Five years after 9/11, the truth about what happened that day is more thoroughly documented and widely available than ever. And yet the crackpot conspiracy theories alleging that the Bush administration orchestrated the attacks or allowed them to happen have become more deeply entrenched and broadly accepted than at any time since that terrible day.
More than a third (36 percent) of the American public believes it is likely that the Bush administration either perpetrated the 9/11 attacks or deliberately failed to stop them "because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East," according to a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll released last month. A Zogby poll in August 2004 found that half of New York City residents believed the Bush administration knew the attacks were coming and "consciously failed to act." The true believers might be a tiny fringe element, but thanks to the Internet, hack academics, and a passive media, they have succeeded in planting a grain of doubt in the minds of a substantial number of Americans.
The Internet is a brilliant vehicle for the dissemination of half-truths — or what only have the appearance of half-truths. Presenting one-sided versions of the story, which usually leave out mountains of available data, and armed with a few snapshots or video clips, conspiracy theorists have crafted page after page of "proof" of their theories.
For example, photographs showing dust and smoke shooting out of the towers as they collapse are cited on Web site after Web site as proof that the towers were brought down by explosions. The theory is reasonable enough, so long as you ignore all the available evidence — which is exactly what the theorists do. Numerous engineers who have studied the towers, and even ones who haven't, have concluded that the puffs of smoke and debris are the result of air being pressed outward by the force of the top floors falling. It is really rather elementary: The physical space occupied by any office building consists mostly of air; if the top floors fall, where does the air in the floors below go? Out. There is no other option. Yet the theorists claim that this perfectly expected expulsion of air is proof that bombs were used.
The most prevalent theory is that the government brought the towers down by controlled demolition. This is what Brigham Young University physics professor Steven Jones, put on leave by BYU last week, believes — once again, despite the preponderance of facts showing otherwise.
Jones and his followers believe that the government placed thermite explosives in the buildings and brought them down by detonation. Never mind that thousands of pounds of explosives would somehow have to have been planted throughout the towers — in office space, behind walls, etc. — without anyone noticing. The "proof" of this theory is that the towers came down so quickly: The resistance of the lower floors would have slowed the collapse — unless, that is, the lower floors were exploded.
The video evidence clearly refutes this claim. The towers unquestionably collapsed from the top down, not bottom up. The force of the collapsing top floors, combined with the weakened steel below, were enough to bring the towers down remarkably quickly — almost in free fall, in fact.
A good example of the flimsiness of the conspiracy theories is the claim that a video shows "molten steel" falling from one of the towers. A jet-fuel fire is not strong enough to melt steel, so the picture "proves" that thermite explosives were used. The National Institutes for Standards and Training found was that the photo really shows melted aluminum from one of the aircraft. The theorists scream that melted aluminum is white, and the metal in question is clearly yellow, case closed. In its pure state, melted aluminum is white, but of course, it wasn't pure when coming out of the towers. It was mixed with all the other burned debris, which changed its color.
The conspiracy theories rely on just that sort of thinking. They approach 9/11 as if it were a controlled scientific experiment: In theory, things are supposed to work in a certain way; because they did not, the official story cannot be true. Conspiracy theorists have little patience for facts of life, such as bureaucratic incompetence, human error, and extreme conditions. They tend to believe that the government functions at peak, even superhuman, levels. Their regard for the government — or at least, for the competence of the government — is particularly strange. The top conspiracy theorist, David Ray Griffin, claims the official story cannot possibly be true is because "such incompetence by FAA officials is not believable."
The support of "academics" such as Griffin has lent much credence to the conspiracy mongers, but how credible are these academics? Last Wednesday Britain's Daily Mail published a story claiming: "The 9/11 terrorist attack on America which left almost 3,000 people dead was an 'inside job,' according to a group of leading academics." But the group in question, Scholars for 9/11 Truth, of which Griffin is the most prominent member, is in no sense a "group of leading academics." It is a collection of like-minded crackpot theorists who happen to have some connection to academia.
Scholars for 9/11 Truth claims about 300 total members, 76 of whom have "academic affiliations," according to its founder, retired University of Minnesota-Duluth philosophy professor James H. Fetzer. He told this to my newspaper, the New Hampshire Union Leader, last month when one of our reporters discovered that a University of New Hampshire professor was a member and wanted to teach a class on 9/11. The UNH professor, William Woodward, teaches psychology — not engineering or physics — is a Quaker pacifist previously arrested for demonstrating at the office of U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, and has a long history of left-wing activism. When asked by a reporter to explain his theory that the planes were not hijacked airliners, Woodward admitted that he could not account for the missing passengers who boarded their flights and never returned. Nonetheless, he was convinced that he was right — because the official 9/11 report left too much unexplained, he said.