As the post-Georgia chill in
U.S.-Russian relations continues, the Russian govern-ment has repeatedly
declared its readiness to resume a friendly partnership if the United States
will reciprocate and abandon its Cold War rhetoric. Yet, at the same time,
Moscow has encouraged an orgy of anti-American hysteria in the loyalist Russian
media. On September 12, the America-bashing reached a new low: a prime-time
special on national television peddling the notion that the World Trade Center
and Pentagon attacks of September 11, 2001, were an inside job by American
The special, aired in a program
called Closed Screening on the government-controlled Channel One and
viewed by up to 30 million people, was built around the documentary Zero
made by Italian journalist and European Parliament member Giulietto Chiesa.
Ignored in most of Europe and panned by the Italian press, Zero is a
hodgepodge of familiar "truth about 9/11" claims (the Twin Towers
were brought down by explosives inside the buildings, the Pentagon was hit by a
missile, not a plane) accompanied by ominous music and insights from such
"experts" as Nobel Prize-winning literary clown Dario Fo.
Chiesa himself, a Soviet-era Italian
Communist party apparatchik and Moscow correspondent for the Communist daily L'Unità--who
seems to have smoothly transferred his loyalty from the USSR to the corrupt
state- capitalist Russia of today--was on hand for the studio discussion. He
bitterly lamented his inability to find distributors in Western Europe and the
United States; thank heaven Russia still allows a forum for free speech.
Since these are not quite Soviet
days, there was at least a semblance of debate. Several panelists, including a
building expert and (amusingly) a retired KGB analyst, rejected the conspiracy
theory. Vladimir Sukhoi, a former Channel One correspondent who was in
Washington, D.C., on the day of the attacks and in New York a few days later,
spoke movingly of the horrors he witnessed and said that he could not
"betray" those memories by lending credence to Chiesa's thesis.
Sukhoi also remarked that he had personally seen debris from Flight 77 at the
Pentagon, though Chiesa's coauthor, French 9/11-conspiracy theorist Thierry
Meyssan, earnestly assured him that he had not. Sukhoi listened with the
patient, bemused expression of someone forced to endure the ravings of a
But the lunatics, for the most part,
were running the asylum. The discussion was heavily dominated by several
pro-conspiracy panelists who dismissed the "official story" of
"19 Arabs directed by Osama bin Laden in a cave" as self-evidently
absurd. (The repeated gibes about "19 Arabs" prompted a sarcastic
query from one of the dissenters, Middle East expert Irina Zvyagelskaya: Would
25 or 50 have been more believable?) Chiesa, who is fluent in Russian, argued
that the bin Laden videotapes aired on TV "obviously" featured
several different bin Laden impersonators.
The rabidly anti-American TV
commentator Mikhail Leontiev matter of factly suggested that American leaders
regard the mass murder of their own people as a perfectly acceptable tool for
achieving foreign policy objectives and trotted out the far-right canard that Franklin
Roosevelt "set up Pearl Harbor." Pundit Vitaly Tretyakov and Russian
Islamic Committee chairman Geidar Jemal disagreed on whether the 9/11 attacks
were engineered by a shadowy cabal of warmongers acting without the knowledge
of the White House (Tretyakov) or by Bush himself (Jemal).
Several speakers bemoaned "the
dearth of information" and "manipulation" in the media--the
Western media, of course, not Russian television with its blacklists of
opposition figures and its airing of a video doctored to suggest that a Fox
News anchor tried to silence an Ossetian girl with pro-Russian views. Indeed,
Western coverage of the Georgia war was predictably cited as an example of
rampant bias and disinformation--the media repeating the lie of Russian
aggression just as they had colluded in the 9/11 cover-up.
The host, Russian journalist and
filmmaker Alexander Gordon, exuded pious concern and angst. But his bias was
evident from the start when he somewhat caustically referred to guests
skeptical of the Chiesa-Meyssan theory as "those completely satisfied by
the official American version." The skeptics' statements were ignored or
treated with thinly disguised mockery; in the last half-hour, their voices were
almost completely drowned out. When Gordon asked the live studio audience how
many people believed the "official version" of 9/11, not one hand
Near the end of the program, Meyssan
launched into an impassioned diatribe against U.S. imperialism and its evils.
"Who can stop this enormous predator from ravaging the planet? We expect a
great deal from you, from Russia. Only you can stop all this!" he
exclaimed, to raucous applause from the studio audience.
Closed Screening specializes in "controversial" topics, but it is
unthinkable that it could have aired the film without official approval. The
broadcast, as commentator Boris Sokolov noted in the independent online
magazine Grani.ru, "proves that, at least on Russian television,
the Cold War is in full progress." Two days after the program aired, appearing
as a guest on Ekho Moskvy, Russia's only major politically independent radio
station, Gordon was asked whether the program was linked to the new chill in
U.S-Russian relations. His reply: "Maybe it is. And maybe it isn't."
Ironically, the day Zero aired,
Russian president Dmitry Medvedev told a gathering of Western pundits that
Georgia's attack on South Ossetia on August 8 was Russia's 9/11--a day when
helpless Russian citizens had been murdered. (Actually, they were South
Ossetians with Russian passports issued in recent years.) In view of the Zero
broadcast, this strained analogy might be seen as an unwitting confession that
Moscow had secretly engineered the clash in South Ossetia.
But not many Russians are likely to
pursue this line of thought, or to ponder another troubling parallel: 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.
To their credit, some commentators
even in the pro-government Russian press were appalled by the airing of Zero.
Izvestia columnist Maksim Sokolov (no relation to Boris) wrote that the
program "not only insults one's intelligence but is in extremely poor
taste." He questioned the purpose of this calculated slap in the face to
the United States at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are hardly at their
Besides stoking anti-Americanism in
the Russian population, the purpose may have been retaliation: You won't buy
our version of the war in Georgia? Fine, we won't buy your version of 9/11. But
the demented circus on Channel One is a more serious matter than the political
equivalent of a playground taunt. Aside from the effect inside Russia, it is
likely to help spread the poison of 9/11 conspiracy theories around the world
by lending them a patina of legitimacy.
So far, this insult has received no
response from Washington. It should. Next time Russian foreign minister Sergei
Lavrov meets with Condoleezza Rice, they'll have no shortage of unpleasant
matters to discuss, but even so the airing of Zero deserves a mention.
In addition to being a deliberate provocation, it is a further indication of
how far Russia's masters have gone in moving the country away from the
mainstream of civilized nations.