What’s the 411 on 9/11?

Salim Muwakkil

In early December, the 911 Public Discourse Project – a private group formed by 911 Commission members after their official term expired in 2004 – chided the government for ignoring the lessons learned from the Commission’s probe of the terrorist attack.

Inherently skeptical of official dogma, the left has an affinity for alternative explanations.

But the group’s patrician members failed to answer many questions. For example, how, precisely, did the Twin Towers fall? Why did Seven World Trade Center fall despite incurring no structural damage? Why were there no jets to intercept the hijacked planes? What happened to the National Command Authority” that supposedly protects us in emergencies?”

This official reticence, combined with a lack of curiosity from the media, has sparked a grassroots inquiry, publicly dubbed The 911 Truth Movement. 

The movement caught my attention when I saw Dr. David Ray Griffin speaking at the University of Wisconsin at Madison on C‑SPAN earlier this year. Before retiring last year, Griffin was emeritus professor of Philosophy of Religion at the Claremont School of Theology in California. He has written several well-regarded books on religion and spirituality, co-founded the Center for Process Studies and is considered one of the nation’s foremost theologians. I am familiar with his work and regard him as a wise writer on the role of spirituality in society.

So, it was shocking to see him pushing a radical conspiracy theory about 911 on C‑SPAN. His 2004 book, The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 911, has become the manifesto of this movement. At the University of Wisconsin, this distinguished academic told students at Bascom Hall that there is no escape from the frightful conclusion that 911 was engineered by the Bush administration and its Pentagon.”

What could have transformed this sober, reflective scholar into a conspiracy theorist? His passionate advocacy and sterling reputation recharged my latent skepticism. His charges that controlled implosions destroyed the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers especially resonated with me.

When the towers fell in 2001 it reminded me of how Chicago’s public housing high-rises collapsed vertically into their own foundations following controlled implosions. I noticed the similarity between the two but assumed that was just the way tall buildings fell.

Inherently skeptical of official dogma, the left has an affinity for alternative explanations, which sometimes makes progressives pushovers for any scammer with a debunking tale to tell. People like Griffin and Brigham Young University physics professor Steven E. Jones, who also believes the towers were toppled by a controlled demolition, are not the usual suspects. Their dissent from the official line is more credible because their credentials connote respectability. Griffin stoked my interest because of my respect for his scholarship. But his expertise was in a realm completely unrelated to the knowledge needed to make his theories credible.

Progressive journalists have an added burden not to be seen as fodder for conspiracists. Sometimes they need a little help. Groups like Political Research Associates (PRA), based in Somerville, Massachusetts, exist to make sure progressives are not duped by conspiracists of any stripe. The antidote to conspiracism is Power Structure Research based on some form of institutional, systemic or structural analysis that examines race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, class and other factors that are used to create inequality and oppression,” the PRA explained in a preface to its review of Griffin’s The New Pearl Harbor.

The reviewer was Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at the PRA. In an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!,” Berlet agreed with Griffin that there are a number of unanswered questions” regarding 911, but assessed Griffin’s work as a lot of … armchair guesswork by people who haven’t done their homework.” Berlet noted his surprise at this because Griffin’s previous work has been stellar. He’s one of the singular most important religious philosophers in America. I don’t understand this lapse.”

Berlet isn’t alone in wondering what happened to Griffin. In These Times Contributing Editor Terry Allen, a former editor at Amnesty International, is similarly unimpressed. I respect Griffin, but he’s just wrong on his theories,” she says. Allen spent two months assessing the major conspiracy theories concerning 911 and she has concluded there is not much to any of them – especially Griffin’s. I found plausible explanations for most of the things he disputes. I think part of it is that he’s a theologian who operates on faith,” says Allen.

A lack of faith in the Bush administration, as well as its pathological aversion to transparency, are what fuels the ongoing skepticism about the official 911 story. Unfortunately, debunking conspiracy theories is unlikely to change that.

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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
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