The 9/11 'Truth' Parlor Game
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to note the New York Times report on Sunday that the alleged Tucson assassin's hostility toward government was influenced by the "9/11 truth" conspiracy theories:
It seems that I have upset some folks on the Left again, this time by mentioning – deep inside a story about Sarah Palin’s proclaimed victimhood over the Tucson massacre fallout – that groups like the 9/11 “truthers” also have contributed to America’s crazed political environment.
(Last October, I angered some on the Left by noting that the four previous examples of progressives trying to punish Democrats by sitting out elections or supporting third parties – 1968, 1980, 1994 and 2000 – didn’t work out very well, either in the short- or long-term. I meant the piece to be a historical review of these tactics but it apparently touched some raw nerves.)
Similarly, my brief criticism of the “truthers” prompted a wave of angry e-mails and blog postings. In part, I was accused of showing inadequate respect for the “truther” research and was scolded for not delving deeply enough into the intricate arguments behind their claim that 9/11 was an “inside job.”
But the truth is that I have devoted way more time to these preposterous notions than they deserve. And, since time is a zero sum game, every hour wasted on this strange parlor game means that real crimes and government wrongdoing get neglected. Still, there may be lessons to be learned here, though not the ones the “truthers” would want.
In following the curious twists and turns of the “truther” movement over the past nine years, I have become concerned that the anti-empiricism which has long infected the American Right has now spread to some quarters of the Left (although I realize that many on the Left reject the “truther” allegations as nonsensical and that some on the Right have embraced them.)
Indeed, if you were to teach a course on sophistry, you might wish to make a case study of the “truther” movement, which has deployed nearly every imaginable example of false logic, from the use of endorsements as a substitute for evidence to insistence that any miniscule doubt on one side of an argument requires its rejection while even the thinnest possibility on the other must be accepted as serious, if not true.
This kind of evidentiary game-playing is what I had grown accustomed to in dealing with the neoconservatives, such as their exaggerations of foreign threats, from the 1980s (when Nicaragua’s Sandinistas were a danger to the Panama Canal and Texas) through George W. Bush’s presidency (over Iraq’s WMD) and even to today (with worries about Iran’s nuclear program).
For instance, when Vice President Dick Cheney and the neocons were arguing for war with Iraq, they insisted that even a one percent possibility that they were right about Iraq sharing WMD with terrorists meant that their fear must be accepted as certainty, while the counterpoint that Iraq had no WMD had to be proven to some impossible 100 percent level. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “One Percent Madness.”]
Using such imbalanced – and irrational – constructs, in effect, predetermine the outcomes, since you can never prove something to 100 percent certainty and there is always a chance for some one percent feasibility on the other side. These loaded-dice arguments can lead nations into ill-conceived wars or persuade people of arguments that otherwise would be dismissed as crazy.
Though many “truthers” shy away from an explicit recounting of their presumed narrative – favoring instead “poking holes” in the official story – here is some of what they seem to believe:
Operatives working for President Bush wired 100-plus floors of the World Trade Center towers with explosives as well as the support structure of nearby Building Seven. They did all this – a complicated process that would have taken a large team of experts weeks and would have required extraordinary access to the buildings – without anyone seeing anyone doing any of this.
Then, when the two planes crashed into the towers on 9/11, Bush allowed them to burn for a while before deciding that the maximum psychological effect required that the buildings be brought down. So, the explosive charges were detonated remotely in sequential order from the top down.
After the fire and devastation spread next door to Building Seven, Bush’s team also detonated explosives there to bring down that smaller tower, presumably with the motive of destroying government documents that were located in offices there.
Meanwhile, in Washington, a third plane was approaching the Pentagon. Passengers onboard made frantic phone calls describing the hijacking. Plus, since the Pentagon is not in some secret location – it sits next to Interstate-395 and can be viewed from high-rises across the highway in Crystal City – some hundred or so people reported seeing the plane head into the Pentagon.
Some of the plane’s wreckage was strewn across the Pentagon grounds, and authorities later reported recovering the plane’s black box inside the Pentagon. But “truthers” insist that no plane hit the Pentagon; that Bush’s team attacked it with a missile.
However, nobody saw a missile. Nor would there be any way to explain the plane wreckage on the grounds, since nobody saw more Bush operatives driving around the Pentagon grounds planting fake pieces of the plane – even as emergency personnel and others rushed to the crash site.
To label the “truther” version of the 9/11 events nutty would seem an understatement – and there are other parts, including stuff about fabricated voice messages, that are arguably crazier. Indeed, the “truther” account has sometimes struck me as a parody meant to bring ridicule on more serious conspiracy investigations such as those into the JFK assassination.
As I pointed out in the earlier story – the one focused on Palin’s victimhood – there has not been a single witness (or document) emerging from the ranks of Bush’s supposed operatives to suggest that any of the “truther” narrative happened – even though the scope of this conspiracy would have required scores, if not hundreds, of participants.
Having covered many real government conspiracies in my career, I can assure you that there are always witnesses who speak for a variety of reasons: a guilty conscience, a boast to a girlfriend, a plea bargain when they get in legal trouble on something else.
In writing about Oliver North’s secret Iran-Contra network in the 1980s, our team at the Associated Press had two dozen sources. For our first Contra-cocaine story in 1985, Brian Barger and I had a similar number of sources, including documents from Costa Rica and a White House official describing a CIA analytical report on a Contra helicopter purchased with drug profits.
Yet for the “truther” conspiracy theory, more than nine years have passed and not a single witness has emerged who participated in planting the explosives floor by floor in the Twin Towers or carrying out the missile attack on the Pentagon or any other capacity that the conspiracy would have required.
Manufacturing a Case
Lacking any real evidence, like a knowledgeable witness or a government document, the “truthers” have built their case on alleged anomalies in the collapse of the buildings and on the shape of hole left in the side of the Pentagon. Though in all cases scientists and engineers have provided plausible explanations for these events, the “truthers” have tried to counter by marshalling their own supporters who are willing to challenge these analyses.
For instance, the “truthers” have long claimed that the collapse of Building Seven is the prima facie case for their conspiracy theory, especially, they say, its drop at near freefall speed. However, the speed of the collapse should not be all that surprising because Building Seven had a large atrium. Once the atrium’s supports were breached by the shock of the Twin Tower collapse and a resulting fire, Building Seven would logically fall into the open space at near freefall speed.
Similarly, the structure of the Twin Towers, with interlocking beams allowing them to have height without the weight of older skyscrapers, would have produced the falling in on itself effect once the beams were weakened by the impact of the planes and the heat from the fires.
However, since the events of 9/11 were unique – i.e. no one had tested flying fuel-laden passenger jets into buildings identical to the Twin Towers or the Pentagon – it is impossible to assess the various factors with 100 percent certainty. Thus, under the rules of the “truther” parlor game, the official analysis must be dismissed and a contrary analysis – however implausible – must be taken seriously.
On other points, the “truthers” have simply stretched the truth. For example, one “truther” claim was that they had discovered a residue of explosive thermite in the World Trade Center wreckage. However, when I checked their source, I saw that the claim was actually that the residue was consistent with thermite, not that it was thermite.
Much residue found after a major fire can be “consistent” with thermite, but beyond that, scientists noted that thermite doesn’t provide the explosive force for a building demolition. So, the “truthers” transformed their discovery into “nano-thermite,” a claim that is still making the rounds.
As for the Pentagon attack, the “truthers” claim that the aluminum wings of the plane would have cut a horizontal gash in the reinforced concrete walls of the Pentagon. Scientists, however, have explained that the angled-back wings actually would have compressed against the sides of the plane creating the more circular hole that was left.
But the “truthers” have claimed that the circular hole proved that Bush’s team had fired a missile into the Pentagon (though no one had seen such a missile.)
Similarly, evidence that al-Qaeda actually carried out the attack – that it was as Jon Stewart has said “an outside job” – must be rejected. Even confessions (or boasts) from al-Qaeda leaders must be thrown out because, the “truthers” insist, these admissions only resulted from torture (for those in U.S. custody) or from CIA fabrications (for those not in U.S. custody).
So, when Ayman al-Zawahiri issues one of his videos seated in front of a poster of the burning Twin Towers or when Osama bin Laden praises the hijackings, those statements must have been faked by the CIA – and you can’t prove to a 100 percent certainty that they weren’t, can you?
A Disinformation Campaign
My concern about the “truther” movement dated back to almost its origin. Because of the position of Consortiumnews.com as an Internet site which has investigated real conspiracies since 1995, I was in on many of the early e-mail exchanges regarding the 9/11 case.
Essentially, the discussion broke down this way: Some participants felt that Bush had demonstrated his arrogance and incompetence when he brushed aside warnings about a likely al-Qaeda attack. (This is the position that I personally feel is best supported by the available evidence).
A second group, however, took the same evidentiary frame and gave it a nasty twist, that Bush knew the attack was coming and “let it happen.” (Though I don’t believe there is sufficient evidence to support this conclusion, this analysis at least has the benefit of some factual foundation.)
But there was a third group, which maintained that something more dramatic was needed, that Bush had so bamboozled the American people that they needed to be shocked out of their trance – and to do that required convincing them that "Bush made it happen.”
Perhaps, because of its splashier allegations, the "Bush made it happen" crowd -- with claims about "controlled demolitions" and a "missile hitting the Pentagon" -- emerged as the dominant force in the "truther" movement, eclipsing those who favored more targeted investigations into such areas as 9/11 funding and the role of Bush's allies in the Saudi royal family.
These more extreme "truthers" started out with their "made it happen" conclusion and then assembled their case. That is the opposite of how real truth-seeking occurs (with the evidence first assembled and then objectively analyzed before any indictment is made).
Some on the Left have defended the “truthers” as at least well-meaning, since Bush’s administration was seen at the time as assaulting the U.S. constitutional republic and possibly creating an American-style fascism. The ends of disrupting Bush justified the means of spreading disinformation.
There was a sentiment, too, that Bush, Cheney and the neocons (who seemed to wish for something like another Pearl Harbor to justify their military interventions abroad) deserved a taste of their own medicine, even if the “truther” narrative was wildly implausible.
As the years went by, I would occasionally cross paths with “truthers” and listen to other arguments they made for their cause. Some felt that their movement was the “only” approach that was getting “traction” against Bush. Others claimed “9/11 truth” could be the impetus to get progressives to invest in media (something that I have long advocated).
Yet, these pitches were about achieving political ends, not about meeting the evidentiary needs of a serious investigation.
Indeed, at times, “9/11 truth” has taken on the feel of a political movement, if not a cult. One elderly historian told me that he had felt “pressured” by “truthers” to give them something that they could cite as an endorsement of their position. Other notable people on the Left have described meetings with “truthers” as akin to “recruitment” sessions.
So, despite the latest rash of angry e-mails, I repeat my advice in the wake of the Tucson massacre – that just as one would hope the Right would rein in some of its crazy allegations about President Barack Obama’s birth and its violent rhetoric against members of Congress, one might also expect that the Left would show similar care in its propaganda attacks on President Bush.
Update: On Sunday, in a profile of alleged Tucson gunman Jared L. Loughner, the New York Times reported that as "a curious teenager," Loughner "became intrigued by antigovernment conspiracy theories, including that the Sept. 11 attacks were perpetrated by the government. ...
"His anger would well up at the sight of President George W. Bush, or in discussing what he considered to be the nefarious designs of government."
Given how a mentally disturbed young person can process information (or disinformation), it is incumbent on all of us who speak in today's public square to be responsible, especially when we make serious allegations like suggesting that Bush and the U.S. government "made" 9/11 happen.
The need for this careful behavior is true for the Right and it is true for the Left. The Center (including the mainstream press) also has a deep responsibility to examine suspicions of government wrongdoing when there is credible evidence and to have the courage to speak truth to power regardless of the pressures and consequences.
For the Center to renege on that duty (such as when the mainstream press attacked Gary Webb's Contra-cocaine reporting in the mid-to-late 1990s) may be rationalized as "good for the country" in the short-term (by discrediting ugly truths) but whitewashing only feeds the public's appetite for conspiracy theories on the Right and the Left.
In other words, to help avert future tragedies like the one in Tucson, all parts of the U.S. political/media system need to work better and take their responsibilities to the public more seriously. That would include not spreading wild accusations with weak or non-existent evidence, but it also would require holding Bush and his associates accountable for what they actually did.
Surely, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to decry (and investigate) what Bush did in office: his use of torture, his misleading the nation to war, his reckless tax cuts for the rich, his botched economic policies, and, yes, his failure to protect the country from the 9/11 attacks.
However, it doesn’t help the cause of accountability to make unfounded allegations against Bush – indeed it hurts. By floating unsubstantiated and bizarre claims about "controlled demolitions" and a "missile hitting the Pentagon," the "truthers" actually make it harder to proceed with investigations into important areas of doubt about 9/11, like the financing and the Saudi role.
As for the crazy stuff, enough is enough.
[For summaries of evidence regarding the 9/11 attacks, see the work done by Popular Mechanics, the National Geographic channel, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.]
[For more on the topics of government secrecy and wrongdoing, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.
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