As the post-Georgia chill in U.S.-Russian relations con-tinues, 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 warmongers.
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 lunatic.
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 went up.
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 best.
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.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.