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Was 9/11 a conspiracy? ‘Truthers' make their case

Andrew Ryan | Columnist profile | E-mail

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Watching the amateur video evidence of 9/11 has not gotten easier with time.

The images of Sept. 11, 2001, are burned into our collective conscience. Framed against that bright blue morning, the gasps and cries of New Yorkers serving as soundtrack, the footage of the two airliners slicing into the twin towers remains a visceral viewing experience, even eight years removed. And more so for those who don't buy into the accepted version of events.

Though rarely shown on TV these days, the 9/11 footage is replayed more than once in The Unofficial Story (CBC, 9 p.m.). Airing on tonight's edition of the fifth estate , the documentary follows up on some fairly startling public-opinion polls of late.

11 Sep 2001, Manhattan, New York, New York, USA --- Terrorist hijacked United Airlines flight 175 flies into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City during terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. --- Image by � Rob Howard/CORBIS For fifth estate episode on cbc

To wit: More than half of all Americans believe the Bush administration had advance knowledge of 9/11, and did nothing to stop it; slightly more than one-third of the Canadian population believes likewise. As with JFK and the moon landing, the conspiracy theories are out there.

“The number of people who believe the U.S. government was involved in the attacks appears to be growing,” says fifth estate veteran Bob McKeown, who helms the report. “Most of them believe there are still questions that have gone unanswered.”

In some ways, the film is a long-delayed sequel to a much-discussed 2003 fifth estate program, titled Conspiracy Theories , that aired during the early days of the Iraq war. That episode similarly explored events leading up to the tragedy of 9/11, with particular emphasis paid to the ties between the Bushes and the bin Ladens.

“It was the sort of information that boggled the imagination and drew a huge viewer response,” says McKeown. “We've kept our eyes on the story and since the conspiracy movement is growing, it seemed like something we should revisit.”

Driven by the Internet in countless blogs and chat groups, the new generation of skeptics, known as “Truthers” have had several years to build their case.

Citing endless, dizzying technical lore, the Truthers' basic contention is that 9/11 was part of a vast conspiracy and cover-up by a criminal faction situated within the U.S. government, which later used the attacks to rationalize subsequent military actions.

On the surface, the scenario appears to make sense. Then again, McKeown says, “There's a huge leap of faith required to lead someone from asking questions about engineering and structural design to making the argument that elements of the government played a role in the murder of thousands of people, just to provide an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. There's something in that leap I don't quite comprehend.”

But the Truther movement is gathering steam. Among the group's more prominent proponents is Richard Gage, a well-regarded architect interviewed by McKeown in the program. Gage is fervent in his belief that the destruction was intentional, and was not accomplished with airplanes, but with explosives. He speaks convincingly of pillars of concrete and gypsum being turned to talcum.

“Gage describes himself as a lifelong Reagan Republican, who never would have believed a conspiracy of this level was ever possible,” McKeown says. “The Truthers believe he brings credibility to their cause.”

Also speaking out for the Truthers movement is academic and Nobel Peace Prize nominee David Ray Griffin – who questions the lack of NORAD response after the first plane struck the tower – and Canadian professor Kee Dewdney, who insists the fabled on-board struggle between hijackers and passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 could only be a hoax.

“The really interesting thing to me is that you cannot get these people to speculate,” observes McKeown. “They will say, ‘That is not my job.'”

For a Canadian perspective, the program sits down with veteran media maven Barrie Zwicker, described as the “point man” for 9/11 truth in Canada. Zwicker is beyond passionate as he talks of “a crime of mass murder and treachery that is an unopposed military operation.”

As probably should be expected with any conspiracy theorizing, the Truthers' side strains the boundaries of credibility. One faction suggests that the phone calls from doomed passengers on-board the planes were faked by voice actors. The suggestion does seem to have some credence, however, because of the simple scientific fact that most cellphones do not work at high altitudes.

“It's those kind of unresolved issues that start people off on these tangents.”

Although McKeown is well-served by objectivity gained from nearly three decades of reporting in the program, he still expects substantial viewer feedback.

“So far it's been very difficult for the Truthers to get anyone in the mainstream media to take this seriously,” he says. “I'm sure we're going to get a lot of mail from people criticizing us just for broadcasting the episode.”

At the same time, the real reason why people are buying into the 9/11 conspiracy theories may have more to do with the reality that eight years of George W. Bush have left Americans deeply distrustful of central government – witness the current resistance to Obama's health-care plan – and the simple fact that everybody is entitled to their own opinion in the online universe.