David Aaronovitch: How to make myths and legends

'Even when confronted by the incredible, we soon manage to make events conform to whatever we believed in the first place'
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I got a letter yesterday from Greg in Leeds. Greg wanted to draw my attention to something that he felt had been overlooked in the coverage of the 11 September massacres. This was the – in his words – "possible (probable?) Israeli dimension to the US hijacks/bombings". In Greg's opinion it was quite feasible (probable?) that Mossad, the Israeli secret service, had set up the whole thing to look like a Muslim outrage.

According to Greg, a writer called Ostrovsky had said that they had earlier tried to kill George Bush senior in Madrid because he had frozen loan guarantees to the Jewish state. That failed, but the World Trade Centre thing had succeeded, and so asked Greg, inevitably, rhetorically and patronisingly, "cui bono – who gains?" "These events," he answered himself, "could have been tailor-made ...", etc, etc, etc. You can fill in the rest. Next week Greg can prove to me how Jews started the First World War. Probably.

What happened last Tuesday was so absurd, so far-fetched that anything now seems possible. People in LA tell people in London that they wouldn't be at all surprised if ol' Bush hadn't done it himself to improve his popularity ratings. Abu Hamza, the Finsbury Park fundamentalist who – like Lord Nelson – seems to be missing another body part whenever he appears in public, informed the ITV London audience that there was no way that the twin towers could have fallen down, simply because two puny passenger airliners carrying 50,000 gallons of aviation fuel had been flown into them at 400mph. As a chartered engineer, he could assure everyone that something else had happened, something (he hinted) involving the authorities.

It says something for the resilience of the human spirit that, even when confronted by the incredible, many of us soon manage to make events conform to whatever it was we thought or believed in the first place. We take hold of versions that suit our temperaments. We construct or retail myths, some of which are just daft.

In journalism and the City there is a whole cohort of spurned prophets, whose job is to tell us that they have discovered that we are all doomed. In Monday's Times William Rees-Mogg warned us about the nukes. He cited an anonymous paper, "prepared earlier in the year, which is circulating in the City of London" (I love the use of the word "prepared" here. It confers so much spurious authority.) This paper made the following claim. "Bin Laden's possession of weapons of mass destruction," it said, "is generally considered (in intelligence circles) to be a given."

It gets worse. "One source even suggests that bin Laden obtained several ... nuclear suitcase bombs in the autumn of 1998." Rees-Mogg concludes, "Bin Laden may indeed have nuclear weapons, which could still be in Afghanistan, but could already be hidden near their targets."

Well, if that's true, why wait till now to tell us and why wait till now to declare war on international terrorism? Not just nukes. According to ex-senator Gary Hart, terrorists may also have access to even more devilish weapons. "The next attack," he forecast with a horrible precision, "will be ... chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in cities like Denver, Seattle or Nashville". Or Reading. A congress-woman from California expects something like this to happen soon because of the rule that terrorists always attack twice.

But who are "they"? They are bin Laden, not least because that's who they were last time. The Washington Post credits his group, in its fact-file, with having between "several hundred to several thousand members". This I take to be code for "we have no bloody idea". And what kind of members does he have? Here I am partly responsible for my own myth-making, having stuck a nice sentence in last week's piece about how stone-throwers become suicide bombers. In Gaza they may do, but – as Robert Fisk showed in his remarkable report from the Beka'a valley in The Independent on Sunday – the profile of the World Trade Centre hijackers was quite different. Many were from affluent families far from the frontline.

The anti-American left has its mythology of the cause. One reader wrote to me arguing that the US "is the biggest baddest most brutal most evil most cold, indifferent and arrogant and most self-righteously hypocritical ROGUE STATE the world has ever known." Eat your heart out, Adolf. Others adumbrate a virtual law that says that any action whatsoever against terrorism is doomed, ignoring how Nato's victory in Kosovo saved the Albanian population and helped to bring Milosevic, eventually, to The Hague.

The right, too. Jerry Falwell, the born-again, fallen, born yet-again Christian evangelist went on a US radio station over the weekend to say that God had withdrawn his protection from America. "I really believe," he told Pat Robertson, "that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"

In a secular echo of Falwell, the journalist Michael Gove used his column in The Times to blame weedy liberals and parlour pinks. "The West has grown weak since the collapse of communism," he said, not least because of "the Human Rights Act which deprives us of the chance to keep even the most potentially aggressive visitor to these shores securely observed." Others have other fish to fry. "He was born and raised in Islington, North London, the heart of Tony Blair's New Labour," said a Mail writer of a loud-mouthed young fundamentalist. "But, like many young British Moslems, Shah Jalal Hussain believes Whitehall and Downing St are legitimate targets for suicide bombings". "Like many?" How many is many? In Birmingham there had been a "packed meeting" of the extremist group Al-Muhajiyoun. Scary. What does "packed" conjure up to you? 500 in a school hall? 1,000 in a lecture theatre? 30,000 mad mullahs in a stadium? You had to read other papers to discover that there were 50 at this meeting. Nevertheless these were, for Freddie Forsyth, the fifth column of "rabidly anti-British, anti-Christian and anti-Western fanatics".

None of these myths, of course, have quite the same potency as those that must have launched the boy from the Beka'a on his mission. Can it really be true that these young men believed that they would get to live eternally in Paradise with 70 virgins? How long, a child would ask, could 70 virgins actually last? Or are they like the Magic Pudding, constantly re- purified after every encounter?

We all do it, not least so that we can cope. Mayor Giuliani's insistence that New York will be the better for the atrocity is part of what my analyst friend calls the Cosmopolitan dialectic, after the magazine. I survived and I will be stronger, the redemptive power of pain and all that. This too is a myth. Tragedy often leads to nothing, or just to more pain. We want to hear about "I love you" messages on the answerphone, but not about the smell of human decay in Manhattan. When I need to deal with the post-WTC blues I invoke an image of the passengers who fought back, yet most didn't.

I don't write this to make readers feel worse, but just to remind myself about the need to question everything that has been said and will be said about 11 September. Some myths, we know, can kill.