Beyond Skepticism
The Rise of 9-11 Conspiracy Theories and the Discourse of Armchair Sleuths
By Grant Rosenberg

When the film JFK was getting so much attention 11 years ago, I was, along with countless others, filled with impassioned arguments of how there was a conspiracy, involving anyone and everyone, to assassinate President Kennedy. This was only intensified by spirited discussions with my peers and reading such texts as Don DeLillo’s 1988 novel Libra, which told Lee Harvey Oswald’s story from his perspective. For many, it was a sense of liberation not to be bated by the official story. We knew there was more than what they were telling us, even those of us not yet born at the time of the events. Whatever really happened that day in Dallas, the general consensus is that it did not go down the way the Warren Report tells us it did.

And yet, in the last few years, I’ve often wondered that if, indeed, Kennedy’s assassination was an organized act by a group of people—particularly by members of our government itself, for example—why they would want to attempt an assassination where there were so many uncontrollable variables within the crowds in broad daylight? If those responsible for the assassination “went all the way to the top,” why didn’t they do their deed under more controllable circumstances, such as in the hotel lobby? Why risk discovery or failure of mission, or the unexpected evidence of the Zapruder film? This is something that conspiracy theorists can never seem to answer, along with a conundrum; how a government can be efficient enough to attempt hoaxes and cover-ups that alter the course of history but inefficient enough not to do them undetectably. We have the image of an unshaven guy in a dark library microfiche room, piecing together the truth. But, in reality, most of these theories and urban legends spawn from uncomplicated, almost oversimplified logic and evidence that is readily available to anyone, not just the subterranean paranoids.

Some argue that, essentially, conspiracy theories are harmless parlor talk, ghost stories for adults, fueled by one overriding emotion: a sense of being liberated from the yoke of ignorance and gullibility. They are offended, really, that such swill is intended to be swallowed. “I’m onto you,” they are saying to Authority. “I once was blind, but now I see.” There is a certain smugness to it all, a self-congratulatory air, confirming that they aren’t uncritically accepting what the government tells all of us, that they aren’t drinking the government’s assent-inducing soma at all or anymore.

In recent days, doubts have been raised about the veracity of the Sept. 11th attacks, particularly on the Pentagon. Just as Tom Daschle suggested that there should be a discussion of the ongoing attacks in Afghanistan, so, too, have the conspiracy theorists come out to play. Several international websites have been spawned, which has led to nightly news reports which have led to guests on talk shows and articles in the major papers. All are addressing the questions that have been raised due to the fact that there does not seem to be publicly available evidence at all confirming that a plane hit the Pentagon. This has led some to deduce that it was all a plot by the U.S. Government. It would be cheeky if it weren’t so alarming. Some have even opined that the two planes that hit the Twin Towers were guided by homing devices from inside the towers themselves.

Having spoken with some who have seen and read these reports, I’ve been shocked at how much openness there is to these theories. But I suppose it is understandable; the theories about the Pentagon crash arise specifically due to the lack of footage, in stark contrast to the ubiquitous images of the Twin Towers impacts. Likewise, the lack of any visual evidence of Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania spurred the rumors on the very day that the government did actually shoot it down. While it is fair to ask where the pieces of the plane are, the conspiracy theories gain momentum from the Pentagon’s understandable secrecy—compounded by Secretary Rumsfeld’s existing practice of sharing as little information as possible about anything.

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It is disingenuous for these people to be claiming, as they do, that they are posing these questions in the name of truth. David Mikkelson, co-creator and operator—along with his wife, Barbara—of the Urban Legends Reference page, called, believes that there is a reason for these theories coming from other nations; the confirmation of existing prejudice. “I'd say a good deal stems from enmity towards America, both an unwillingness to see it portrayed as the innocent victim of terrorist attacks, and a willingness to portray it as an amoral brute which would kill its own people to provide a facile excuse for going to war."

But of course one doesn’t need to lack a foreign passport to be asking these questions. “[It] isn't even strictly an extra-American notion,” Mikkelson continues, “as evidenced by the fair number of people who still entertain the idea that FDR had advance notice of the attack on Pearl Harbor but issued no warning in order to draw the USA into war.”

Even within the United States, questions are beginning to be asked, if only in hushed tones. When asked why Americans may be open to these questions, Mikkelson explains it as a desperate desire to explain the lack of tangible success. “A part of the believability inside the USA may have to do with the fact that we're still fighting a faceless enemy. There hasn't been any definitive ‘victory’ in the war against terrorism; we still haven't captured bin Laden or anyone whom the public can recognize as the ‘villain’ behind it all. So, some people can be pointed elsewhere for their villains—they’re willing to entertain the idea that we’ve been looking in the wrong place for the bad guys, and the bad guys are among us.”

Despite understanding why a lack of evidence causes people to ask questions, I am puzzled that this theory has been legitimized. The cornerstone of it all, that no plane hit the Pentagon—that flight 77 and its 64 passengers did not exist at all—can be disproved by witness testimony and the security camera photo that shows an admittedly grainy but present airplane low to the ground rushing toward the Pentagon. And how do any of these skeptics respond to these photos, or the fact that Barbara Olson—conservative commentator and great friend to the current presidential administration in her anti-Clinton zeal—twice called her husband from the flight, U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson?  By ignoring them, we sidestep these questions, lest they reveal the rickety house of cards their arguments are.

And thus a disinformation campaign spreads. “Of course, it doesn't help that most people are simply unfamiliar with subjects such as plane crashes and explosions and building construction and even science in general,” says Mikkelson. “It’s all too easy to concoct plausible-sounding explanations out of thin air when your audience hasn’t the background to understand how ridiculous they are, and when you provide a few selective and misleading photographs to emphasize your case, it’s all the harder to unconvince them afterwards—the debunker finds himself in a position of having to prove this isn’t true when the claimant hasn’t even made a legitimate case in the first place.”

What is interesting is how all the evidence these conspiracy theorists have is gleaned from the Internet—photos from the government’s own websites, in addition to officially released quotes in major news outlets from authority figures in the confused minutes after the events. These ideas are stitched together from circumstantial evidence such as the initial reports that it was a truck that blew up in front of the Pentagon, as well as the small size of the hole in the Pentagon and the lack of plane fragments. All this, along with confirmed acts of immoral subterfuge by our government (the secret syphilis experiment on 400 African American men over four decades in Tuskegee, Alabama, to name one), and we have the perfect brew for what is purported to be legitimate doubt.

Thanks to the Internet, evocative information spreads faster than kudzu.  Whereas, in the past, only the most dedicated would take the time to spend hours in that dark library microfiche room, it now is remarkably easy to become an amateur stay-at-home sleuth finding what may appear to be inconsistencies in official stories. We no longer need to get close to that strange man on the corner to read his placard or take a pamphlet. The Internet again becomes the whipping boy of modernity exacerbating the old customs of gossip and credulity as only it can.

This brings us back to the conundrum of putting enough faith in the government to be able to mount an event that didn’t happen but faulty enough not to have the talent to do it successfully—time and again, apparently.  It is one thing for the government to deny that something didn’t happen which did. It is quite another to say something happened that didn’t.  The government is good at denial of action, not a faux-production of it. That is more the domain of pop culture because conspiracy theories and urban legends, even about matters of international import, are, at their heart, pop culture. Cinema alone has put forth its share of examples; 1998’s Wag the Dog takes a humorously cynical look at how a government conspires to obfuscate by producing a fictitious war, following the PR example of Desert Storm. The 1978 paranoid fantasy Capricorn One depicts a manned mission to Mars that is also faked in a studio, using the present media technology to convince the public that what they think they see has actually happened. Conspiracy theories are Andy Warhol’s soup can—both the Emperor’s new clothes and his Kingdom’s reach. The first half of the eponymously titled film Conspiracy Theory understood this. But there comes a point when a conspiracy theory stops being about discovering what is in Area 51 at Roswell and becomes itself a political statement, even a political act.

There is so much murkiness about the veracity of the U.S. government in general that it is hardly necessary to accuse them of actually plotting and faking the events of that day. What’s more, accusations like our own government’s involvement with Sept 11th diminish the effectiveness of legitimate concerns about its actions. And it is a shame to deny the tragedy that befell the passengers of the plane itself and imply that the deceased Pentagon employees were our government’s own collateral damage. Frankly, if the government could pull off a hoax of that magnitude and intended for the world not to doubt it, they would have left some plane parts lying around. We should be above this fray, trained on the government’s present policies that need to be questioned and debated to remain sound—not by these voices crying wolf.