Nostradamus called it!

Internet conspiracy theorists are having a field day after the attacks.

By Janelle Brown

Published September 17, 2001 7:22PM (EDT)

The kooks are coming out of the woodwork. On Friday, four days after the attacks on New York and Washington, the bestselling book on was "Nostradamus: The Complete Prophecies." Books about the 16th century prophet also placed at 4, 5, 11, 12 and 25 on the list.

This sudden interest in Nostradamus can be directly pinned to the "prediction" that has been zipping across the Net in the wake of Tuesday's tragedy: "In the City of God there will be a great thunder, Two Brothers torn apart by Chaos, while the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb. The third big war will begin when the big city is burning." The Nostradamus-attributed "prophecy" of the World Trade Center disaster was swiftly proven to be a hoax, but no matter: The Net loves a good conspiracy theory, and even while the country mourned, the morbidly curious could also track any number of bizarre theories and observations online about Tuesday's tragedy. Nostradamus and his apocalyptic predictions were just the tip of the iceberg.

Was the disaster, for example, Satan's work? Conspiracy theorist and radio show host Art Bell mused that it might have been, and posted a number of photos on his Web site in which the face of the "devil" could be glimpsed in the billowing smoke from the World Trade Center fires.

On Usenet's alt.conspiracy newsgroup, other curious "coincidences" were pondered with alacrity. One avid numerologist posted a long screed ruminating over the significance of the number 11:

"The date of the attack: 9/11 - 9 + 1 + 1 = 11 September 11th is the 254th day of the year: 2 + 5 + 4 = 11. After September 11th there are 111 days left to the end of the year. 119 is the area code to Iraq/Iran. 1 + 1 + 9 = 11. Twin Towers -- standing side by side, looks like the number 11 The first plane to hit the towers was Flight 11. But ... .There's More ... ... . State of New York -- The 11 State added to the Union. New York City -- 11 Letters. Afghanistan -- 11 Letters. The Pentagon -- 11 Letters. Ramzi Yousef -- 11 Letters (convicted of orchestrating the attack on the WTC in 1993). Flight 11 -- 92 on board -- 9 + 2 = 11 Flight 77 -- 65 on board - 6 + 5 = 11."

More common, however, were the posts on bulletin boards and mailing lists across the Net, which tried to piece together the loose threads that news organizations had left hanging. Why, for example, had the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania been pulverized into tiny pieces? Had it been shot down by the American Air Force? Some swore they'd heard reports that the hijacked plane had been shadowed by American jets, but those reports were now nowhere to be seen. Coverup or media mistake?

And why, others asked, would a cell of terrorists so intimately schooled in intelligence tactics leave blatant evidence of their identities behind, like a car full of passports and airline manuals in Arabic? "It is nearly unbelievable that an organization capable of carrying out such a complex operation would leave behind relatively obvious evidence. Even though the suicide hijackers had little to lose, they would want to delay the FBI's investigation -- and the inevitable U.S. military response," mused one poster. "A likely possibility is that the hijackers intentionally left material designed to provide the FBI with an obvious trail leading to low-level operatives with limited knowledge of the attack or its sponsors."

Plenty of Internet speculation swirled around politicians who were given a "warning" about flying -- such as San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, whose travel advisors apparently told him not to travel on Tuesday. Similarly, there were rumors that a Tomahawk helicopter with missiles was hovering around the World Trade Center 10 minutes before the first plane hit. Did the government know the attack was going to happen and screwed up the defense, or did it let it happen on purpose, these posts pondered. And as Bush asked Congress for unprecedented power, other theories swirled that the attack had been staged merely as a way for the government to seize additional power.

A stretch, perhaps, but not quite as rubbery as the hypothesis posted in alt.conspiracy:

"George Bush is Bill Clinton! They are both 'Alien Agency' Presidents and they all are allowing the alien race to play the 'snuff' game here in America," wrote one poster on alt.conspiracy. "NYC, like the other major cities of the world, is a huge alien agency HIVE. 99 percent of the people who work or live there are telepathic aliens and are protected by the alien agency. Any act of violence or catistrophic occurence in NYC is controlled by the 'Alien Agency.'" [sic]

And finally, for the biblically minded who were disappointed by the anticlimactic Y2K, there was no shortage of apocalyptic predictions that the end of the world was finally near. One widely circulated e-mail titled "Americans save America" informed readers -- in roughly 20,000 words -- that the attack on the World Trade Center was the beginning of end-times, as predicted by assorted biblical verses. Begged the author, "Please read these pages thru and thru and you will find many answers to the 'beginning of birth pangs' who would give forth the true meaning of the globalization under one hand and one people: the Antichrist and Freemasonry from Israel."

But even though the conspiracy theorists are still in the minority -- heavily outweighed by the Net's very real levity -- the bizarre theories hit perhaps too close to home for some. The popular computer game Majestic, which peppers players with phone calls and e-mails as part of an interactive mystery, was abruptly cancelled on Tuesday. The game, eerily enough, includes references to CIA conspiracies regarding terrorism and oil in the Middle East.

"Given the recent national tragedy, we feel that some of the fictional elements in the game may not be appropriate at this time," said an e-mail sent to the game's participants. Considering the paranoia of so many anti-government citizens of the Net's online communities, it was probably a wise decision not to add fuel to the fire: The conspiracy theorists are having a field day already.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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