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Dangerous World Fuels Conspiracy Theorists

WTC -- 9-11 --- The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind New York's Empire State Building in this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo.
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By CBSNews.com's Alfonso Serrano.

Five years later, it's the violent rattling of the ground moments before the World Trade Center's South Tower fell, and the subsequent pulverized concrete that blanketed him like snowfall that keeps Gary Welz raising questions about just what he survived on Sept. 11, 2001.

"I felt what was like an earthquake — and I've been in earthquakes before — just before the South Tower fell," recalls Welz, an adjunct math lecturer at John Jay Criminal College and Fordham University. Until recently, Welz was a member of Scholars for 9/11 Truth, a group of over 300 professionals that questions the government's explanation of the attacks.

"The official explanation that I've heard doesn't make sense because it doesn't explain why I heard and felt an explosion before the South Tower fell and why the concrete was pulverized," said Welz.

Welz is among the growing ranks of conspiracy theorists who question the official explanation of not only the Sept. 11 attacks but virtually every major news story in publication: from FEMA's response after Hurricane Katrina to Cory Liddle's plane crash into a Manhattan high rise to the birth of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' baby, Suri.

"There has certainly been a growth in conspiracy theories since 9/11," says Michael Barkun, a political science professor at Syracuse University and author of "A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America." "But looking back, there has been a growth over a longer period of time, from the late '80s or early '90s."

Barkun credits the end of the Cold War with destroying our vision of the world being neatly divided into good and evil. What conspiracy theorists do, he says, is provide a simple view of an increasingly muddled, dangerous world.

The actions of U.S. administrations in recent American history have done nothing to dissuade conspiracy theorists. The details of the 1980s Iran-Contra affair, after all, read like an implausible conspiracy theorist's dream. And while less convoluted than Iran-Contra, the Watergate scandal provides fodder too.

The Bush administration, it can be argued, has encouraged a new generation of theorists after implying there was a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks — which President Bush later shot down — and insisting Iraq was riddled with weapons of mass destruction.

Whether part of a cyclical pattern of history or a result of recent governing, skepticism toward the federal government has mushroomed. An eye-opening Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll this year found that out of 1,000 adults surveyed, 36 percent believe it is likely federal officials were involved in 9/11 or did nothing to stop it because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East. And 16 percent of Americans believe that secretly planted explosives brought down the twin towers.

"There has been a slope upwards in conspiracy theories in the last two years and part of the explanation is a disillusion with the Bush administration and the war in Iraq," said Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and author of "Conspiracy Theories: Secrets and Power in American Culture." "As the war goes awry, people are more open to conspiracy theories."