This is a chapter from my book “The World’s Worst Conspiracies” that didn’t make it into the final draft. It’s about why 9/11 conspiracy theories took hold, and the role they play in making sense of the tragedy that took place 18 years ago. It’s presented unabridged.
It should not be surprising that the most destructive terrorist attack in history would have inspired the conspiracy theory that truly brought the movement from the darkest corners of the internet into the mainstream.
As the hijacked airplanes were still crashing into buildings, the September 11th attacks were met with a deluge of unbelieving reactions. It simply did not fit into the western mindset that someone would willingly fly an airplane into a building, killing themselves just to kill hundreds of other people. Disbelief was common, from air traffic controllers as the attacks were happening, to the reactions of world leaders afterwards.
Because conspiracy theories exist to explain to the unexplainable, it’s natural that the attacks would inspire a raft of them. But many are contradictory, others depend on facts not in evidence, and some simply don’t make sense – requiring far more of a cover up than would be humanly possible.
There are too many September 11th conspiracy theories to comprehensively debunk in one attempt. But why are there so many, in the first place? Why do so many people believe that one or more of the tragedies of that day were not attacks carried out by Al Qaeda, but something planned and executed by the US government – or at the very least, something covered up by that government?
A day that will live in conspiracies
It took just hours for anonymous message board posts to speculate on why the World Trade Center buildings imploded, rather than toppling over they way they “should” have. The conclusion of these nascent conspiracists: it was a controlled demolition, rather than collapse due to structural damage, and the implosion proves it. This would be the first, but far from the last, attempt to offer an alternate explanation for what the authorities were telling us took place.
In the frenzied first few hours and days after the attacks, speculation was all over the place as to who did it and why – and whether they’d do it again. Naturally, Israel and the Jews were blamed, with a persistent rumor beginning that not a single Jew died in the attacks because they all knew to stay home. The same was said about Muslim taxi drivers – and the anti-Islam rumors only got worse when the culprits were finally found.
Over the next few months, the conspiracy theory movement exploded, with articles in legitimate newspapers speculating the attack was an “inside job,” that the government had brought the towers down, and/or demolished WTC 7 despite the building not having been directly hit, that what hit the Pentagon wasn’t an airplane, but a missile; that Vice President Dick Cheney had ordered US fighter jets to stand down and all the planes to hit their targets; and, paradoxically, that Flight 93 was shot down by those same fighter jets. We needed something to believe that wasn’t simply the randomness of being on the wrong plane or in the wrong office building at the wrong time.
Crucially, these theories became much more popular in Europe than they were in the United States, where most people were still reeling in disbelief, rather than blaming the government. The earliest legitimate publicity for 9/11 conspiracy theories came from the French newspaper “Le Monde”, and from prominent German journalists. But by late 2002, the stirrings for war with Iraq began. And so, sentiment about President Bush shifted from him being the hero to the villain – and questioning the “official story” of 9/11 became commonplace.
By then, there was an industry of self-produced 9/11 documentaries, such as “Loose Change,” “911: In Plane Site,” and a slew of videos from Infowars founder Alex Jones. These videos mostly made different claims about what had “really” happened, and were often riddled with errors and accusations that had already been proven false. But they took off in the anti-Bush, anti-war crowd who believed that 9/11 was the perfect false flag attack (whether or not it was an inside job) to use as an excuse to finish the job that George W. Bush’s father had begun in Iraq – getting rid of Saddam Hussein.
And there is some truth to that. We know now that just hours after the attack, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld instructed his staff to dig through the evidence and find a link to Iraq. “Hard to get good case. Need to move swiftly,” Rumsfeld’s handwritten notes, obtained in 2007, read. “Near term target needs – go massive – sweep it all up, things related and not.”
We also know that the US government made a concerted effort to link Saddam Hussein to Osama Bin Laden, even though the intelligence committee found not only was there no connection between the two, but that Saddam disagreed with bin Laden carrying out the attacks. President Bush himself was briefed just ten days after the attack that there was no link – yet spent years trying to sell one to the American people anyway.
So when the Iraq war kicked off anyway, the suspicion of Bush turned into anger – and the conspiracy theories grew. They also started to become less about how the deception was carried, and more about why. After all, if you’re going to gin up the outrage needed for a war, why does it matter if the false flag was allowed to happen or made to happen? It happened, that’s all that mattered.
No new evidence
While the conspiracy between Iraq and Al Qaeda existed only as a theory, the “cover up” of what “really” happened on 9/11 continued to be taken as fact by its believers. Over the first decade of the new millennium, arguments raged on the internet, through articles, and in books as to whether the attacks happened the way we were told they happened, or some other way.
Conspiracy theorists and debunkers had raging debates about esoteric concepts like nanothermite particles in the World Trade Center debris (supposedly indicating the presence of explosives), the meaning of the term “pull it” (said by the owner of WTC 7 in regard to the firefighting team trying to save the building from collapse,) short sales of airline stocks (an actual event that took place in the week before the attack), and whether phone calls from the doomed planes were faked via “voice morphing” technology.
These debates often centered around tiny pieces of ephemera, misunderstandings of how physics and science work, or slight contradictions or misstatements by officials. Many were influenced not by evidence, but by perception – the buildings didn’t collapse the way we think buildings should collapse, for example. But the evidence that burning jet fuel and debris caused enough structural damage for the buildings to implode was compelling enough that nobody has been able to devise and prove an alternate explanation.
Likewise, the evidence that a plane hit the Pentagon was strong enough to survive accusations that the crash didn’t “look” like a plane crash – ie, there was no cartoonish hole punched in the walls. And if Flight 93 was actually shot down, there’s no record of a plane having flown close enough to it, or having fired a missile, and a great deal of evidence from the passengers making phone calls before they tried to retake the plane.
As the years went by, 9/11 truth conspiracy theories became less appealing, because nothing new ever emerged to prove them. What seemed like it couldn’t be explained, actually was explained. And because of that, the evidence and the debates were always the same. Eventually, many prominent truthers moved on to other conspiracy theories, which began appearing at an exponential rate. For better or worse, it became a decade-encompassing running battle between skeptics and believers over what “really” happened that day – and at a certain point, there simply wasn’t anything new to talk about. The most hardcore believers stuck to their guns, but almost everyone else found something else to argue about.
The 9/11 truth movement stands not as the first great excavation of truth by citizen researchers, but as the first major conspiracy theory to take full advantage of the speed and accessibility of the internet.
It wouldn’t be the last.