It's hard to determine the goals of 9/11 conspiracists -- but the movement reflects our changing ideas about belief
(This essay appears on the CounterPunch website, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair.)
We’re homing in on the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the Wall Street Trade Towers and the attack on the Pentagon. One in seven Americans and one in four among those aged 16-24 (so a recent poll commissioned by the BBC tells us) believe that there was a vast conspiracy in which the U.S. government was involved. But across those 10 years have the charges that it was an “inside job” — a favored phrase of the self-styled “truthers” — received any serious buttress?
The answer is no.
Did the Trade Towers fall because they were badly built as a consequence of corruption, incompetence, regulatory evasions by the Port Authority, and because they were struck by huge planes loaded with jet fuel. No, shout the conspiracists, they “pancaked” because Dick Cheney’s agents — scores of them — methodically planted demolition charges in the preceding days, inserting the explosives in the relevant floors of three vast buildings (moving day after day among the unsuspecting office workers), then on 9/11 activating the detonators. It was a conspiracy of thousands, all of whom — party to mass murder — have held their tongues ever since.
What has been the goal of the 9/11 conspiracists? They ask questions, yes, but they never answer them. They never put forward an overall scenario of the alleged conspiracy. They say that’s not up to them. So who is it up to? Who do they expect to answer their questions? When answers are put forward, they are dismissed as fabrications or they simply rebound with another question. Like most cultic persuasions they excitedly invoke important converts to their faith and the “1500 architects and engineers in the USA” who say the NIST official report is not thorough and needs another investigation. It’s a tiny proportion of the roughly 3 million members of their professions. At least 80 percent of faculty economists in the United States believe stoutly in long-discredited theories that have blighted the lives of millions around the world for decades. Their numbers don’t equate with intelligence, let alone conclusive analysis.
The 9/11 conspiracists seize on coincidences and force them into sequences they deem to be logical and significant. Their treatment of eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence is whimsical. Apparent anomalies that seem to nourish their theories are brandished excitedly; testimony that undermines their theories — like witnesses of a large plane hitting the Pentagon — is dismissed.
Many conspiracists say it wasn’t a plane but a missile. (Other conspiracists denounce the “no plane” Pentagon as wacko.) Eyewitnesses of a large plane hitting the Pentagon — are contemptuously brushed aside.There are some photos of the impact of the “object” — i.e., the Boeing 757, Flight 77 — that seem to show the sort of hole a missile might make. Ergo, 757 didn’t hit the Pentagon. It was a missile. It wasn’t smoke in some photographs obscuring a larger rupture in the fortified Pentagon wall.
On this last matter, Chuck Spinney, now retired after years of brilliant, defiant government service exposing the Pentagon’s budgetary outrages, tells me that “there are pictures taken of the 757 plane hitting Pentagon — they were taken by the surveillance cameras at Pentagon’s heliport, which was right next to impact point. I have seen them both — stills and moving pictures. I just missed seeing it personally, but the driver of the van I just got out of in South Parking saw it so closely that he could see the terrified faces of passengers in windows. I knew two people who were on the plane. One was ID’d by dental remains found in the Pentagon.”
In fact hundreds of people saw the plane — people who know the difference between a plane and a cruise missile. The wreckage of the plane was hauled out from the site. Why does the obvious have to be proved? Would those who were wounded or who lost friends and colleagues that day assist in the coverup of a missile strike? Why risk using a missile, when you had a plane in the air and — to take one bizarre construct of the conspiracists — had successfully crashed (by remote control!) two into much more difficult targets, the Trade Towers?
This doesn’t faze the conspiracists. They’re immune to any reality check. Spinney “worked for the government.” They switched the dental records. The Boeing 757 was flown to Nebraska for a rendezvous with President Bush, who shot the passengers, burned the bodies on the tarmac and gave Spinney’s friend’s teeth to Dick Cheney to drop through a hole in his trousers amid the debris in the Pentagon.
Of course there are conspiracies. The allegations that Saddam Hussein had WMD amounted to just such a one. I think there is strong evidence that FDR did have knowledge that a Japanese naval force in the north Pacific was going to launch an attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s quite possible Roosevelt thought it would be a relatively mild assault and thought it would be the final green light to get the U.S. into the war.
It’s entirely plausible to assume that the FBI, U.S. military intelligence, and the CIA — as has just been rather convincingly claimed again in the latter instance — had penetrated the al-Qaida team planning the 9/11 attacks; intelligence reports piled up in various Washington bureaucracies pointing to the impending onslaught and even the manner in which it might be carried out. The history of intelligence operations is profuse with example of successful intelligence collection, but also fatal slowness to act on the intelligence, along with eagerness not to compromise the security and future usefulness of the informant, who has to prove his own credentials by even pressing for prompt action by the plotters. Sometime an undercover agent will actually propose an action, either to deflect efforts away from some graver threat, or to put the plotters in a position where they can be caught red-handed.
There is not the slightest need to postulate pre-placed explosive charges to explain why the towers collapsed at near free-fall speeds. As Pierre Sprey, a former plane and weapons designer who knows a great deal about explosions, told me:
“1. Any demolitions expert concocting a plan to hit a tall building with an airplane and then use pre-placed explosives to undetectably ensure the collapse of the building would never place the explosives 20, 30 and 60 floors below the impact point. Obviously, he would put the explosives on one or more floors as close as possible to the planned impact level.
“2. It is inconceivable that our demolitions expert would time his surreptitious explosions to occur hours after the aircraft impact. He couldn’t possibly be absolutely certain that the impact fires would even last an hour. Quite the opposite: to mask the booster explosions, he’d time them to follow right on the heels of the impact.
“3. To ensure collapse of a major building requires very sizable demolition charges, charges that are large enough to do a lot more than emit the ‘puffs of smoke’ cited as evidence for the explosives hypothesis. I’ve seen both live and filmed explosive building demolitions. Each explosion is accompanied by a very visible shower of heavy rubble and a dense cloud of smoke and dust. Just that fact alone makes the explosives hypothesis untenable; no demolitions expert in the world would be willing to promise his client that he could bring down a tall building with explosions guaranteed to be indistinguishable from the effects of an aircraft impact.”
Herman Soifer, a retired structural engineer, summarized the collapse of Buildings 1 and 2 succinctly, in a letter to me, remarking that since he had followed the plans and engineering of the Towers during construction he was able to explain the collapses to his wife a few hours after the buildings went down.
“The towers were basically tubes, essentially hollow. Tubes can be very efficient structures, strong and economical. The Trade Center tubes effectively resisted vertical loads, wind loads and vibrations and could probably have done very well against earthquakes. However, the relatively thin skin of the hollow tube must be braced at intervals to prevent local buckling of the skin under various possible loads, otherwise the tube itself can go out of shape and lose its strength.
“For their interior bracing, the thin-walled tubes of the Trade Center towers depended primarily on the interior floors being tied to the outer wall shells. These floor beam structures were basically open web joists, adequate for the floor loads normally to be expected. These joist ends rested on steel angle clips attached to the outer walls.
“As the floors at the level of airplane impact caught fire, the open web joists, which could not be expected to resist such fires, softened under the heat, sagged and pulled away from their attachments to the walls. Their weight, and the loads they were carrying, caused them to drop onto the next lower floor, which was then carrying double loads also becoming exposed to the heat. Then that floor collapsed, and so it went. But as the floors dropped, they no longer served as bracing for the thin-walled main tubes. This loss of bracing permitted the walls to buckle outward in successive sections and thus the house of cards effect.”
High-grade steel can bend disastrously under extreme heat. The types of steel used in the WTC Towers (plain carbon, and vanadium) lose half their strength when heated to about 570 C , and even more as temperatures rise, as they did in WTC 1 and 2, to 1100 C.
The conspiracists’ last card is the collapse of WTC building number 7 some hours after the morning attacks. But here again, as with the other two buildings, the explanations offered by the U.S. government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are more than adequate. Collapse was caused by the rupturing of the building’s metal framework due to the thermal expansion of its floor beams, which were heated by uncontrolled fires because the water main that supplied the building’s fire suppression system had been cut by the collapse of WTC 1.
As discussed in Wayne Barrett and Dan Collin’s excellent book “Grand Illusion,” about Rudy Giuliani and 9/11, helicopter pilots radioed warnings nine minutes before the final collapse that the South Tower might well go down and, repeatedly, as much as 25 minutes before the North Tower’s fall.
What Barrett and Collins brilliantly showed are the actual corrupt conspiracies on Giuliani’s watch: the favoritism to Motorola that saddled the firemen with radios that didn’t work; the ability of the Port Authority to skimp on fire protection; the mayor’s catastrophic failure in the years before 9/11/2001 to organize an effective unified emergency command that would have meant that cops and firemen could have communicated; that many firemen wouldn’t have unnecessarily entered the Towers; that people in the Towers wouldn’t have been told by 911 emergency operators to stay in place; and that firemen could have heard the helicopter warnings and the final Mayday messages that prompted most of the NYPD men to flee the Towers.
That’s the real political world, in which Giuliani and others have never been held accountable. The conspiracists disdained the real world because they wanted to promote Bush, Cheney and the neocons to an elevated status as the Arch Demons of American history, instead of being just one more team running the American empire, a team of more than usual stupidity and incompetence (characteristics I personally favor in imperial leaders).
Actually, what Bush and Cheney never demonstrated was the slightest degree of competence to pull anything like this off. They couldn’t even manufacture weapons of mass destruction after U.S. troops had invaded Iraq, and when any box labeled “WMD” would have been happily photographed by the embedded U.S. press as conclusive testimony. Arch-demon Cheney and his retinue of neocons couldn’t even contrive a provocation sufficient to justify his aim of waging war on Iran or giving Israel the green light to do so. Each day he gnashed his teeth as Bush, Condoleezza Rice and the Joint Chiefs of Staff foiled his machinations.
At least what Obama may have done is remind the left — at least those not forever besotted — that Bush and Cheney are not that much different from the politicians and overlords of U.S. foreign policy who preceded them or followed them.
9/11 conspiracism, perhaps at last somewhat on the wane, penetrated deep into the American left. It has also been widespread on the libertarian and populist right, but that is scarcely surprising, since the American populist right instinctively mistrusts government to a far greater degree than the left, and matches conspiracies to its demon of preference, whether the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Black Helicopters or the Jews and now Muslims.
These days a dwindling number of leftists learn their political economy from Marx. Into the theoretical and strategic void has crept a diffuse, peripatetic conspiracist view of the world that tends to locate ruling class devilry not in the crises of capital accumulation, or the falling rate of profit, or inter-imperial competition, but in locale (the Bohemian Grove, Bilderberg, Ditchley, Davos) or supposedly “rogue” agencies, with the CIA still at the head of the list. The 9/11 “conspiracy,” or “inside job,” is the Summa of all this foolishness.
One trips over a fundamental idiocy of the 9/11 conspiracists in the first paragraph of the opening page of the book by one of their high priests, David Ray Griffin, “The New Pearl Harbor.” “In many respects,” Griffin writes, “the strongest evidence provided by critics of the official account involves the events of 9/11 itself. In light of standard procedures for dealing with hijacked airplanes not one of these planes should have reached its target, let alone all three of them.” The operative word here is “should.” A central characteristic of the conspiracists is that they have a devout, albeit preposterous belief in American efficiency. Many of them start with the racist premise — frequently voiced in as many words in their writings — that “Arabs in caves” weren’t capable of the mission. They believe that military systems should work the way Pentagon press flacks and aerospace salesmen say they should work. They believe that at 8.14 am, when AA flight 11 switched off its radio and transponder, an FAA flight controller should have called the National Military Command center and NORAD. They believe, citing reverently (this is high priest Griffin, who has written no less than 10 books on 9/11) “the US Air Force’s own website,” that an F-15 could have intercepted AA flight 11 “by 8.24, and certainly no later than 8.30.” They appear to have read no military history, which is too bad because if they did they’d know that minutely planned operations — let alone by-the-book responses to an unprecedented emergency — screw up with monotonous regularity, by reason of stupidity, cowardice, venality and all the other failings, not excepting sudden changes in the weather.
Michael Neumann, a philosopher, and CounterPunch contributor, at the University of Trent, in Ontario, remarked in a note to me:
“I think the problem of conspiracy nuttery has got worse, and is part of a general trend. There really were serious questions about the Kennedy assassination, an unusual number of them, and it wasn’t too crazy to come to the wrong conclusion. There wasn’t a single serious question about 9-11. The main engine of the 9-11 conspiracy cult is nothing political; it’s the death of any conception of evidence.
“This probably comes from the decline of Western power. Deep down, almost everyone, across the political spectrum, is locked in a bigotry which can only attribute that decline to some irrational or supernatural power. The result is the ascendency of magic over common sense, let alone reason.”
Yet some have discovered a silver lining in the 9/11 conspiracism. A politically sophisticated leftist in Washington, D.C., wrote to me, agreeing with my ridiculing of the “inside job” scenarios, but adding, “To me the most interesting thing (in the US) is how many people are willing to believe that Bush either masterminded it [the 9/11 attacks] or knew in advance and let it happen. If that number or anything close to that is true, that’s a huge base of people that are more than deeply cynical about their elected officials. That would be the real news story that the media is missing, and it’s a big one.”
“I’m not sure I see the silver lining about cynicism re government,” I answered. “People used to say the same thing about the JFK conspiracy buffs and disbelief in the Warren Commission. Actually, it seems to demobilize people from useful political activity. If the alleged perpetrators are so efficiently devilish in their plots, all resistance is futile. 9/11 conspiracism stemmed from despair and political infantilism. There’s no worthwhile energy to transfer from such kookery. It’s like saying some lunatic shouting to himself on a street corner has the capacity to be a great orator.
Anyone who ever looked at the JFK assassination will know that there are endless anomalies and loose ends. Eyewitness testimony is conflicting, forensic evidence possibly misconstrued, mishandled or just missing. But in my view, the Warren Commission had it right and Oswald fired the fatal shots from the Schoolbook Depository. The evidentiary chain for his guilt is persuasive, and the cumulative scenarios of the conspiracists entirely unconvincing. But of course — as the years roll by, and even though no persuasive deathbed confession has ever buttressed those vast, CIA-related scenarios — the conspiracists keep on toiling away, their obsessions as unflagging as ever.
Richard Aldrich’s book on British intelligence, “The Hidden Hand” (2002), describes how a report for the Pentagon on declassification recommended that “interesting declassified material” such as information about the JFK assassination “could be released and even posted on the Internet, as a ‘diversion,’” and used to “reduce the unrestrained public appetite for ‘secrets’ by providing good faith distraction material.” Aldrich adds, “If investigative journalists and contemporary historians were absorbed with the vexatious, but rather tired, debates over the grassy knoll, they would not be busy probing into areas where they were unwelcome.”
The conspiracists have combined to produce a huge distraction, just as Danny Sheehan did with his Complaint, that mesmerized and distracted much of the Nicaraguan Solidarity Movement in the 1980s, and which finally collapsed in a Florida courtroom almost as quickly as the Towers.
There are plenty of real conspiracies in America. Why make up fake ones?
Alexander Cockburn's books include "Washington Babylon" and "The Golden Age Is in Us." He writes the "Beat the Devil" column for the Nation. More Alexander Cockburn.
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