illustration: Lloyd Miller
The ABC's of 9-11:
What Really Happened: A Beginner's Guide to the 'Truth' Movement
by Jarrett Murphy
The ABC's of 9-11
The birth and life of the '9-11 Truth movement'
The basics of alternative 9-11 theories
Your Turn: Ground Zero Stories?
Experts want to interview the 2,000 who made it out of WTC 1 & 2
Power Plays by Jarrett Murphy
that a government illegally and secretly sells weapons to an enemy
nation and diverts the proceeds to a guerrilla group. Or agents in one
country, hoping to keep control of a second country, use spies in a
third country to try to assassinate a religious leader. Let's say, in
order to hurt a rival, operatives for a candidate cut a back-channel
deal with hostage takers to delay the release of the captives. Better
yet, what if three countries make a pact in which one starts a war so
the others can play peacemakers and get what they want?
Bad things happen all the time; only some events turn out to be
conspiracies and/or fodder for conspiracy theories. The above
references (to Iran-Contra, the supposed KGB effort to kill Pope John
Paul II, the purported October Surprise plot involving the 1980 Reagan
campaign and the Iran hostages, and the 1956 Suez Canal crisis) are
examples of the breadth of events that -- accurately in only some
cases -- get stuck with the C label.
Conspiracy theories usually attach to events that have shocked
or hurt many people, such as the JFK assassination (the daddy of modern
conspiracy theories). It also helps if the first official stories turn
out to be false or incomplete; every official lie weakens the
credibility of the mainstream tales and augments the plausibility of
Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida who
has written about conspiracy theories, sees other common structural
elements. "You'd also need specifics that go to really gritty details,"
Fenster says, "a level of detail that suggests that . . . the person
who's telling me this knows what they are talking about." And the
details generally revolve around the idea, says Fenster, that "there
are bad guys out there that have some sort of motivation to do what
they are doing, that you can find traces or evidence of what they are
doing, and that some effort of newly enlightened people to band up
against them to correct history is necessary."
That sense of taking action is one aspect of what makes
conspiracy theories satisfying to believe. Another is that they bring
order to an unwieldy universe: Even a theory that posits an overweening
evil force in the world is comforting compared to the images of random
tragedy we see on the evening news. This is especially true of what
Michael Barkun, a poli-sci professor at Syracuse's Maxwell School,
calls super�conspiracy theories, like the one about a worldwide Jewish
Here is the usual pschopathologizing of "conspiracy theorists"
lumping skeptics of the 9/11 attack in with
theories also reflect their developers' values. "I think there is
something deeply populist about the U.S.," says Fenster. "We claim to
have a fear of the concentration of private and public power, and a lot
of our conspiracy theories relate to the idea that there are some
private entities that are capturing our political system."
The problem is that if people erroneously believe in a shadowy
conspiracy, it is difficult to change their minds because
counter-evidence can be seen as a ploy by the conspirators to conceal
the dirty deeds. And the danger, Barkun says, "is that we may end up in
a place where there are a lot of different pictures of the world. The
question is: Can you have a workable society if that happens?"
That's not an idle worry. Conspiracy theories are typically
depicted as the ruminations of a lunatic fringe, but in fact, almost
everybody is into them. Former Justice Department official Webster
Hubbell recalls President Clinton asking him to find out the truth
about UFOs and the JFK assassination. And despite President Bush's plea
not to "tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories concerning the attacks
of September the 11th; malicious lies that attempt to shift the blame
away from the terrorists, themselves, away from the guilty," several
members of his administration have -- to varying degrees -- tried to tie the
attacks to Saddam Hussein. These claims owe much to scholar Laurie
Mylroie's efforts over the past decade to link Iraq to everything from
the Oklahoma City bombing to TWA Flight 800.