Viewing 9/11 From a Grassy Knoll
You won't believe what the conspiracy theorists are claiming-or will you?
New York can be a tough town, especially when you're handing out fliers at ground zero claiming that the 9/11 attacks were a massive government conspiracy. "I'd like to take a f---ing box cutter and cut her," one passerby yelled after Carol Brown offered him a flier. Brown shrugged: "It happens sometimes."
If nothing else, the members of 9/11 Truth, some of whom go to ground zero every Saturday, are persistent. Even as conspiracy theories thrived abroad, they mostly fell on deaf ears in the first years after the attacks. But as the fifth anniversary nears, 9/11 Truth and its outlandish claims have become an online phenomenon-and are proving startlingly persuasive. In a July 2006 Scripps Howard poll, 16 percent of respondents said it was "very likely" that federal officials either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or allowed them to happen to justify war in the Middle East, while a further 20 percent said it was "somewhat likely."
By that measure, roughly a third of Americans suspect the seemingly unthinkable-government complicity in the deaths of some 3,000 citizens. The "somewhat likely" category is too vague to give much insight, though, says Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and an expert on conspiracy theory movements. But he has noticed a large increase in the popularity of 9/11 Truth in the past year, which he attributes to rising disaffection with the Bush administration and the Iraq war.
Web powered. Websites promoting theories about government involvement in the attacks get thousands of hits a day. But nothing has been more successful at spreading the movement than Loose Change: 2nd Edition, an 82-minute film that can be downloaded or watched free online. Made for around $6,000 by 22-year-old Dylan Avery and two friends, the movie is a superficially persuasive rundown of the major points of the conspiracy movement. "It's got a movie pace," says 26-year-old Jason Bermas, the film's researcher. "You don't feel like it's some kook in the backwoods telling you all this." The film has made Avery, who was twice rejected from film school, the toast of the 9/11 Truth movement and won him a girlfriend, who saw Loose Change and contacted him.
There are some divergent strands among the conspiracy theorists, but for most of them, the story has two major tenets: The World Trade Center towers and nearby Building 7, though struck by planes, were brought down by controlled demolitions, and the Pentagon was struck by a missile, not a plane.
As for who's responsible, most 9/11 Truthers point to the White House. They are particularly fond of implicating the Project for the New American Century, the conservative think tank that included Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and once posited that its goals of a beefed-up military would take a long time without an event "like a new Pearl Harbor." But the list of those branded conspirators ranges from Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the World Trade towers, to the members of the 9/11 commission to the mainstream media.
For evidence, they mainly point to grainy photographs, dubious sources, and quotes taken out of context. But the movement got a dose of credibility from Steven Jones, a physics professor at Brigham Young University, who contends after studying the attacks that the towers were brought down by explosive charges. Mormon, conservative, and bookish, he has become the cochair of Scholars for 9/11 Truth and an unlikely star in a movement eager for anyone with a science background and without a history of promoting conspiracy theories.
The members of the official 9/11 commission have kept their distance after deciding jointly that responding to the frequent E-mails from conspiracy theorists would only give them undeserved credibility. "I have a tremendous amount of confidence that the basic thrust of our story ... will hold up to historians," says Jamie Gorelick, a commission member. That's not to say the conspiracy theorists go unchallenged. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, which last October issued the definitive 43-volume technical study of the towers' collapse, last week released a 14-point rebuttal of the controlled demolition theory. A blog and movie called Screw Loose Change both specialize in snarky commentary about Loose Change's flimsy evidence. On a recent Saturday at ground zero, bickering between the 9/11 Truthers and their critics, who have also taken to showing up weekly, grew so heated that they were broken up by a police officer.
Scrutiny. The most exhaustive debunking is found in a March 2005 article in Popular Mechanics, extended and released as a book this summer, which meticulously strikes down the movement's central scientific claims. James Meigs, the magazine's editor-in-chief, says none of the so-called evidence stood up to scrutiny, but that he can understand why people have been swayed by 9/11 Truth's endless footnotes and citations. "It has the appearance of being scholarly," he says. "But when you dig down, you see that it's not." Conspiracy theorists have an answer to that, too. They assert that Benjamin Chertoff, a researcher on the project, is a cousin of homeland security chief Michael Chertoff. He's not, though he may be distantly related. "No one in my family has ever met anyone related to Michael Chertoff," he says.
Belief in 9/11 conspiracies has flourished for years overseas, particularly in the Muslim world. In Pakistan, 41 percent of Muslims in a June 2006 Pew poll agreed that Arabs did not carry out the 9/11 attacks, compared with 15 percent who said they did. Many, like Muneer Ahmed Baloch, a Pakistani security expert and columnist, cite the long-debunked claim that 4,000 Jews did not show up for work at the towers on September 11. Egyptian singer Shaaban Abdel Rehim had a 2003 hit blaming September 11 on Israel and America. The accompanying video shows a caricatured Ariel Sharon pushing a button that causes a plane to crash into the towers.
Currently, Avery and his crew are hard at work on Loose Change: The Final Cut, a longer version they hope to bring to the Sundance Film Festival and then to a theater near you. On September 11, they and many other Truthers will be at ground zero spreading the word. Their presence will almost certainly outrage some who have come to mourn. But they are also hoping for reactions like those of Ron Tisdale, who began staring at 9/11 Truth's posters a few minutes after the box-cutter threat. After only a few minutes, the 52-year-old from Ohio was convinced. "It's really enlightened me," he says. "What's the world coming to?"
With Aamir Latif in Pakistan and Dan Morrison in Egypt
This story appears in the September 11, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.