a grain of salt.
It's not just America, of course: millions in the Islamic world adhere to desperate conspiracy theories about the same horrible events. In this case, the Zionists did it. Then there are those - in their world and ours - who persist in believing al Qaeda to be fighting for some freedom or other. It's not. I was surprised when Bush's characterisation of terrorists as "Islamic fascists" was deemed controversial: that's exactly what they are.
In some respects, you can understand the theorising. The Nation, in a recent story on the Valerie Plame affair, provided further information on exactly who and what Plame was before she was dealt to by the White House: the operations chief of the Joint Task Force on Iraq, a group tasked with gathering WMD intelligence to make a case for war on Iraq, which was sharply ramped up months before the 9/11 attacks. This leads many people to suppose - vaulting a logical chasm as they do so - that the people driving such a policy either aided or allowed the attacks. The more mundane truth is that they seized on the need to respond to the attacks to carry their policy forward.
It was always going to end in tears. The sources with whom the JTFI was presented were the epitome of unreality. And thus, of course, their claims were reported as news, and the war went ahead. It could even be said that the war in Iraq went ahead at the expense of the War on terror. Check this from the Washington Post last week:
On the videotape obtained by the CIA, bin Laden is seen confidently instructing his party how to dig holes in the ground to lie in undetected at night. A bomb dropped by a U.S. aircraft can be seen exploding in the distance. "We were there last night," bin Laden says without much concern in his voice. He was in or headed toward Pakistan, counterterrorism officials think.
That was December 2001. Only two months later, Bush decided to pull out most of the special operations troops and their CIA counterparts in the paramilitary division that were leading the hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan to prepare for war in Iraq, said Flynt L. Leverett, then an expert on the Middle East at the National Security Council.
"I was appalled when I learned about it," said Leverett, who has become an outspoken critic of the administration's counterterrorism policy. "I don't know of anyone who thought it was a good idea. It's very likely that bin Laden would be dead or in American custody if we hadn't done that."
Several officers confirmed that the number of special operations troops was reduced in March 2002.
It still seems hard to believe that such a significant and costly action as that war could have been taken at the urgings of men like Richard Perle, a crook and war profiteer of some decades' standing. During the Reagan administration Perle took money from an Israeli armaments company then used his influence to channel contracts to the company. In 2003, he quietly resigned from his presidentially-ordained position as chair of the Defense Policy Advisory Board under suspicion of doing exactly the same thing, again. More recently, the Securities Exchange Commission singled him out for special mention as part of the "kleptocracy" that corruptly mishandled funds at Conrad Black's Hollinger International. And yet, there he was last weekend, wading in in support of Tony Blair in The Guardian. With friends like Perle, who needs enemies?
Like Perle, Donald Rumsfeld believed that Iraq would be a pushover. He slapped down advisors who fretted about having too few troops for the job and, remarkably, refused to even discuss what might happen next:
Months before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld forbade military strategists from developing plans for securing a post-war Iraq, the retiring commander of the Army Transportation Corps said Thursday.
In fact, said Brig. Gen. Mark Scheid, Rumsfeld said "he would fire the next person" who talked about the need for a post-war plan.
The horrible descent into death (1500 in Baghdad alone last month) and debacle that followed has prompted quite a lot of ex post facto rationalisation. We're fighting the terrorists there so we don't have to fight them here. We gave the Iraqis the chance for democracy and they "chose" sectarian bloodshed. It would have happened anyway. And best of all, the Iraqis are ungrateful. This isn't reasoning, it's shrugging and walking away, and it's offensive.
There's plenty more unreality where that came from though. Adam Bogacki drew my attention to this astonishing essay from the Armed Forces Journal:
Maj. Peters, formerly assigned to the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence where he was responsible for future warfare, candidly outlines how the map of the Middle East should be fundamentally re-drawn, in a new imperial endeavour designed to correct past errors. "Without such major boundary revisions, we shall never see a more peaceful Middle East," he observes, but then adds wryly: "Oh, and one other dirty little secret from 5,000 years of history: Ethnic cleansing works."
Thus, acknowledging that the sweeping reconfiguration of borders he proposes would necessarily involve massive ethnic cleansing and accompanying bloodshed on perhaps a genocidal scale, he insists that unless it is implemented, "we may take it as an article of faith that a portion of the bloodshed in the region will continue to be our own."
Yes, you read it right. It's a prosaic proposal for genocide. All, of course, for the right reasons. It rather relieves the Islamofascists of having to make stuff up, doesn't it?
Travelling in the US, as I did recently, it's hard not to feel sometimes that the terrorists did win. Yes, there's still argument and insight and brilliance in a grand tradition. America is stil fabulous and vibrant.
But as we surrendered our toothpaste and shampoo and disposable lighters in the name of technically far-fetched terror plots, while PA system announcements and photocopied notices reiterated the message about the "threat level" having risen to orange, we were all spooked. And in some ways, people wanted to be spooked, as if being spooked made them safe. They wanted to be secure.
The most unhealthy element of the new psychology is the rise of the undifferentiated enemy: of them. This unreal foe is many enemies at once, none of them to be defeated any time soon, and he can be conjured to justify almost anything; any transgression of old norms and hard-won rights and freedoms, or even the most patent public manipulation.
You don't have to venture far in the mediasphere to find some clown recommending mass-murder as a prescription for freedom. People say things that would have been utterly extraordinary five years ago. They pronounce on the clash-of-civilisations and declare a war that, we are told, will last generations. They cheerfully conflate Muslims and jihadists the way the jihadists conflate all of us in the West. They warn of Europe being overrun by Islam while the jihadists feel a fear amonmgst Muslims that Islam itself is under threat. It is meant as wisdom, but it is empty. We live in an uncomfortable age.
So much so that it's tempting to take comfort in imagining an alternative: if the US had committed properly to Afghanistan, hadn't taken away resources for the Iraq folly, had actually caught the bad guy, had kept its moral authority. Would there still have been terrorism? Yes, like always. But consider this: the total financial cost of the Iraq war - taking into account the cost of servicing the debt that funded it - has been repeatedly estimated in excess of a trillion dollars.
Try and imagine the impact on hearts and minds of a trillion dollars worth of benign investment in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world: in business development, health care, education, NGOs, printing books. Might things have worked out better? It's unreal, of course. But it's hard not to think about.