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Terrorstorm: A History of Government Sponsored Terrorism (2006)

Marc Acherman

Jones is no historian: the wider public, to whom Jones seems to aim his documentary, will require more concrete evidence before they join him behind the bull-horn.

Terrorstorm: A History of Government Sponsored Terrorism

Director: Alex Jones
Cast: Alex Jones, Ray McGovern, Cindy Sheehan, Steven Jones, Michael Meacher
Distributor: Disinformation
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Alex Jones Productions
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2006-10-31

The attacks of September 11th left more than a hole in the New York skyline; they ruptured the fantasy of invulnerability that America had paradoxically understood as its fundamental reality. While many in the US government and media, in an attempt to reconstitute that invulnerability, quickly turned to blaming the attacks on Muslim outsiders that could supposedly be both easily located and quickly eliminated, an ever growing undercurrent of paranoid criticism has argued that the ultimate enemy does not exist outside the confines of liberal democracy, but instead thrives within it.

Many laughed when Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 implicated the Bush administration in the attacks; others questioned his patriotism in a time of national crisis. Yet recent events have validated his lack of trust: there were no WMDs found in Iraq; Osama bin Laden remains at large; President Bush has vehemently defended his willful violations of the US constitution. Most read these acts as gross incompetence or criminal indifference, but for writer/producer/director Alex Jones, they are evidence of a malevolent element within the US government that is determined to manipulate the public into accepting both the necessity of war and the erosion of liberty that ironically stems from calls to protect it.

In Terrorstorm: A History of Government Sponsored Terrorism, Jones makes the provocative argument that the US government not only knew about 9/11 before it happened, but that they planned it every step of the way. It was, as Jones frequently reiterates, an "inside job".

The blend of conspiracy theory with the documentary in recent years is an interesting one. Both, as modes of critique, set themselves up as means by which to unveil a hidden truth. The documentary film maker, conventional wisdom holds, captures the 'reality' that mainstream cinematic and media images distort. The conspiracy theorist, in comparison, seeks the objective truth lost in media coverage and government deflection. The fact that the September 11th attacks have proven to be an image driven media event prepared for by (or even surpassing) our collective cinematic imagination, coupled with the suspicious activities and dubious reliability of government officials, makes such efforts to find the essential truth seem implausible.

Jones' documentary tries to fill this void of meaning with the "truth" of his conspiracy theory, a fact he signals with his introduction of a well-worn George Orwell quote into the body of his documentary: "In a world of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." However, while the documentary and the conspiracy theory contrast with the deceit of what Jones calls the "dark spectacle" of government sponsored terrorism, in which media and the state collude to manipulate the public, they still do not unveil the hidden truth, but instead provide new narrations; these narrations are the genuine shape of the "revolutionary act" to which Orwell alludes and Jones aspires. (The documentary's constant insistence on stamping the emphatic script of "FACT" [his capitalization] on the screen certainly suggests an anxiety over the reception of his claims, or perhaps an uneasy relationship with their fictional appearance.)

Terrorstorm: A History of Government Sponsored Terrorism tells its story using the same conventions as the spectacle it alleges to critique. Even the exaggerated title suggests Jones' desire to correlate his documentary to the same sort of action films that have amplified the reception of 9/11into a media spectacle. Resorting to both a gravely-voiced narrator and overblown graphics and music, Jones reduces the credibility of his already highly contentious claims by ironically using the same media-images of 'the terrorist' he disparages. We should not, of course, in any way conflate the perpetrators of the unthinkable attacks of 9/11 with those theorists who postulate about a conspiracy. Such a comparison does, nonetheless, reveal strategic correlations between the two, even if they differ in effect. The director frequently plays up his disruptive role, perhaps most poignantly illustrated by his yelling inflammatory slogans through a bull-horn in front of the British parliament building.

Jones' decision to speak through these terrorist tropes represents his most calculated mistake. He presumably believes that the use of action movie conventions will capture the attention of the American public. Yet Jones casting himself in the specter of the terrorist makes him easy to marginalize; he is transformed into a benign form of raving lunatic unable to meet his critics on reasonable ground. Whereas Moore treads similar territory in Fahrenheit 9/11, he succeeds in that he not only critiques the US government but also ironically riffs on the popular culture of spectacle even while participating in it. Jones shows no such self awareness, and his attempt to critique spectacle by use of spectacle collapses as a result.

Terrorstorm: A History of Government Sponsored Terrorism frequently frames the "history of government sponsored terrorism" with references to George Orwell's somewhat prophetic dystopia, 1984. In the opening scenes we see the images of George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair flickering across gigantic television screens before uncritical and captivated masses. Later, when pointing out newly installed surveillance cameras to an oblivious British restaurant owner, Jones projects it into indisputable evidence of the rise of "big brother". Jones makes the integrated (or "dark") spectacle of media and government, one of the themes of Orwell's book, his central concern.

Jones fails to mount an effective critique of spectacle in his earnest use of its conventions, yet his lack of success reaches beyond the simple inability to critique media, because his thesis of government collusion coupled with mass media manipulation easily collapses under scrutiny. We must concede that the government seems to exert some influence over media, both in terms of restricting access to information and regulating content. Nevertheless, a conspiracy on the scale Jones proposes would require an impossible coordination of diffuse resources and suppression of all dissenting opinion.

Then there is the rub that public reception of news media, for instance, remains remarkably difficult to predict. Even if the mysterious agents of the 'dark spectacle' managed the awe- inspiring task of taking over the entire media, they could not be assured of any sort of success. If anything, the American public's more recent turn against the Bush administration proves that clandestine conspiracies or not, no universal reception can be coerced, and viewers are not, as Jones visually suggests with quotes from famous propagandists flashing across stock footage of marching automata-like workers from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), an entirely captive audience.

In pursuit of this flawed argument, Jones sets the easily manipulated and presumed ignorant public against his collection of 'certified experts'. Fortunately for Jones, and unfortunately for us, that public is hardly representative, as he only draws his "average" Americans from the absolute heart of Bush's Texas. He marches out the most vehement gun-toting pro-war protestors to prove that mass media manipulation works unquestioned in contemporary America. His strategy, while argumentatively convenient, omits the vast majority of uncertain voices between his position and those of Bush's adamant supporters. Of course, such omissions make his experts, including sympathetic university professors, and former high-ranking government officials, seem all the more credible and rational in contrast.

Despite such criticisms of Jones' suspicious framing, he does offer some intriguing explanations to support his wild claims. For instance, he digs up a government document filed just prior to the September 11th attacks in which US Vice President Dick Cheney argues that the American public would not support a significant military build-up without an event occurring on American soil that equals the magnitude of the Pearl Harbor attacks. Jones also questions why the government always seems to be staging military drills near the center of an attack, ironically paralyzing their response to it. Why did NORAD stand down just before the attacks? Why would the government push to invade Iraq if they knew they would find no 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'? The director attempts to answer these and other worthwhile questions but his evidence rarely rises above compelling coincidence or speculation. Undoubtedly, his sympathizers will see the absence of a "smoking gun" as indicative of the validity of his claims of a government cover-up. Yet the wider public, to whom Jones seems to aim his documentary, will require more concrete evidence before they join him behind the bull-horn.

Jones attempts to compensate for his lack of evidence by establishing a fragmented historical narrative of government sponsored terrorism, of which he sets 9/11 as just another iteration of a common pattern. He cites a wide variety of historical events, such as the Gulf of Tonkin cover-up, that have been more or less proven to involve suspicious government activity disguised as terror and deployed to coercive ends. Beginning by bringing out the ultimate signifier of evil, Adolf Hitler, Jones then proceeds to draw connections between how the Nazi leader burned down the German Parliament and blamed it on seditious communists to boost support for his own party, and a series of historically disparate acts along the same lines. With his examples, Jones fails to create any sense of historical continuity or even a coherent narrative. The accretion of circumstantial evidence cannot substitute for genuine and rigorous scholarship which simply cannot take place between the rampant exaggerations and flashing lights of Terrorstorm: A History of Government Sponsored Terrorism.

Perhaps he bit off more than he could chew, but then again, Jones has made his reputation as a conspiracy theorist, internet entrepreneur, and radio personality on precisely that tendency to challenge overwhelming odds, even if he has to invent them himself. It is not so much that Jones' claims are entirely impossible or unpersuasive, as that he makes them seem so packaged for sale. Indeed, it seems odd to visit Jones' website and realize the price of resistance (roughly $14.99 for the ball cap). One begins to wonder about the ultimate effectiveness of joining the conspiracy club and purchasing the conspiracy DVDs and other conspiracy merchandise. Is this not simply the false specter of resistance, an insubstantial semblance, disguising the same pattern of consuming spectacular images?

For thoroughly unspectacular images, look no farther than the poor special features on Terrorstorm: A History of Government Sponsored Terrorism. In one such feature, Jones delivers his unique brand of sloganeering to the enthusiastic response of his fellow conspiracy theorists, gathered at a convention on the subject of the "9/11 cover-up". In another, we are confronted with the strange spectacle of celebrity that is Charlie Sheen, invading the conspiratorial fantasy of Jones in order to introduce himself. Without irony, Jones then proceeds to hyperbolically dub Sheen an American "hero" for his open questioning of government involvement in the September 11th attacks. Once again, Jones appropriates the vocabulary of military spectacle (the soldier as "hero") for his own ends, but the result is irresistibly comical.

These antics undermine the credibility of the four person panel of experts who present their research findings and additional speculations to a sympathetic crowd of supporters. Even the physicist, who presents some interesting data suggesting that the Twin Towers were demolished from the inside, is overpowered by the looming personality of his host.

We all have unanswered questions about September the 11th. The government has proven itself unable or unwilling to come clean with the public about its purported involvement. And, indeed, the line between conspiracy theorist and historian remains precariously thin. Nevertheless, Jones is no historian: whatever the semantics, the issues raised by his documentary play more upon our desire to understand the unfathomable by narrating it than any hope of uncovering the truth.

Until answers come to light, the subject of conspiracy will remain an intellectually and commercially viable debate: to be sure, Jones has a few documentaries left in him. Yet, in a very real way, September 11th will forever remain inaccessible, present only in trauma and memory, resisting easy symbolization or narration. The hole left in the symbolic and material fabric of America, whether the attacks originated from within or without, will indeed never close. Watch Terrorstorm: A History of Government Sponsored Terrorism if you desire a forceful but seriously flawed attempt to fill such gaps left by that fateful day.


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