Sunday, Sep. 3, 2006
Why The 9/11 Conspiracies Won't Go Away
Turns out, we
need grand theories to make sense of grand events, or the world just seems too
a look, if you can stand it, at video footage of the World Trade
Center collapsing. Your eye will naturally jump to the top of the
screen, where huge fountains of dark debris erupt out of the falling
towers. But fight your natural instincts. Look farther down, at the
stories that haven't collapsed yet.
In almost every clip you'll
see little puffs of dust spurting out from the sides of the towers.
There are two competing explanations for these puffs of dust: 1) the
force of the collapsing upper floors raised the air pressure in the
lower ones so dramatically that it actually blew out the windows. And
2) the towers did not collapse from the impact of two Boeing 767s and
the ensuing fires. They were destroyed in a planned, controlled
demolition. The dust puffs you see on film are the detonations of
explosives planted there before the attacks.
People who believe
the second explanation live in a very different world from those who
believe the first. In world No. 2, al-Qaeda is not responsible for the
destruction of the World Trade Center. The U.S. government is. The
Pentagon was not hit by a commercial jet; it was hit by a cruise
missile. United Flight 93 did not crash after its occupants rushed the
cockpit; it was deliberately taken down by a U.S. Air Force fighter.
The entire catastrophe was planned and executed by federal officials in
order to provide the U.S. with a pretext for going to war in the Middle
East and, by extension, as a means of consolidating and extending the
power of the Bush Administration.
The population of world No. 2
is larger than you might think. A Scripps-Howard poll of 1,010 adults
last month found that 36% of Americans consider it "very likely" or
"somewhat likely" that government officials either allowed the attacks
to be carried out or carried out the attacks themselves. Thirty-six
percent adds up to a lot of people. This is not a fringe phenomenon. It
is a mainstream political reality.
Although the 9/11 Truth
Movement, as many conspiracy believers refer to their passion, has been
largely ignored by the mainstream media, it is flourishing on the
Internet. One of the most popular conspiracy videos online is
Loose Change, a 90-min. blizzard of statistics, photographs, documents,
eyewitness accounts and expert testimony set to a trippy hip-hop
backbeat. It's designed to pick apart, point by point, the conventional
narrative of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.
For all its
amateur production values--it was created by a pair of industrious
twentysomethings using a laptop, pizza money and footage scavenged from
the Internet--Loose Change is a compelling experience. Take the section
about the attack on the Pentagon. As the film points out--and this is a
tent-pole issue among 9/11 conspiracists--the crash site doesn't look
right. There's not enough damage. The hole smashed in the Pentagon's
outer wall was 75 ft. wide, but a Boeing 757 has a 124-ft. wingspan.
Why wasn't the hole wider? Why does it look so neat?
will tell you that the hole was punched by the plane's fuselage, not
its wings, which sheared off on impact. But then what happened to the
wings? And the tail and the engines? Images of the crash site show
hardly any of the wreckage you would expect from a building that's been
rammed by a commercial jet. The lawn, where the plane supposedly
dragged a wing on approach, is practically pristine. The plane
supposedly clipped five lampposts on its way in, but the lampposts in
question show surprisingly little damage. And could Hani Hanjour, the
man supposedly at the controls, have executed the maneuvers that the
plane performed? He failed a flight test just weeks before the attack.
And Pentagon employees reported smelling cordite after the hit, the
kind of high explosive a cruise missile carries.
something empowering about just exploring such questions. Loose Change
appeals to the viewer's common sense: it tells you to forget the
official explanations and the expert testimony, and trust your eyes and
your brain instead. It implies that the world can be grasped by laymen
without any help or interference from the talking heads. Watching Loose
Change, you feel as if you are participating in the great American
tradition of self-reliance and nonconformist, antiauthoritarian
dissent. You're fighting the power. You're thinking different.
(Conspiracists call people who follow the government line "sheeple.")
"The goal of the movie was just really to get out there and show that
there are alternate stories to what the mainstream media and the
government will tell you," says Korey Rowe, 23, who produced the movie.
"That 19 hijackers are going to completely bypass security and crash
four commercial airliners in a span of two hours, with no interruption
from the military forces, in the most guarded airspace in the United
States and the world? That to me is a conspiracy theory."
also not much of a story line. As a narrative, the official story that
the government--echoed by the media--is trying to sell shows an almost
embarrassing lack of novelistic flair, whereas the story the conspiracy
theorists tell about what happened on Sept. 11 is positively Dan
Brownesque in its rich, exciting complexity. Rowe and his collaborator,
Dylan Avery, 22, actually started writing Loose Change as a fictional
screenplay--"loosely based around us discovering that 9/11 was an
inside job," Rowe says--before they became convinced that the evidence
of conspiracy was overwhelming. The Administration is certainly playing
its part in the drama with admirable zeal. If we went to war to root
out fictional weapons of mass destruction, is staging a fictional
terrorist attack such a stretch?
But there's a
big problem with Loose Change and with most other conspiracy theories.
The more you think about them, the more you realize how much they
depend on circumstantial evidence, facts without analysis or
documentation, quotes taken out of context and the scattered testimony
of traumatized eyewitnesses.
(For what it's worth, the National
Institute of Standards and Technology has published a fact sheet
responding to some of the conspiracy theorists' ideas on its website,
The theories prompt small, reasonable questions that demand answers
that are just too large and unreasonable to swallow. Granted, the
Pentagon crash site looks odd in photographs. But if the Pentagon was
hit by a cruise missile, then what happened to American Airlines Flight
77? Where did all the real, documented people on it go? Assassinated?
Relocated? What about eyewitnesses who saw a plane, not a missile? And
what are the chances that an operation of such size--it would surely
have involved hundreds of military and civilian personnel--could be
carried out without a single leak? Without leaving behind a single
piece of evidence hard enough to stand up to scrutiny in a court?
People, the feds just aren't that slick. Nobody is.
psychological explanations for why conspiracy theories are so
seductive. Academics who study them argue that they meet a basic human
need: to have the magnitude of any given effect be balanced by the
magnitude of the cause behind it. A world in which tiny causes can have
huge consequences feels scary and unreliable. Therefore a grand
disaster like Sept. 11 needs a grand conspiracy behind it. "We tend to
associate major events--a President or princess dying--with major
causes," says Patrick Leman, a lecturer in psychology at Royal Holloway
University of London, who has conducted studies on conspiracy belief.
"If we think big events like a President being assassinated can happen
at the hands of a minor individual, that points to the unpredictability
and randomness of life and unsettles us." In that sense, the idea that
there is a malevolent controlling force orchestrating global events is,
in a perverse way, comforting.
You would have thought the age of
conspiracy theories might have declined with the rise of digital media.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a private, intimate
affair compared with the attack on the World Trade Center, which was
witnessed by millions of bystanders and television viewers and
documented by hundreds of Zapruders. You would think there was enough
footage and enough forensics to get us past the grassy knoll and the
magic bullet, to create a consensus reality, a single version of the
truth, a single world we can all live in together.
But there is
no event so plain and clear that a determined human being can't find
ambiguity in it. And as divisive as they are, conspiracy theories are
part of the process by which Americans deal with traumatic public
events like Sept. 11. Conspiracy theories form around them like scar
tissue. In a curious way, they're an American form of national
mourning. They'll be with us as long as we fear lone gunmen, and feel
the pain of losses like the one we suffered on Sept. 11, and as long as
the past, even the immediate past, is ultimately unknowable. That is to