I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Conspiracies Gone Wild: The Lone Gunmen and September 11

The Lone Gunmen is a short-lived spin-off of X-Files that I recently began watching, featuring X-Files alumni John Fitzgerald Byers (Bruce Harwood), Melvin Frohike (Tom Braidwood), and Richard "Ringo" Langly (Dean Haglund). While watching the pilot episode I had this strange feeling. Maybe you'll understand. The Lone Gunmen uncover a plot in which a group of terrorists are going to crash a passenger airplane into the World Trade Center in Manhattan, and get this - the terrorists are U.S. government employees.

I know that The Lone Gunmen's one season aired within a year of the events of September 11, 2001. While watching this first episode I felt certain that this episode aired shortly after September 11 and we could see it as a commentary on 9/11. The Lone Gunmen is a spy program surrounding the hijinx of three paranoiacs who write for a conspiracy newspaper of the same name, so it makes sense that this show would introduce us to the possibility of government conspiracy regarding 9/11. It's insensitive, yes, but it makes sense that if there is an accusation to be made it will come from the mouths of The Lone Gunmen.

At the climax of the pilot, Byers finds himself in an airplane on a collision course with the World Trade Center, an event that will kill a main character, everyone else on the plane and a great deal of people in and around the building. A viewer watching this episode today knows that a variation of this plot was carried out and lead to one of the greatest tragedies on U.S. soil, but this same viewer also knows that there is a significant problem in killing off a main character, possibly the main character, in the first episode. So, what happens? Do they crash the plane or prevent the tragedy? The answer is that due to the heroic actions of three patriots, unlikely heroes devoted to questioning the government and big business for the sake of ensuring the safety of the American populace, the pilot is able to pull up and fly over the World Trade Center at the last minute. Because of these men, everyone is saved. What I thought was an insensitive indictment turned into a respectful and very sweet re-imagination of events.

It turns out I was wrong on both accounts.

The first episode of The Lone Gunmen aired on March 4, 2001, some nine months before the tragic events of September 11. (The tenth episode, "Tango de los Pistoleros," which suggests that an invisible Cessna could be flown into the White House, aired on April 27, 2001, only eight months before 9/11.) I was so astonished by the discovery that creator Chris Carter has essentially predicted the terrible tragedy of September 11 that I needed to tell somebody. As it was, I found myself alone in my apartment. I could have knocked on the door of one of my neighbors, all of whom are amiable and would share a laugh with me before closing the door and texting their friends about the crazy dude who lives next door, but instead I shared this revelation on Facebook.

The first response to my post was, "Terrorists watch TV, too." When I read this comment two things popped into my head. The first was that I was annoyed that someone's snarky comment could have potentially turned this whole incredible realization into a media pro-censorship campaign. If Osama Bin Laden learned all of his tricks from Chris Carter then he and his likes should be shut down. This was not something that I could stand for, certainly not in the United States of America. The second thing that popped into my head was that if I were Chris Carter, the creator of The Lone Gunmen, and an episode of mine resulted in the loss of human lives I would feel absolutely terrible. I was fighting with two very different understandings of responsibility.

In order to deal with the tension in my brain and in my feelings, I decided to plot out what I knew. I knew that the terrorist strike on American soils happened nine months after the air date of The Lone Gunmen episode that some might claim as its inspiration, but despite the whole pregnancy metaphor that nine months forces me to think about I found it hard to believe that 9/11 was carried out only nine months after its inspiration. I texted my friend Adam, whose roommate is a brilliant military and political strategist. He explained that, according to the best data, it would have taken at least eighteen months to carry out any plan like this. As a side note, he also said that it only cost the terrorists a few thousand dollars to attack us whereas our response has cost billions of dollars to date.

The Lone Gunmen episode was not a response to September 11. Neither was September 11 a response to The Lone Gunmen episode. I know that by either coincidence or by some brilliant political and strategical acumen, Chris Carter wrote a story about an event that would happen later that year. What I don't know is whether he was really all that special for predicting this. Some part of me tells me that Chris Carter was merely repeating things that he had read, things that he had picked up in meetings with government officials who consult for his television programs. I almost fear going down this trail, because it seems like the end result is the indictment that people in our government knew something like this would happen and yet they weren't capable of stopping it.

This is not an accusation I feel qualified to make. It's more like a feeling that I am inclined to go to every time I meditate on how many people were killed on September 11 and how many people were killed since then as a result of our response. The hurt want to place blame, and it's that very mechanism that brings me to this difficult place. My reason tells me that our federal government attempted to keep something like this from happening by jacking up airport security, but that some of their methods could not be justified unless something like September 11 actually happened. It tells me that the military has had plans for a very long time in order to deal with this very problem. If someone knew that something like September 11 would happen and couldn't stop it, my guess is that this person's suggested methods were either too expensive or violated too many human rights.

But then again, maybe nobody ever seriously thought anybody would ever crash a passenger plane into the World Trade Center. Perhaps Chris Carter is the visionary who can see past the things that we don't want to believe could happen. There are many dimensions to this discussion, many sides to find yourself on. My guess is that the truth, which we know to be "out there," is actually somewhere between the strongly worded rhetorics. Here's to hoping that our government employs all the creativity available in order to make sure that September 11 never becomes plural.

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