On 11 September 2019, I wrote an article for a UK-based online publication called The Canary titled On the anniversary of 9/11, let’s remember that conspiracy theories are counterproductive. The article sparked an unexpectedly large amount of debate and, sadly, an even larger amount of abuse from followers of the so-called “9/11 Truth” movement.
In the two years since, I have learned more about both the attacks themselves and those who believe that they were some kind of “inside job.” For those of you reading who are expecting a full-blown recantation, I am afraid you will be disappointed. I still am not persuaded by the major pillars of the 9/11 Truth movement. But I am willing to offer some nuance as well as an appeal to those who still are.
Three worthwhile distinctions
First, there is a worthwhile distinction to be made between the various iterations of the 9/11 Truth movement. Essentially, there seem to be three, which believe that the Bush administration did one of the following in order to create a ruse to launch the “War on Terror”:
1) Deliberately ignored the threat of the attack, which they knew about in advance, and failed to act on this intelligence that had forewarned them. (Sometimes called the LIHOP faction, which stands for ‘Let It Happen On Purpose’.)
2) Actively colluded with the perpetrators of 9/11. (This is a weaker version of what is sometimes called the MIHOP faction, which stands for ‘Made It Happen On Purpose’, though followers of this line tend to believe that al-Qaida were involved and that the attacks played out largely according to the official account in terms of causation, such as building collapse.)
3) Planned the attacks and ordered people working under them to rig the Twin Towers with explosives that brought the buildings down via a controlled demolition. (This is the most extreme version of the MIHOP school of thought, and in some cases holds that al-Qaida were not involved in the attack at all.)
The “they knew about it, but let it happen” scenario
Of these three theories, I find them to be in ascending order in terms of plausibility. That is, I find #1 the most plausible and #3 the least. Some serious figures on the left have advanced theory #1 including the late literary figure Gore Vidal. This seems by far the most plausible of the three since it does have some basis in fact. On August 6, 2001, just over a month before the attack, a CIA report titled Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.landed on then-president George W. Bush’s desk as one of his Daily Briefs. And this does indeed seem to provide powerful evidence in support of the LIHOP version of events.
Ultimately, however, I myself am still not convinced even of this most modest construction of the 9/11 Truth theories. And that is because the theory fails to take into account the sheer quantity of reports that get produced by the US’s vast intelligence apparatus and that subsequently land on the president’s desk. Bush will have seen countless such reports and cannot reasonably have been expected to act on most, let alone all, of those he received. I am also skeptical of the theory because it overestimates George W. Bush’s intelligence and competence. However, I would also say that I think that reasonable people can disagree on this theory.
The “they actively colluded” scenario
As with iteration #1, admittedly some otherwise reasonable people on the left have endorsed the collusion theory. It appears to be closely associatedwith Michael Ruppert and his book Crossing the Rubicon, who in some other respects seems to have been a serious-minded journalist. However, I find this second construction to be even less plausible than the first. Because if there had been collusion between the Bush administration and the perpetrators of 9/11, it seems very implausible that no one by now would have blown the whistle on it all. And such collusion would almost certainly have produced some kind of paper trail or have been overheard, either of which would have been leaked by now.
Yet 20 years on and there has been no such smoking gun, which leaves me unpersuaded of this variety of 9/11 conspiracy theory as well. One could argue that we still don’t know the truth about the Kennedy assassination almost 60 years after the event. True enough. But here we’re talking about a far less complex (alleged) conspiracy on a much smaller scale, which by definition would be much easier to plan. Though I do not myself believe in conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination, I still wouldn’t insult those who do by conflating them in any way with members of the 9/11 Truth movement.
The “controlled demolition” scenario
The final theory is, for me, not just the least plausible, but palpably fatuous in all of its dimensions. For starters, why on earth would you need to set off a controlled explosion if two commercial airliners had already flown into the towers at high speeds? There are some who believe that no planes flew into the Twin Towers at all, which is a level of lunacy that I frankly find hard to fathom (some even believe that the planes depicted on television news channels were holograms…)But, leaving aside these so-called “no-planers” (or as I call then, the “no-brainers”), the standard response from the non-no-planer MIHOP faction is that, since jet fuel does not burn hot enough to melt the steel garters that held together the towers, the conspirators needed to ensure the buildings’ full collapse via a controlled demolition.
This rhetorical sleight of hand is particularly deceitful given that it does contain an element of truth. Jet fuel indeed does not burn hot enough to melt steel. But it didn’t have to. Burning jet fuel creates enough heat to weaken steel to point that it loses around 50% of its strength and can therefore bend. This inflicted more than enough damage to the buildings to make them collapse to the ground of their own accord.
The “Tower 7” retort
At this point during a conversation with a follower of this theory you will likely be presented with the retort: But what about Tower7? For those of you who don’t know, Tower 7 was a minor building of the World Trade Center complex that collapsed shortly after the destruction of the two main towers despite no airplane having crashed into it. The argument then goes that at least Tower 7 must have been brought down by a controlled blast from planted explosives.
But the reality is that the impact of the collapse of the two major towers, as would be expected, weakened the structural integrity of all surrounding buildings. Falling debris, fire and the physical impact of rubble hitting the ground from huge heights all caused damage to nearby structures. If anything, what is miraculous is not that Tower 7 collapsed, but that more buildings in the vicinity didn’t collapse as well.
Moreover, as any demolition expert can tell you, rigging a building with explosives is a highly onerous process that can take weeks or even months to successfully complete, especially for large commercial buildings. It would be impossible to do this without practically every person that works there finding out, which again would have resulted in a leak by now.
A recent study from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, purports to show that fire could not have been the cause of Tower 7’s collapse. First to mention is that “not caused by fire” does not necessarily mean “caused by planted explosives.” But moreover, the research was both funded by and conducted especially for one of the major groups behind 9/11 conspiracy theories, the so-called “Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth.”
Bogus claims about ‘support from experts’
Speaking of which, adherents to the “controlled demolition” school of thought claim that “many” specialists in relevant fields question the “official narrative” behind 9/11, pointing in particular to Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth. This organization does admittedly contain some practicing architects and engineers.
But the reality is that every professional field has a few fringe outliers, including in other respected professions such as medicine (remember the nutbar anti-vaccine doctor Andrew Wakefield?). There is also a tiny minority of environmental scientists who deny global warming (and you can probably guess where many of them receive their research funding from.) In any case, to date no mainstream organization representing architects or engineers has endorsed any of the theories put forth by the 9/11 Truth movement. As Noam Chomsky puts it:
There’s a consensus [about 9/11 conspiracies] among a miniscule number of architects and engineers, a tiny number… [But] they are not doing what scientists and engineers do when they think they’ve discovered something. What you do when you think you’ve discovered something… is write articles in scientific journals, give talks at the professional societies, go to the civil engineering department at [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] or [the University of] Florida or wherever you are and present your results and then proceed to try to convince the national academies, the professional society of physicists and civil engineers, the departments in the major universities, convince them that you’ve discovered something. Now there happen to be a lot of people around who [have] spent an hour on the internet and think they know a lot of physics. But it doesn’t work like that.
What’s the goal?
If you’re a member of the ‘9/11 Truth’ movement and you’re still not convinced, there are nonetheless some more overarching questions that I would like to ask you. One is this: If the Bush administration orchestrated 9/11 in order to create a ruse for invading Afghanistan and Iraq, why on earth would they enlist operatives who were almost all nationals of Saudi Arabia, the US’s second staunchest ally in the Middle East? To again quote Chomsky:
There’s just overwhelming evidence that the Bush administration wasn’t involved, very elementary evidence. You don’t have to be a physicist to understand it. You just have to think for minute… So let’s think for a minute. There’s a couple of facts which are uncontroversial, right? One fact that is uncontroversial is that the Bush administration desperately wanted to invade Iraq… There’s good reasons for it: second largest energy resources in the world… Perfectly obvious reasons, which they, in fact, later stated… Second uncontroversial fact, they didn’t blame the 9/11 [attacks] on Iraqis, they blamed it on Saudis, mainly. That’s their major ally. So they blamed it on people from their major ally not on the country that they wanted to invade. Third uncontroversial fact: unless they’re total lunatics, they would have blamed it on Iraqis, if they were involved in any way. That would have given them open season on invading Iraq, total support, international support, the UN resolution. No need to concoct wild stories about weapons of mass destruction and contacts between Saddam [Hussein] and al-Qaida, which of course quickly exploded discrediting them… But they didn’t. Well, the conclusion is pretty straightforward: either they are total lunatics or they weren’t involved. And they’re not total lunatics. So whatever you think about Building 7, there are other considerations to be concerned with.
In short, the Bush administration didn’t need as sophisticated and risky a ruse as planning a false flag terrorist attack on their own country would have been. Certainly, as I have argued before, the Bush administration did weaponize 9/11 to justify the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. But the justifications they used, especially in the case of Iraq, were so contorted and clumsily made to fit with a pre-conceived agenda that orchestrating 9/11 just seems a bizarre and counter-productive way of going about it.
Another question I would pose to 9/11 Truthers is: Now that it is 20 years on from the attacks and your theories remain a minority opinion, what exactly is your goal at this point? Another is: Why do you “want another inquiry” when you claim to already have all the important answers? As the late Alexander Cockburn (himself a man with impeccable radical credentials) put it: “9/11 conspiracists… proffer what they demurely call “disturbing questions”, though they disdain all answers but their own.”
Viciously lashing out as they seep further into obscurity…
I would further ask: Even if public opinion did begin to move in your direction, what then? Would that open up the possibility of prosecution of members of the Bush administration for mass murder or perhaps even a revolution in which the US government is overthrown? This doesn’t seem very likely given that Bush administration is responsible for far more than the 2,977 deaths that resulted from the 9/11 attacks. Civilian deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars led to the deaths of (at least) several hundred thousands of people. Yet neither Bush nor Cheney, Rumsfeld nor Wolfowitz, have faced any kind of justice for these crimes against humanity. This sad reality is an aspect of the current impunity for imperialist crimes that requires a much broader conversation among anti-imperialist activists. And I fail to see how inserting 9/11 conspiracy theories into the mix would enrich this discourse in any way.
For what it’s worth, my own answer to questions about the 9/11 Truth movement’s goals is thus: Given that they have failed in their goals of getting a new inquiry and bringing the majority of public opinion to their side, all that is left to them is to lash out at those who don’t count amongst the enlightened Truther coven. They hold a particularly vitriolic ire for those who they believe ought to count amongst their number, such as anti-imperialist journalists and activists like myself. Indeed, the viciousness toward me and The Canary seems to have been particularly acute due to the fact that, according to Truther lore, any media outlet that doesn’t dutifully repeat their shibboleths must have been “got at” by the secret forces behind the original conspiracy, just like corporate-owned outlets supposedly already have been. This is just one example among many of the closed systems of thought within the 9/11 movement that serve to explain away contradictory evidence and smear critics of their theories.
…and start to exhibit the characteristics of a cult
In addition to the rhetorical benefits of taking this stance, doing so also has its own set of psychological benefits that reinforce Truthers’ convictions. The idea of being part of a supposedly enlightened few who have cast away the blinkers that are fixed to the eyes of the benighted masses provides a gratifying sense of superiority, both intellectual and moral, to those belonging to the elite elect who know the “real” truth.
This, in turn, provides justification for the vitriol targeted on those who, according to Truther mythology, remain blinded to the veritable political reality. In short, in the 20 years since the 9/11 attacks took place, the Truther movement has degenerated into a community with all the trappings of a cult.
Finally, there is the issue of pride. Having stated their beliefs with such certainty, acted so sanctimoniously in their proselytizing, and hurled so much inventive at those with whom they disagree, the act of considering that they got the whole thing wrong would require a level of grace and humility that they quite self-evidently don’t posses. As Mark Twain is (perhaps wrongly) believed to have said: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
Think about whether it’s still worth it
To those still not convinced, I ask you in all earnestness: Whatever you think is the ‘truth’ about what happened on that day, isn’t this just a political dead end at this late stage? Ultimately, my own rejection of 9/11 conspiracy theories now has as much to do with prudent use of scarce resources in the struggle against the status quo as it does with my skepticism about the movement’s claims themselves. Am I wrong in this calculus and, if so, how?
9/11 Truthers: I implore you to consider whether this really is still a good use of your time given the many other more fruitful ways we can work for change. Stubbornly clinging to 9/11 conspiracy theories will increasingly become a hinderance, rather than a help, in the struggle for a better world.