This article was first posted April 19 2006
With the upcoming release of the film “United 93,” the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have returned to the fore of public consciousness. While for many Americans such painful memories remain forever seared in their minds, for a small but vocal minority the Sept. 11 attacks have taken on a mythical character. These are the Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists.
If Web sites such as whatreallyhappened.com, 911truth.org and scholarsfor911truth.org (among countless others) are any indication, the Sept. 11 conspiracists have become a movement in their own right. Despite a host of differences, they share the belief that the widely accepted version of what happened on Sept. 11 is merely a front for a shadowy plot to fool the American people.
Rather than accept that Islamic terrorists flew planes into buildings and slaughtered innocents in the name of a fanatical ideology, the Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists believe the perpetrators included members of their own government—that somehow the Bush administration, with the collusion of the Pentagon, was either behind the attacks or simply allowed them to happen in order to institute a quasi-police state.
Whatever one’s criticisms of the administration and its approach to the war on terrorism, one would have to be awfully cynical to believe that it would kill or allow thousands (at the least) of Americans to die, simply to accumulate additional powers. But even if one assumes the government acted purely in its own interests, why on earth would it risk weakening the economy and creating instability for the foreseeable future? Not exactly a winning formula for the so-called ruling classes.
Flying in the Face of Common Sense
Undaunted by such appeals to common sense, Sept. 11 conspiracists point to gaps in what we know or widely repeated falsehoods as proof positive that the attacks were not what they seemed. To hear them tell it, United Flight 93 was not brought down by the heroism of everyday Americans but was shot down by U.S. fighter pilots. Similarly, the conspiracists insist that airplanes couldn’t have taken down the World Trade Center towers or the nearby 7 WTC building, but that controlled demolitions accounted for their collapse. Then there’s the theory that the Pentagon was hit not with an airplane but by a missile.
Never mind that the whole country witnessed the horrific sight of planes flying into the World Trade Center, the immediate aftermath of the Pentagon attack and eventually heard the heartrending cell phone calls and cockpit recordings from Flight 93. Or that many studies on the twin towers have concluded that jet fuel combined with incredible levels of heat were to blame for their collapse. Or that 7 WTC sustained much more fire damage in the attack than initially reported. Or that there’s no possible way to predict exactly how such a chaotic scenario will play out.
The true believers continue to insist that our minds must have deceived us.
French left-wing activist and author Thierry Meyssan has made a career out of such claims. In his books “L’Effroyable Imposture” (The Big Lie) and “Le Pentegate,” Meyssan takes great pains to present an alternative scenario for American Airlines Flight 77 and the attack on the Pentagon. Pointing to the seeming disappearance of the airplane after it plowed into the building and the small amount of resulting debris, Meyssan posits that the U.S. government used some variation on a truck bomb, a smaller airplane or a missile to hit the Pentagon. In other words, the government attacked itself.
Meyssan never does explain fully what happened to the 64 passengers who died aboard Flight 77, despite the positive forensic identification at the crash site. Media commentator Barbara Olsen was just one of several passengers who made cell phone calls to loved ones reporting that the plane had been hijacked. No doubt the families of the victims would be thrilled to hear that their relatives didn’t really perish that day, but are being hidden in a CIA safe house somewhere.
Blaming the Jews
Yet another myth popular with the Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists is a belief in the involvement of the Israeli government and, by extension, the ever useful “international Jewish conspiracy.”
Based on a Jerusalem Post article describing the Israeli government’s attempts to account for its citizens in the area of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon when the attacks occurred, a conspiracy involving “4,000 Jews” was born. According to the adherents of this theory, the Mossad (Israeli intelligence agency) forewarned these Jews about the attacks, and so they were able to escape harm. Such rumors again arose after the bombings in the London subway last year. It seems that whatever happens in the world, there are people who will lay the blame at the feet of the Jews.
In the Muslim world, conspiracies involving the dastardly “Zionists” are a dime a dozen. But up until Sept. 11, in the West they were mostly the province of neo-Nazi groups. A brief look at any of the Sept. 11 conspiracy Web sites indicates that things have changed. In fact, a belief in the exaggerated power of pro-Israel Jews in the United States seems to have reached a much wider audience in the wake of Sept. 11.
Hence, the recent report authored by Harvard University’s Stephen M. Walt and the University of Chicago’s John J. Mearsheimer on the alleged influence of the “Israel lobby ” over American politics. As Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has pointed out, the information in the report could have been culled from any number of neo-Nazi or Islamist Web sites.
Even if one doesn’t subscribe to the “blame the Jews” angle of Sept. 11 conspiracy theories, any foray into such territory inevitably leads in that direction. That’s the problem with dipping one’s toes into the waters of conspiracy theories. One might just sink to its bottomless depths.
It’s not as if there’s a shortage of sources debunking Sept. 11 conspiracy theories. PBS aired programs that examined both the building of the World Trade Center and its collapse. The State Department put out a series of detailed reports directly addressing various Sept. 11 conspiracy theories. Popular Mechanics published an eminently useful article last year that went down the list of every conceivable Sept. 11 conspiracy talking point—and debunked them all. Author and Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer also touched on the matter in an article for Scientific American. Then there’s the small matter of al Qaeda having admitted several times to perpetrating the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Paranoid Style
It would be comforting to think that such information would have an impact on the Sept. 11 conspiracists—but, alas, true believers are rarely moved by facts that contradict their preconceived notions.
Historian Richard Hofstadter encapsulated this political strain with his 1965 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” As Hofstadter puts it, “I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
While Hofstadter ascribes such beliefs to the political fringes, Sept. 11 kicked the trend into high gear, and the “paranoid style” has become much more prevalent in the years since. Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists now include politicians such as Cynthia McKinney, actors such as Charlie Sheen, professors, journalists and documentarians.
Indeed, adherents often point to the presence of so many well-educated and otherwise rational people in their ranks as proof of the validity of their claims. But delusional thinking has never been confined to the realm of the uneducated.
The underlying factors likely have more to do with psychology. Indeed, it is often said that conspiracy theories are born out of a sense of powerlessness. In the wake of Sept. 11 and the emergence of the nihilistic threat of Islamic terrorism, feelings of impotence and vulnerability were all too natural. All Americans were affected by such fears. But instead of facing the daunting truth, the Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists chose the path of denial.
Immersed in a political belief system in which the United States (and Israel) is always the bad guy and never the victim, adherents refuse to give credence to any development that does not fit this narrative. So rather than blaming the perpetrators, they fall back on familiar demons. After all, an enemy one can grapple with is much more appealing than the unknown. Such beliefs offer the tantalizing possibility that there’s an explanation for a reality that all too often seems incomprehensible.
I encounter this kind of thinking in the form of feverish e-mails from readers insisting that if I just “knew the truth” I too would understand what’s behind it all. And no doubt I’ll receive more than a few in response to this column. But I’ve looked into the abyss and I have yet to see or hear anything to validate such fantasies.
Then again, I could be part of the conspiracy, too.
This story has been corrected since it was first posted.