According to a 2006 Scripps-Howard poll, over a third of Americans believe high-ranking officials either helped commit the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or at least allowed them to happen. Other polls report even greater levels of cynicism.
Where do you draw the line separating “fringe conspiracy theory” from “mainstream phenomenon”? We’re not sure, but if one-third of the populace isn’t the mainstream it’s at least a significant tributary of it.
So last November, when we learned that the Connecticut Citizens for a New 9/11 Investigation were hosting a symposium at St. Joseph’s College in West Hartford, we paid it more attention than the usual “UFOs killed JFK” conspiracy e-mails that flood our in-box: rather than delete the message, we called the contact number within.
Distrusting the government is like drinking wine: if you never do it, you’re probably too uptight. If you do it in moderation, it’s very good for your health. But if you do it too much you make yourself ridiculous. Where on this spectrum do the 9/11 deniers fall? Not in the “uptight” zone, that much we knew. The question was, did they have a healthy anti-government buzz or a sloppy-drunk one?
Symposium organizer Damon Bean was quick to distance his group from what he considers the sloppy-drunk 9/11 deniers, those who claim that (for example) the government fired missiles at the Pentagon and hid this by pretending to hijack a plane, whose passengers are presumed alive and in government custody to this day.
Here’s what Bean told us: “Although we all have personal questions about other aspects of the official story, our group and thus the symposium focuses almost exclusively on the scientific and testimonial evidence for controlled demolition of the three towers [in the World Trade Center] because we believe the evidence against the official explanation in this area is so overwhelming.”
Controlled demolition means someone planted explosives in the towers long before the planes hit. If true, that has terrifying implications.
Yes it does, Bean agreed. Some lies, he argued, are so huge their very size helps keep them hidden because “the lie’s too enormous … if you accept [the truth], your whole worldview changes.”
On the second Tuesday of Sept. 2001, the sun rose for the last time on three buildings in Manhattan’s World Trade Center: the Twin Towers and the 47-story Building 7. By sunset on Sept. 11, all three had collapsed.
The official explanation is that 19 men with ties to al-Qaeda hijacked four passenger planes.
Suicidal pilots steered two of them into the twin towers, both of which collapsed within 100 minutes because the heat of the initial explosions and the fires they spawned weakened the skyscrapers’ steel frames.
A 2005 metallurgy report issued by NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Technology) says that “All steels lose strength with increasing temperature. By 600° C, most structural steels have lost more than half their strength.”
In other words, the official story goes, the steel weakened to the point where it could no longer support the buildings, but the steel never melted. (Remember this; it’s the linchpin on which much of the 9/11 denier argument turns.)
So down went the towers. The force of their collapse flung burning debris into Building 7, which fell later that afternoon. The official report on Building 7 hasn’t yet come out, but will probably mention similar steel weakness whenever it does.
The 9/11 deniers have another explanation.
“We have prima facie forensic evidence for the controlled demolition of all three high-rise towers at the World Trade Center on 9/11,” said Richard Gage, a member of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth (and a speaker at 9/11 symposia across the country).
“[The towers] dropped symmetrically, smoothly … at virtually free-fall speed against steel designed to resist such a collapse. That can only happen when the core columns are removed … within a fraction of a second of each other.”
With a controlled demolition, in other words.
Gage has video showing how much the tower collapses resemble controlled demolitions, and file footage of other high-rise fires: steel-frame skyscrapers completely engulfed in flames for over 24 hours without collapsing. Yet the World Trade towers fell after less than two hours of fire burned a mere 5 or 10 percent of their floors.
Of course, the burning buildings in Gage’s video weren’t hit by speeding planes filled with flammable jet fuel. But, the deniers point out, neither was Building 7. Incidentally, among the tenants in Building 7 were the IRS, the Department of Defence, the CIA, the Secret Service, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the mayor of New York’s Office of Emergency Management. Some think that the government brought Building 7 down because that’s where the plot was managed. Hence, pulling it down destroyed the evidence.
Steven Jones, a physicist formerly of Brigham Young University, can often be found at the same symposia as Gage. In 2006 Jones was stripped of his teaching duties at the university. In September of that year, Jones told the news talk show Radio West that the responsibility for the attacks rested with Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and an “international banking cartel.” Jones later quit his position, and has since declined to discuss who he thinks is behind the attack and has said he will “stick with the science.” At the West Hartford symposium, and later with us, Jones discussed Building 7 at length.
“The 9/11 Commission report failed to mention the collapse,” of Building 7, he said in a phone interview. “This is a 47-story skyscraper they didn’t mention.”
And there’s other things they never mentioned, he says, like the traces of a powerful explosive called thermite, which he claims have been found at the site. “We found thermite residue … in the dust from the towers’ collapse … NIST admits it didn’t search for explosive residue.”
Jones also talks about the microscopic “iron-rich spheres” he says he found in the dust. “To form spheres of iron requires the iron to be melted. Liquid … the dust is loaded with these iron-rich spheres. So already, we’re outside the official story of ‘the steel did not melt.’”
Michael Neuman is the unfortunate bureaucrat whose name and number grace the contact information of that NIST report.
We called and (somewhat apologetically) explained we were doing a story on 9/11 conspiracies.
“We don’t want to get into a debate,” Neuman said. “Certainly people are entitled to their opinion … [but] we’re staying away from debates with these groups.”
We assured him we didn’t belong to “these groups,” though we admitted some of the groups’ members made points we could not refute. We hoped Neuman could. The first thing we mentioned was Jones’s claims of finding explosive residue in the debris.
“We examined over 200 pieces of steel and found no evidence of explosives,” Neuman said.
We know, we said (even more apologetically), but what about that letter where NIST said it didn’t look for evidence of explosives?
“Right, because there was no evidence of that.”
But how can you know there’s no evidence if you don’t look for it first?
“If you’re looking for something that isn’t there, you’re wasting your time … and the taxpayers’ money.”
Neuman really didn’t want to talk to us. Depending on your preference, you could interpret that as further proof of a government cover-up, or as a legitimate time-management technique from a bureaucrat who can’t be expected to persuade every single doubter who finds his phone number on the NIST report.
How to tell the difference? We called Stuart Vyse, a psychology professor at Connecticut College, to ask for a rule dividing theories worth investigating from those worth dismissing out of hand.
“A healthy level of skepticism is useful, and there’s no question governments lie to people,” he said. “But in this case, it’s certainly been carried too far … [tales of] government conspiracies are pretty common. They take many forms, the whole UFO thing … ‘we’re being visited by aliens but they’re keeping that from us.’”
To be fair, we said, some of Gage’s and Jones’ points sound (at least to a non-scientist) more reasonable than the alien antics of the Men In Black. The lack of an official report for Building 7 — maybe a new investigation wouldn’t hurt, even though we don’t believe government could pull off such a complicated plot.
Exactly, said Vyse, and the plot’s very complexity is one clue that debate might just be a waste of time. Consider the Law of Parsimony (also known as Occam’s Razor), a form of logical shorthand which basically says when given two competing theories, the simplest one is usually better.
The al-Qaeda hijacking theory is pretty simple: some guys hijacked airplanes and flew them into landmarks. That’s very easy to do, if you can find someone willing to commit suicide for your cause.
Now compare that to the controlled-demolition theory. How many hundreds of people would you need to acquire the explosives, plant them in the buildings, arrange for the airplanes to crash … and, perhaps most implausibly of all, never breathe a single word of this conspiracy?
If you played a role in the controlled demolition of the towers, you could move to a country that doesn’t extradite to the U.S., sell the rights to your story and live like a king. And if you’re evil enough to join such a plot, you’re probably avaricious enough to sell out your co-conspirators for a quick buck. Yet in the six-plus years since the attack, no such person has ever come forward.
The West Hartford symposium’s tightly packed schedule had lectures back-to-back, with no time to socialize. So we played hooky from a few lectures and milled about the lobby instead.
A clean-cut man in a polo shirt and khakis smiled at us. “You’re with the media?” he asked.
We said yes.
And with little preamble he told us the plane-hijacking story was invented by the Bush administration to cover up the fact that they’d hit the buildings with missiles.
“There’s no evidence of planes hitting the Pentagon,” he said. “It’s been proven the video footage of the plane hitting the south tower [of the WTC] is fake. Google Chopper Five.”
Another man said planes did hit the buildings, but not because of hijackers. “Flight 77 [the Pentagon plane] wasn’t really owned by American Airlines,” he said, but by a shadow company out West. “They take aircraft and retrofit them to be flown by remote control … remote is how they control the Mars Rovers. They can do it on earth too.”
Speaking of earth, America has the most powerful military on it. Therefore, someone else told us, “You cannot strike the Pentagon without inside involvement.”
Did we look a little dazed? Perhaps, for the next man smiled sympathetically. “You’re wondering how they planted explosives in the towers with nobody knowing, aren’t you?” We nodded. “Copy paper. Office paper moved into the buildings on skids, a ton of paper at a time … ”
“Who benefited from 9/11 and the global war on terror?” someone else rhetorically asked. “The U.S., if you think we should be controlling the world. Israel benefited tremendously. It was the Mossad masterminding it.”
The Mossad again. That’s the national intelligence agency of the state of Israel. Before the symposium, we’d spent some time online researching 9/11 conspiracies, and came to the following conclusion: not every 9/11 denier believes the Elders of Zion secretly rule the world, but everyone who believes the Elders of Zion secretly rule the world is a 9/11 denier.
In all fairness: the only people at the symposium who said things like “the Jews did it” were some of the off-the-street paying customers; we heard none of the featured speakers blame the plot on “Zionists” or any other shadow groups. But then, none of the featured speakers blamed the plot on anybody.
Damon Bean, Richard Gage and Steven Jones never would answer our questions regarding just who they thought was responsible for the attacks; they would only say that, while they don’t know who did commit the attacks, they know al-Qaeda didn’t.
If not al-Qaeda, then who?
We went online again in search of someone to blame. Anyone to blame, with the following caveat: we ignored all Web sites containing phrases like “Jew-controlled media,” “Illuminati” or “Zionist hegemony.”
Maybe that’s why we couldn’t find any alternate scapegoat.
Conspiracy theories are as American as apple pie. Robert Goldberg, a historian at the University of Utah, specializes in them, so we called to ask if he could give us a neat, simple answer to the question “Why do so many otherwise sane people believe such odd things?”
But of course no single answer exists. “In the 1960s, polls showed 75 percent of Americans said they trust the government; by the 90s, it was down to 25 percent,” Goldberg said. “With the erosion of faith, they want ‘someone to tell us what’s true,’ and that’s where the conspiracy theory comes in.”
So if you can’t trust the government, you can at least trust the guy who tells you why the government can’t be trusted. That explains some conspiracy theorists.
And there’s other motivational possibilities: if you’re able to discern the existence of a huge, secret conspiracy, that makes you more intelligent than the “sheeple” who still can’t see the truth. Quite an ego-boost, that. Or maybe it’s a simple comfort factor: if a big, shadowy organization lurks behind the scenes controlling the world — well, at least that means somebody’s in control.
The thought that a huge secret mystery group could bring down the World Trade Center, push America into war and get away with it is scary, yes. But is it any scarier than getting the same nasty result from the actions of a single wealthy Middle Eastern psychopath with a few suicidal friends?
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