GIJON, Spain — It started as soon as I got in the airport taxi on the way to this Spanish coastal city‘s annual Semana Negra writers’ festival. I was scheduled to participate in a high-profile public panel discussion billed as ”The Hidden Truth Behind September 11.“ And it seemed everyone in town had more or less the same question ready to spring on me. ”Come on, what really happened on September 11?“ my driver probed as he lit up a piercingly pungent stick of black tobacco, as though threatening to gas the truth out of me if necessary. ”Why was the audio missing from the videotapes of the planes crashing into the twin towers?“

The next afternoon, as I was being interviewed on a local cable-TV show, the blond Twinkie host — usually concerned with matters no stickier than how to keep a good paella valenciana fluffy — boldly asked, ”Do we really know who flew those planes?“

At least these two admitted that we were talking about planes. Because it seems, nowadays in Europe, that the further you move up on the informational food chain, the more humidly fetid the imagination turns when it comes to Things American. As I prepared to appear on a writers‘ roundtable on the hoity-toitiest of literature programs on Spanish National Television, the host told me he expected me to lay out the case in favor of a new Continental best-seller: The Frightening Fraud by French author Thierry Meyssan. Its more descriptive title in Spanish — The Plane That Didn’t Exist — reveals that the real fraud is the book itself. Indeed, the cranky Parisian daily Liberation called the book ”The Frightening Confidence Trick . . . a tissue of wild and irresponsible allegations, entirely without foundation.“

I politely told my TV host, gracias, but no gracias, and wiped off my makeup. No way would I perfume this untreated sewage squeezed between two covers, no matter how many guaranteed close-ups. The conspiracy laid out by Meyssan posits that American Airlines Flight 77, which killed 189 people when it crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, just plain didn‘t exist. Never mind the hundreds of eyewitnesses, who were all presumably beguiled by a CIA-projected hologram. According to Meyssan, the hole in the Pentagon wall was punched by a rocket fired by an ultra-right-wing faction of the U.S. government itself. The goal? A modern-day Reichstag, an excuse to justify a police state.

(Not having read the book, I can only imagine how the author disposes of the small detail of how the 200 passengers and the fuselage of the real Flight 77 were clandestinely disposed of.)

In the U.S., fortunately, this sort of dementia is adhered to by only tiny clusters of full-time paranoids who can channel KPFK through their top molars.

But here in the Old World, from Rome to Paris to Madrid — and even out here in the provincial boonies near the Portuguese border — this excrement is being lapped up like one big creamy hot-fudge sundae. And it has achieved real currency. While our local L.A. conspiracy king — Michael Ruppert — is but a lowly ex–LAPD cop currently commanding only his own Web site, Mr. Meyssan is president of the Voltaire Network, a respected French think tank whose left-of-center research projects have, at least until now, been considered serious and credible. And his book, like a handful of similar works, is drawing bigger audiences on the Left Bank than a Jerry Lewis film festival.

Many explanations are possible for this mass European delusion. Any American who has experienced a week’s worth of abuse at the hands of Parisian cafe waiters might think all this to be this summer‘s rendition of the usual infantilist-European anti-Americanism. After all, any collection of declining, postcolonial ”middle powers,“ so openly resentful of modern U.S. hegemony, has to do something now and then to re-assert superiority.

But for the most part, conspiracies lure those who seek the comfort of simplicity — whether the duped reside in Van Nuys or Venezia. What are conspiracy theories, really, other than one-size-fits-all explanations for terribly complex and often contradictory realities? And subscribing to any such theory also avoids the discomfort of self-examination.

Having looted and pillaged the poorer half of the world for 500 years, European dominance laid down the boundaries of today’s painfully unequal globe. And today, Europe still richly benefits from that inequality — an imbalance maintained in good part by unchallenged American economic and military firepower.

”We are just hypocrites,“ says an Italian publisher. ”We are like the policeman in Casablanca, shocked, just shocked to find out our protective American NATO allies are in reality imperialists and militarists. Can you imagine?“

With every new revelation about FBICIA intelligence failures around September 11, domestic conspiracy hoaxes also get fresh rushes of oxygen. But the psychological dynamic is the same. Slapping a ”Bush Knew“ bumper sticker on the car might seem to some an act of humorous subversion. But I think of it more as taking an intellectual dive.

Ten months after the attack of September 11, frankly, I wish I could take that same dive. But it‘s just too dishonest. Instead, I am stuck, along with the rest of you, wrestling with formidable contradictions. Endorsing a U.S. military response to the Islamic obscurantists (who this week publicly threatened ”Jewish targets“ in the U.S.) carries with it the risk of becoming complicit in Dubya’s endless war, replete with such atrocities as the death of dozens of Afghan civilians in the latest botched bombing raid. But to seek an alternative, such as a bumper-sticker conspiracy theory, arguing that Bush knew, that the CIA planned it all, that ”this is just about oil“ and so on, seems an enormous and dangerous cop-out.

When faced with armed, religious fascists who vow your destruction, you better have something weightier to throw at them than a dog-eared copy of Thierry Meyssan‘s fantasy screed.

LA Weekly