Americans love a conspiracy. According to a May 17 Zogby poll, 42 percent believe the U.S. government and the 9/11 Commission are covering up what really happened on Sept. 11, 2001.
There is something comforting about a world where someone is in charge – either for good (think gods) or evil (think Bush insiders plotting 9/11). Many people prefer to believe a Procrustean conspiracy rather than accept the alternative: Life can be random, viciously unjust and meaningless; tragedy and joy alike flow from complex combinations of good and bad intentions, careful plotting, random happenstance and bumbling incompetence.
Conspiracy hypotheses often consist of a vast pile of circumstantial evidence shaped into a seemingly coherent whole with the strong glue of faith. Debunk one or even many allegations and the pile still stands, impressive in its bulk and ideological coherence. If size were all, it would convince Pyrrho himself.
Scientific theories, on the other hand, depend on interlocking chains of evidence: The integrity of the whole relies on the soundness of each link. Break any one and the theory founders.
The 9/11 conspiracy is a classic example of a faith-based pile hypothesis. Its proponents cite a mountain of evidence to conclude that the U.S. government perpetrated the 9/11 attacks for its own traitorous ends, chiefly staging “a new Pearl Harbor” to rally support for an invasion of Iraq.
I spent months as a researcher conducting a fact-by-fact dissection of a few key aspects of this hypothesis. I approached the project knowing that U.S. cabals had previously concocted casus belli to drive public support for war: the Gulf of Tonkin for Vietnam, incubator babies for the first Gulf War. And clearly from its early days, the Bush administration had lusted for war with Iraq.
But the hypothesis that it planned and executed the 9/11 attacks is just not supported by a chain of evidence, nor do the facts support the conspiracists’ key charge that World Trade Center buildings were destroyed by pre-positioned explosives.
Structural engineers found the destruction consistent with fires caused by the jet liner strike; that temperatures need not actually melt the steel but that expansion and other fire-related stresses would account for compromised architectural integrity.
When David Ray Griffin, a theologian by trade, said it was “physically impossible by laws of physics” for the planes alone to have brought down the towers, I asked what engineers had confirmed that. “I haven’t talked to any because they would be too afraid to tell the truth,” he said. “How would you be able to protect your family if you were to accuse the government?” he asked, accusing the government.
Many conspiracists offer the collapse of WTC Building 7 as the strongest evidence for the kind of controlled demolition that would prove a plot. Although not hit by planes, it was damaged by debris, and suffered fires eventually fueled by up to 42,000 gallons of diesel fuel stored near ground level. Griffin cited as evidence of government complicity that the building’s sprinkler system should have, but didn’t, put out the fires. But the theologian did not know and had not considered that the collapse of the towers had broken the area’s water main.
Another conspiracist, Alex Jones, writes on his Web site, “Larry Silverstein, the owner of the WTC complex, admitted … that he and the NYFD decided to ‘pull’ WTC 7.” (Leave aside how unlikely it would be for the government to include Silverstein in a treasonous conspiracy, or that the NYFD was in on it, too.)
Silverstein’s actual quote: “I remember getting a call from the fire department commander, telling me that they were not sure they were going to be able to contain the fire, and I said, ‘We’ve had such terrible loss of life, maybe the smartest thing to do is pull it.’ And they made that decision to pull and we watched the building collapse.”
Jones continues: “The word ‘pull’ is industry jargon for taking a building down with explosives.” In fact, a Lexis Nexis search for a three-year period fails to find one American reference to “pull a building” without the preposition “down” when referring to intentional destruction. An alternative explanation would be that given the lack of water and the number of injured and missing firefighters, the NYFD decided to pull workers from Building 7 to concentrate on search and rescue at the fallen towers.
In the end, this kind of undermining of individual “facts,” although relatively easy, is irrelevant for those who base their beliefs on piles rather than chains of evidence.
But the work should be done. Pile conspiracies can be dangerous. Those who deny that HIV is responsible for AIDS, for example, have contributed to unnecessary infections and deaths.
And the 9/11 conspiracy hypotheses distract from the growing chain of evidence documenting how the Bush administration actually manipulated this country to war on a train of lies riding tracks of fear – cynically using the bodies of the 9/11 victims as fuel.