Lurking just beneath the surface of New Hampshire's presidential primary is rabid talk of conspiracy and the attacks on Manhattan and Washington six years ago today.
Viewers of last Wednesday's Republican debate caught of glimpse of what has been happening when Rep. Ron Paul made the following, underreported, oration on the causes of the Iraq War. "The American people didn't go in. A few people advising this administration, a small number of people called the neoconservative hijacked our foreign policy," he said. "They're responsible, not the American people. They're not responsible. We shouldn't punish them."
Mr. Paul's singling out of neoconservatives, which received applause, were followed by comments of the terrorist responsible for the September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden: "And among the most important items contained in Bush's speeches since the events of the 11th is that the Americans have no option but to continue the war. This tone is in fact an echoing of the words of neoconservatives like Cheney, Rumsfeld and Richard Perle, the latter having said previously that the Americans have no choice in front of them other than to continue the war or face a holocaust."
Blaming the neoconservatives for a war that has lasted for more years than many thought it would is an attractive answer to a messy predicament as well as a clever propaganda point for Mr. bin Laden
Troubled times, after all, give rise to extreme thinking. But easy answers make for bad politics. And as controversial as Mr. Paul's comments in the contest for the Republican nomination have been, the Texas congressman at least accepts the notion that America fell victim to enemy attacks on September 11. The same cannot be said of some of his supporters. Back in August, two of his New Hampshire backers were on hand at a Hillary Clinton event on the crisis in mortgage lending. They were an innocent looking pair, a young man, age 19, and his sister, age 22, handing out a brochure titled "Why You Should Demand a New 9-11 Investigation." The brochure laid out what have become the standard tenets for those who challenge the accepted view of the attacks: questions about the collapse of World Trade Center Building 7 and the destruction of the Twin Towers as well as assertions of motive.
The main premise behind the brochure and the array of accompanying Web sites seems to be that individuals or elements within the American government had foreknowledge of the attacks. The brochure cites a publication of "The Project For a New American Century, a neo-con think tank" as supplying their motive — a cataclysmic attack that would spur a military build-up. Questions from the conspiracists persist despite a comprehensive and highly detailed rebuttal in "Popular Mechanics." The pair, whose appearance recalled the character of A.J. Soprano and his female friend, both of whom became obsessed with Al Qaeda in the final season of "The Sopranos," said they were supporters of Mr. Paul. "Enough of liars," the young woman said of the other candidates.
When Senator Clinton finished her remarks that day, the crowd applauded — except for these two who booed. Two of Mrs. Clinton's supporters turned around in their seats to chastise the young pair, who exited quickly amid epithets. The scene was not unique. Signs reading "9/11 Truth Now" greeted attendees at the first debates at St. Anselm College in June. Following the second debate of two debates at the college, Matt Lepacek, was arrested following an angry confrontation with Ed Goeas, a strategist for Mayor Giuliani's campaign in the spin room. "Are you aware from talking with Giuliani that the buildings were going to collapse?" Mr. Lepacek hollered at Mr. Goeas prior to being taken away by police.
As attention focuses more closely on New Hampshire in the coming months, those who exist on the fringes of both parties are more likely to be heard. Mr. Paul's supporters, even those who do not embrace the extreme view of 9/11, are highly vocal and organized. The chairman of New Hampshire's Republican Party, Fergus Cullen, for example, was quoted in the Concord Monitor describing his party's aggressive advocacy for their candidate at last week's debate. "Several of the Ron Paul people were rushing the panelists, badgering them for not giving Paul enough time," Mr. Cullen said. Expect more of this as the leaves change colors and the air turns crisp.
Another of the many tragic after-effects of the September 11 attacks is the extreme turn that has taken place in some parts of our political discourse. New Hampshire will be the testing ground that demonstrates our democracy is strong enough to withstand it.
Mr. Gitell (gitell.com) is a contributing editor at The New York Sun.