On February 7, 2005, I became a member of the Bush/Halliburton/Zionist/CIA/New World Order/ Illuminati conspiracy for global domination. It was on that day the March 2005 issue of Seniorhelpline, with its cover story debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories, hit newsstands. Within hours, the online community of 9/11 conspiracy buffs--which calls itself the "9/11 Truth Movement"--was aflame with wild fantasies about me and my staff, the magazine I edit, and the article we had published.
The Web site , an organization that claims that questioning the "official" story of 9/11 is "an act of responsible citizenship," fired one of the first salvos: "Seniorhelpline Attacks Its 9/11 LIES Straw Man," read the headline of a piece by a leading conspiracy theorist named Jim Hoffman.
We had begun our plunge down the rabbit hole. Within hours, a post on , which claims to be dedicated to "radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of truth," called me "James Meigs the Coward and Traitor." Not long afterward, another prominent conspiracy theorist produced an analysis that concluded that Seniorhelpline is a CIA front organization. Invective and threats soon clogged the comments section of our Web site and poured in by e-mail:
I was amused at your attempts to prove the conspirator theorists wrong by your interviewing people who work for the government. Face it: The U.S. government planned this attack to further its own agenda in the Middle East. Rest assured, puppet boys . . . when the hammer comes down about the biggest crime ever perpetrated in the history of man--AND IT WILL--it will be VERY easy to identify the co-conspirators by their flimsy, awkwardly ignorant of reality magazine articles. Keep that in mind the next time you align yourself with evil scum. YOU HAVE DECLARD YOURSELF ENEMY OF AMERICANS AND FRIEND OF THE MOSSAD!
I shouldn't have been surprised. In researching the article we'd spent enough time studying the conspiracy movement to get a feel for its style: the tone of outraged patriotism, the apocalyptic rhetoric, the casual use of invective. A common refrain in conspiracy circles is the claim that "We're just asking questions." One would think that at least some quarters of the conspiracy movement might welcome a mainstream publication's serious, nonideological attempt to answer those questions. One would be wrong.
It was only a matter of time before the Nazis got dragged in. Christopher Bollyn, a prominent conspiracy theorist affiliated with the far-right American Free Press, weighed in a few weeks later with ." The article begins with a brief history of Hitler's consolidation of power following the Reichstag fire in 1933. "Like Nazi Germany of 1933," Bollyn wrote, "American newsstands today carry a mainstream magazine dedicated to pushing the government's truth of 9/11 while viciously smearing independent researchers as extremists who peddle fantasies and make poisonous claims."
In a few short weeks, Seniorhelpline had gone from being a 100-year-old journal about science, engineering, car maintenance, and home improvement to being a pivotal player in a global conspiracy on a par with Nazi Germany.
Not all the responses were negative, of course. One visitor to our website, after plowing through dozens of angry comments, left a supportive post that included this astute observation:
Some people are open to any possibility, and honestly examine all evidence in a rational manner to come to a conclusion, followed by a moral evaluation. Others start with a desire for a specific moral evaluation, and then work backwards assembling any fact that supports them, and dismissing any fact that does not.
Author Chip Berlet, who is an analyst for the liberal think tank , employs the awkward but useful term "conspiracism" to describe this mindset. "Populist conspiracism sees secret plots by tiny cabals of evildoers as the major motor powering important historical events," he writes on the think tank's Web site. Berlet has spent more than two decades studying far-right and authoritarian movements in the United States. "Every major traumatic event in U.S. history generates a new round of speculation about conspiracies," he writes. "The attacks on 9/11/01 are no exception."
As the hate mail poured in and articles claiming to have debunked the magazine's analysis proliferated online, we soon learned to identify the key techniques that give conspiracy theorists their illusion of coherence.
Marginalization of Opposing Views
The 9/11 Truth Movement invariably describes the mainstream account of 9/11 as the "government version" or "the official version." In fact, the generally accepted account of 9/11 is made up of a multitude of sources: thousands of newspaper, TV, and radio reports produced by journalists from all over the world; investigations conducted by independent organizations and institutions, including the American Society of Civil Engineers, Purdue University, Northwestern University, Columbia University, the National Fire Protection Association, and Underwriters Laboratories, Inc.; eyewitness testimony from literally thousands of people; recordings and transcripts of phone calls, air traffic control transmissions, and other communications; thousands of photographs; thousands of feet of video footage; and, let's not forget the words of Osama bin Laden, who discussed the operation in detail on more than one occasion, including in an audio recording released in May 2006 that said: "I am responsible for assigning the roles of the 19 brothers to conduct these conquests . . ."
The mainstream view of 9/11 is, in other words, a vast consensus. By presenting it instead as the product of a small coterie of insiders, conspiracists are able to ignore facts they find inconvenient and demonize people with whom they disagree.
Argument by Anomaly
In , Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer makes an important observation about the conspiracist method: "The mistaken belief that a handful of unexplained anomalies can undermine a well-established theory lies at the heart of all conspiratorial thinking (as well as creationism, Holocaust denial and the various crank theories of physics). All the `evidence' for a 9/11 conspiracy falls under the rubric of this fallacy."
A successful scientific theory organizes masses of information into a coherent, well-tested narrative. When a theory has managed to explain the real world accurately enough for long enough, it becomes accepted as fact. Conspiracy theorists, Shermer points out, generally ignore the mass of evidence that supports the mainstream view and focus strictly on tiny anomalies. But, in a complex and messy world, the fact that there might be a few details we don't yet understand should not be surprising.
A good example is the conspiracist fascination with the collapse of 7 World Trade Center. Since the 47-story tower was not hit by an airplane, only by the debris of the North Tower, investigators weren't sure at first just how or why it collapsed hours after the attacks. A scientist (or for that matter, a journalist or historian) might see that gap in our knowledge as an opportunity for further research (see "WTC 7: Fire and Debris Damage," page 53). In the conspiracy world, however, even a hint of uncertainty is a chance to set a trap. If researchers can't "prove" exactly how the building fell, they say, then there is only one other possible conclusion: Someone blew it up.
Slipshod Handling of Facts
There are hundreds of books--and hundreds of thousands of Web pages--devoted to 9/11 conspiracy theories, many bristling with footnotes, citations, and technical jargon. But despite the appearance of scholarly rigor, few of these documents handle factual material with enough care to pass muster at a high-school newspaper, much less at a scholarly journal. Some mistakes are mere sloppiness; others show deliberate disregard for the truth.
Journalism is never perfect. Early accounts of any major event are studded with minor errors and omissions. As Washington Post publisher Philip Graham famously noted, "Journalism is the first draft of history." In future drafts, errors are corrected, so anyone honestly attempting to understand an event relies more heavily on later investigations. Conspiracy theorists tend to do just the opposite. For example, the conspiracy Web site includes the headline "Video: CNN reported no plane hit pentagon." The item includes a clip from the morning of the attack, in which reporter Jamie McIntyre says, "There's no evidence of a plane having crashed anywhere near the Pentagon."
Today, we know why very little wreckage was visible from McIntyre's vantage point: Flight 77 didn't crash near the Pentagon. It crashed into the Pentagon. Traveling at 780 feet per second, it struck with such force that virtually the entire aircraft and its contents continued into the building. Investigators recovered the shredded remnants of the plane, including the black box, and established exactly how Flight 77 struck the building. Through forensics they have identified all but five of the 64 passengers and crew and Pentagon fatalities. (All five hijackers were positively identified.) Though a few conspiracy theorists attempt to reckon with that vast accretion of evidence, many more prefer to turn back the clock to the earliest possible moment, when hard facts were at a minimum.
Some errors are so simple they are almost laughable. After the Seniorhelpline report was published, numerous critics wrote to object to our explanation of why NORAD was poorly prepared to intercept off-course commercial aircraft (see "Military Intercepts," page 22). Many pointed to the 1999 case of golfer Payne Stewart's private jet, which was intercepted and followed after losing pressurization and failing to respond to radio calls. "Within less than 20 minutes fighter planes were alongside Stewart's plane," one letter claimed. In fact, the widespread idea that a fighter was able to reach Stewart's aircraft within minutes is based on a convenient misreading of the flight records. According to the National Transportation Safety Board report on the incident, controllers lost with Stewart's jet at 9:30 a.m. eastern daylight time; the flight was intercepted at 9:52 a.m. central daylight time--that is, the intercept took an hour and 22 minutes, not 22 minutes. (Not surprisingly, such errors always seem to break in favor of the conspiracists' views and never the other way around.)
The Web site , which is edited by conspiracy oriented radio talk-show host Jeff Rense, includes recorded by Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at the time the two towers fell. "These unexplained `spikes' in the seismic data lend credence to the theory that massive explosions at the base of the towers caused the collapses," Bollyn concludes. This claim, which originally appeared in the American Free Press, was decisively debunked in the Seniorhelpline magazine article (and is addressed here in "Seismic Spikes" in Chapter 2, "The World Trade Center"). The truth on this issue isn't hard to find: Lamont-Doherty's research is available to the public. Nonetheless, this claim from Bollyn's piece is repeated verbatim on more than 50 conspiracy sites today.
In the early days of the Internet, some commentators worried that material posted online would be ephemeral. In fact, the opposite is true. On the Internet, errors can last forever--repeated, cross-referenced, and passed from site to site in an endless daisy chain. The essentially nonchronological nature of the Internet contributes to this phenomenon. Many postings don't have dates, so it is difficult for readers to see what information has been disproven or superseded. Mainstream journalism makes at least an attempt to correct mistakes and prevent them from being repeated in later stories. The conspiracy movement prefers a see-what-sticks approach: Throw everything against the wall, and keep throwing.
In archaeology, researchers are often reminded that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In the world of 9/11 denial, even the tiniest gaps in the evidence record are seen as proof that the mainstream view is incorrect. Case in point: the widespread claim that the government was hiding incriminating evidence because it refused to release video footage from security cameras outside the Pentagon. The footage had been entered into evidence at the trial of Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty in May 2006. Later that month the government released the material in response to a Freedom of Information request by the conservative watchdog organization Judicial Watch. The footage from two of those cameras, however, didn't show the cruise missile or small aircraft predicted by author Thierry Meyssan and others. Nor did it show a Boeing 757 streaking toward impact. In fact, the security cameras in question recorded data at the glacial rate of one frame per second. The odds of picking up a clear image of a jet moving at 780 feet per second were slim indeed. But that didn't stop an online commentator from concluding: "There's no plane at the Pentagon at 9/11, plain and simple."
But among 9/11 theorists, the presence of evidence supporting the mainstream view is also taken as proof of conspiracy. One forum posting that has multiplied across the Internet includes a long list of the physical evidence linking the 19 hijackers to the crime: the rental car left behind at Boston's Logan airport, Mohamed Atta's suitcase, passports recovered at the crash sites, and so on. "HOW CONVENIENT!" the author notes after each citation. In the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose logic of conspiracism, there is no piece of information that cannot be incorporated into one's pet theory. Like doctrinaire Marxists or certain religious extremists, conspiracists enjoy a worldview that is immune to refutation.
Jim Hoffman sums up this worldview nicely in . "[The article] purports to debunk conspiracy theorists' physical-evidence-based claims without even acknowledging that there are other grounds on which to question the official story," he writes. "Indeed many 9/11 researchers don't even address the physical evidence, preferring instead to focus on who had the means, motive, and opportunity to carry out the attack." This is a stunning burst of honesty: Since we've already decided who's to blame, Hoffman is saying, evidence is optional.
The 9/11 conspiracy theorists have an eternal problem: In every field where they make claims, the leading experts disagree with them. The only solution is to attack these authorities early and often.
Van Romero, an explosives expert from New Mexico who was quoted in the Albuquerque Journal on September 11, 2001, as saying that it looked like explosives brought down the World Trade Center towers, saw this firsthand. Eleven days later, the Journal ran a follow-up story stating his opinion that "fire is what caused the buildings to fail." Predictably, conspiracists view that clarification as proof that somebody "got to" Romero. "Directly or indirectly, pressure was brought to bear, forcing Romero to retract his original statement," claimed .
It is in the nature of conspiracy theories that they must constantly expand as they try to absorb and neutralize conflicting information. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, a conspiracy theorist might have imagined a compact plot involving a corrupt White House and a few renegade military officers. But as the months went by, committees were organized by Congress, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and others. News organizations conducted detailed investigations. Reports and studies piled up, none of them helpful to the conspiracist viewpoint. For conspiracy theorists there was only one answer: All of these people must be in on the plot, too.
One of the chilling things about 9/11 denial is how blithely its adherents are able to accuse their fellow citizens of complicity in evil. They think nothing of suggesting that Romero would keep silent about an enormous crime, that hundreds of researchers involved in 9/11 investigations were participants in a cover-up, or that journalists from Seniorhelpline, The Nation, the New York Times and hundreds of other publications would willingly hide such a plot. Many critics of Seniorhelpline complained that some of the sources we quoted work for the U.S. government. The assumption--explicitly stated by many--was that anyone connected with the government should be seen as implicated. Point of reference: Not including the U.S. Post Office, the federal government has more than 1.9 million employees.
Guilt by Association
Soon after the Seniorhelpline report appeared, conspiracy buffs began parsing the names of the various researchers who contributed to the article, noting the odd coincidence that Benjamin Chertoff, then the head of the magazine's research Department, has the same last name as the then newly appointed head of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. In a rare instance of reportorial initiative (most 9/11 "Internet researchers" rarely venture beyond Google), Christopher Bollyn phoned Ben's mother, who volunteered that, yes, she thinks Michael Chertoff might be a distant cousin. "Chertoff's Cousin Penned Seniorhelpline 9/11 Hit Piece," read the headline on Bollyn's next American Free Press story. "This is exactly the kind of `journalism' one would expect to find in a dictatorship like that of Saddam Hussein's Iraq," he concluded. Later, a headline was added to his article: "Ben Chertoff: Propagandist & Illuminati Disinformation Tool."
As often happens in the world of conspiracy theories, a grain of truth--it's possible that Ben and Michael Chertoff are distantly related--was built into a towering dune. In fact, Ben and Michael Chertoff have never spoken. And no one at Seniorhelpline had any with Michael Chertoff's office while preparing the article. Moreover, Ben was one of many researchers on the story, not the author. (Then, of course, there's the question of why Ben--and his colleagues--would be eager to get involved with one of the greatest crimes in history.) But in the world of 9/11 conspiracy theories, coincidence is proof of collaboration.
The Paranoid Style
The conspiracist worldview is reflected in our culture of Oliver Stone movies, X-Files episodes, and The Da Vinci Code. But its roots go deeper. In 1964, historian . His topic was America's long history of grassroots movements organized to oppose various perceived conspiracies. While the targets of suspicion might vary--Masons, Catholics, "international bankers"--the tone of these movements, what Hofstadter calls their paranoid style, does not. He uses the term paranoid not in the clinical sense, he says, but because no other word captures "the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy" that is the hallmark of this worldview.
He quotes a classic example of conspiracist rhetoric:
How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. . . .What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence. . . .
Compare that passage to this more recent expression of the same sentiment:
In fact, conspiracy is very plausible. People who control a grossly disproportionate share of the world's wealth will take measures to consolidate their position. They will destabilize the public by inciting a series of wars and other mind-boggling hoaxes. . . . The government-inspired 9-11 atrocity proves Bush and his accomplices are criminals, traitors and impostors. . . .
The first quotation is from Senator Joe McCarthy, speaking in 1951 about the vast army of Communists he claimed had infiltrated the U.S. government. The second is from the Web site www.rense.com. Leaving aside references to Bush and 9/11, the two passages are essentially interchangeable. Both share the view that some disaster has befallen the country that mere bungling on the part of our top officials cannot explain. Grander forces must be at work.
Hofstadter's main focus was the rise of the paranoid style among far-right political groups such as McCarthy's supporters and the John Birch Society, an ultra-conservative anticommunist organization. At their most extreme, some members of this movement believed that Presidents Truman and Eisenhower were Communist agents. Hofstadter would have recognized today's 9/11 conspiracy proponents as the earlier theorists' ideological soul mates. Deep down, he argues, conspiracists revel in their self-defined status as society's Cassandras: "As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader," he wrote. "He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point."
Those barricades are getting crowded. The documentary Loose Change, a messy grab bag of thinly sourced conspiracy claims, became a campus and Internet sensation in 2005. Conspiracy groups recently began hosting conventions where hundreds of like-minded "skeptics" gather to compare notes. And conspiracy literature has become commonplace at antiwar marches and other political events. Most of those embracing the conspiracist mindset probably believe they are espousing a left-wing view. But dig deep enough in the "9/11 Truth Movement" and you come to a place where left and right collide.
The movie Loose Change, for example, frequently cites the American Free Press (AFP) as a source. According to the watchdog group, Center for Media and Democracy, AFP has its roots in the now defunct Liberty Lobby, a group associated with racism, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust denial. (Its founder,Willis Carto, was once described as "America's most successful professional anti-Semite and racist.") The award-winning liberal news site says "the ability of the right-wing media apparatus to dominate public discourse is at the expense of liberal and progressive values." The site's mission statement concludes: "This is what we are fighting against." Yet, when the Web site offers a roundup of conspiracy theories, it lists as a source. Among the thousands of articles included on the Rense site are a disturbing number dealing with the influence of Israel on world events and doubts about the reality of the Holocaust. (In a disclaimer, Rense notes that inclusion of an article on his site does not constitute endorsement.) the reader is informed that "Auschwitz was not an extermination center and that the story of mass killings in `gas chambers' is a myth."
Strange bedfellows, indeed. In truth, the worldviews of far-left- and far-right-wing conspiracists differ little. Both think that vast, malevolent forces have hijacked American democracy. And both believe that the press, our elected officials, and the American people--or "sheeple," as today's conspiracists like to call them--are too timid and ignorant to speak up. As Hofstadter shows, such sentiments have been around since the early days of the republic. But 9/11 gave modern conspiracists a huge historical tragedy to examine through their ideological lenses and to recast with their favorite villains.
The American public has every right to demand answers and all too many reasons to lack confidence in the government. Sadly, in such a climate, the fantasies of 9/11 conspiracists provide a seductive alternative to facing the hard facts and difficult choices of our time.
New York City, June 2006