It is a cliché, echoed in exploitation recently at the Republican National Convention, but it is also a truism: We all remember where we were that morning, at that moment, and what was going through our heads. Eric Harrington wasn’t doing anything particularly noteworthy. He was sitting in his office in Ventura County, watching television, when a news report interrupted to show him the image of a gaping, smoking hole in one of the World Trade Center towers. “At first I thought,
‘What a lousy pilot. What a drag,’ ” he recalls. Then the second plane hit, and the country’s collective consciousness shifted. This isn’t an accident; it’s an attack. By whom? No one was sure right then, and it wasn’t even of much concern at that instant. That would be a question for the coming hours, days, weeks, months.
Seven years later, Harrington still isn’t sure what the real answer is.
He thought he knew: terrorists, Islamo-fascists, al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, the Axis of Evil — the names and phrases tossed out in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, comprising the amorphous body popularly thought of as the greatest threat to American liberty in the new millennium. Harrington bought it, more or less — until someone e-mailed him a picture of the hole in the side of the Pentagon. Supposedly one of the only photographs taken of the building before
its roof collapsed, the charred cavity appeared to be only about 18 feet wide and roughly one story tall. A chilling revelation hit him: There was no way a 757 could have produced that little damage. It was the first crack in what he had accepted as the truth, and it didn’t take long for the entire apparatus to shatter.
“When one little piece proves to be incorrect or a fallacy,” Harrington says, “the whole thing starts to unravel.”
Although many of its proponents consider the label dismissive, the events of 9/11 have become the basis for the preeminent conspiracy theory of the Internet Age. A Google search for “9/11 conspiracy” generates over 8 million results, and a scan through the sites reveals plots and analysis ranging from the wildly outrageous to the thoroughly plausible. There is no single alternative narrative proposed by the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement, but the unifying idea is that the “official” story of what happened that day — the version proposed by the Bush administration, disseminated through the media and confirmed by the 9/11 Commission, that 19 Muslim extremists armed with box cutters managed to hijack four commercial airliners — is false, riddled with omissions, distortions and scientific impossibilities, and thus, forces within the United States government must have had some degree of complicity in the attacks. It was, they claim, a “false flag operation,” devised as a means of justifying the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and possibly beyond; in other words, “an inside job.”
In and of itself, this seems to be the province of the same paranoid cult that believes the world is controlled by a race of lizard men, that the moon landing was a hoax and the country’s political elite are members of a quasi-satanic secret society. And certainly, there are those extreme elements within the 9/11 Truth community, those who insist the Twin Towers were eviscerated by lasers, that the video and photos of planes striking the buildings were doctored, that the alleged passengers are all part of the scheme.
But then there are people like Harrington. An energy efficiency analyst with a bachelor’s degree in physics, he prides himself on rational thought. His criticism of the official story disregards the comparatively loonier theories (which he suggests could be the products of purposeful disinformation) and centers mostly on the way the towers fell, how the collapse could not have occurred in the manner proposed by the commission report without defying Newtonian law. He says an independent test conducted on scraps of metal recovered from Ground Zero indicated the presence of thermate, a high-temperature explosive, giving credence to one of the primary theories of the 9/11 Truth crowd: that the World Trade Center was brought down by a controlled demolition, prepared in the days before Sept. 11. And while he concedes this alone does not prove internal involvement, he says there is enough cumulative evidence to open a new investigation.
“I consider myself a highly objective person, with strong opinions based on observations, not based on belief, and I’m willing to change them at any time,” Harrington says. “But I don’t put anything out of the realm of possibility with human beings, particularly in quests for power, and I think history would support this view.”
The whole truth and nothing but the truth
The spread of the 9/11 Truth Movement from the margins of the Internet into the culture at large has spurred several articles and books debunking its main tenets, which in turn has inspired debunkings of the debunkings, creating a complex web of arguments, counterarguments and counter-counterarguments that can be exhausting to sift through. Whether or not there is any legitimacy to their suspicions, the fact remains that an increasing number of citizens are aligning with the movement, and not all of them qualify as nutcases, crazies or mad tinfoil-hatters. (A growing number, in fact, identify themselves as educated professionals: spinoff groups include 9/11 Scholars for Truth, Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth and the Scientific Panel for the Investigation of 9/11.) Here in Ventura, decent-sized crowds have gathered for 9/11 Truth film screenings and speaking engagements by some of the movement’s leading voices. Last year, a poll conducted by
Zogby International — and sponsored by 911truth.org — found 51 percent of Americans want a congressional probe into the Bush administration regarding Sept. 11, meaning that, at the very least, a lot of people feel they are not being given the full truth in regard to the greatest mass murder in the nation’s history.
“This is not a fringe phenomenon,” says Robert Goldberg, author of Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America. “A large number of Americans are touched by insecurity and a lack of confidence [in the government]. This is beyond the idea of the fringe.”
At the same time, it is nothing new, either. Conspiracy theories existed long before the World Trade Center was reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble, of course. Every cataclysmic event seems to spawn a few. For example, there are those who maintain President Roosevelt had advance knowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and allowed it to happen, to stir support for the United States’ entry into World War II. And then there is the mother of all modern conspiracist mythology, the Kennedy assassination.
It would seem, however, that by occurring post-Internet and with a wealth of videotaped footage to be picked apart, 9/11 would be a different kind of conspiracy, a distinctly 21st century phenomenon. But according to those who have studied conspiratorial thought, it is really just the next link in a chain of mistrust in American institutions that began eroding with the murders of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and continued through the Vietnam War, Watergate,
Iran-Contra and the scandals of the Clinton years. Even the poll results aren’t unprecedented.
“I’m not totally convinced the support and interest in conspiracy theories is demonstrably greater than it was in the 1960s and ’70s,” says Mark Fenster, author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, adding that a 1966 Harris poll held two years after the release of the Warren Commission’s investigation into the JFK shooting showed 60 percent of the country believed Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone — and that was back when all they had to go on was the grainy 8 mm Zapruder film. “Loose Change [the viral documentary purporting the U.S. government orchestrated Sept. 11] is the more professional, high-tech version of the things conspiracy theorists in the Kennedy era were depending upon.”
In terms of its construction, 9/11 also follows a line similar as the conspiracy theories of the past. It proposes that there is an exclusive cabal of shadowy figures, plotting in secret to consolidate their wealth, influence and power, and using human lives as pawns to achieve nefarious goals. It erases the shades of gray that color post-9/11 America — the ambiguity of who we are supposedly fighting, of who our enemies are — and replaces them with clearly defined villains, ones we are already naturally skeptical of because they are in positions of authority. It is, in some ways, a coping mechanism.
“The conspiracy theory approach is that there are a small number of powerful people, and if we dispose of them, the world will be a better place,” Fenster says. “It’s less scary than thinking there are amorphous groups of people out there that we keep on pissing off, who have the resources and guile to pull off something like 9/11 and there’s nothing to stop them. But if terrorism is bullshit and we get rid of the conspiracy, we can live in peace and harmony.”
“In order to get to that place, that narrative economy, they have to have incredibly complicated theories,” he continues. “At its core is something simple and basic, but to get there requires enormous leaps of logic.”
But Harrington argues that it is not a leap to imagine a government would orchestrate such a tragedy, if those running it had convinced themselves that the end would ultimately justify the means. “I think people, when they look at this, jump to the conclusion that if it was a conspiracy, it was done by intentionally evil guys who are doing this to personally control the world and its resources. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true,” he says. “I suspect most of the people involved, if it was an inside job, had a twisted view that 9/11 was necessary to preserve America’s interests and power in the world. I guess it depends on if you believe we in the U.S. deserve to maintain our standard of living at the expense of the rest of the world.”
Harrington says those who ghettoize the 9/11 Truth community to the realm of wackos and crackpots — such as his father, whom he describes as a “dyed-in-the-wool patriot” — are reacting on their own psychological impulses, something that has little to do with dispassionate, unprejudiced observation of the evidence.
“There is a very pervasive mindset where people form an idea of what they believe to be reality,” he says, “and if they encounter anything that doesn’t fit into that framework, they get really angry about it.”
That is, however, a street that runs both ways. It is a trend in the 9/11 Truth Movement to lash out against its critics, tagging them as traitors or members of the brainwashed masses. Fenster has been called a “crypto-fascist” for implying that 9/11 conspiracy theories are a figment of a larger sociological construct; comedian and political commentator Bill Maher, an outspoken opponent of the regime currently occupying the White House, had an episode of his HBO program Real Time interrupted by 9/11 Truth advocates; even Noam Chomsky, for decades a fierce voice of dissent against U.S. foreign policy, has been disparaged for not endorsing the “inside job” hypothesis.
It is not surprising to discover that for some, the tendency toward disbelief is as much a natural mode of being as believing what is generally thought to be the truth, especially considering that the government has historically advanced its own brand of conspiracy theories. During the Cold War, according to those in Washington, there was no such thing as complexity or perspective when evaluating the conflict — communism was the enemy, plain and simple. In the early 1990s, Hillary Clinton often spoke of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her and her husband. And in the seven years since 9/11, the sitting president has promoted the notion that there is no room for moral ambiguity in the “War on Terror,” that it is “us versus them,” that we know who we’re fighting and they can be defeated, and when that happens, “we can live in peace and harmony.”
“President Bush followed the conspiracist script,” Goldberg says. “He said the world is divided into good and bad, right and wrong. ‘We’re fighting an Axis of Evil, the evildoers.’ What does that sound like?”
Discovering the boogeymen
Lee Harrison, on the other hand, wasn’t born with an innate sense of skepticism. Curiosity, maybe, but she is definitely not someone predisposed to adopting conspiracy theories. Soft-spoken, the Moorpark woman displays none of the rhetorical bluster of many of those in the 9/11 Truth Movement — which is probably why she doesn’t consider herself part of any supposed “movement.” “I’m not a joiner,” she says. But she agrees that from the research she has done, it appears the federal government may have had a hand in the attacks.
She first read about the discrepancies in the official story through interviews published in the Reporter with the likes of Dr. David Ray Griffin, a retired professor, theologian and author of several books on the alleged conspiracy, and began to look into the accusations for herself. Like Harrington, she was initially struck by the pictures from the Pentagon. (There is a split within the 9/11 Truth Movement over whether it was actually a missile that hit the building, and the lack of clear footage of the attack has only exacerbated that argument.) And she was particularly intrigued by the implosion of World Trade Center 7 — 9/11 Truth’s “grassy knoll” — hours after the collapse of the Twin Towers, which went unexplained until recently, when an investigation concluded that uncontrolled fires caused the destruction of a critical support column in the building. (Conspiracy theorists have reacted to this report with raised eyebrows).
“I didn’t go looking for boogeymen by any means,” Harrison says, “but I started seeing a lot of things that are disturbing.”
Harrison is, to a certain degree, an anomaly. If you are going to subscribe to the theories of 9/11 Truth, chances are you’re going to be shouting them from the street corners, or at least have a Web site. She says she will discuss the issue with her friends, but usually only those open-minded enough to take the possibility seriously. It is more of a personal matter for her. It shows, perhaps, how deeply the idea is seeping into popular culture. And, real or imagined, that can be a good thing for the country — an extreme measure of checks and balances.
“There is a culture of secrecy in the federal government,” Goldberg says. “Whenever they have a secret or have a rumor, it’s propped up on secret-making machinery. We have been led in a series of cover-ups from the 1960s on up to Iraq that have left us leery and weary of our leaders. That’s why these counter-authorities are so important. They say, ‘I have nothing to gain, I’m putting myself out there for you, because I’m a patriot.’ ”
DECIDE FOR YOURSELF
911 CONSPIRACY THEORIES:
Fact, fiction, or a combination of both?
9/11 TRUTH ADVOCATES
911truth.org: The online epicenter of the movement, featuring a wealth of conspiratorial analysis, as well as links to various grassroots organizations now spread throughout the country.
911blogger.com: One of the more popular 9/11 Truth Web sites, keeping up with related news from “alternative” media sources.
conspireality.wordpress.com: Ventura County local Eric Harrington’s blog with essays related to the main tenets of the 9/11 Truth framework.
Popular Mechanics’ Debunking the 9/11 Myths: Perhaps the most thorough deconstruction of the 9/11 conspiracy theories, which was expanded into a book (Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts, Hearst, 2006) and sparked a rebuttal by professor and theologian David Ray Griffin (Debunking 9/11 Debunking: An Answer to Popular Mechanics and Other Defenders of the Official Conspiracy Theory, Olive Branch Press, 2007). Available online at www.popularmechanics.com/technology/military_law/1227842.html.