The world watched as the horror of September 11 unfolded. The attacks were filmed in real time; mass murder played out on our televisions and computer screens in what must be the most digitally documented loss of human life in history. Yet an Internet-driven conspiracy theory soon emerged, maintaining that the American government, and not al-Qaida, was behind the attacks. To quote from one online screed: “The actual forces behind the conception, planning, and execution of this seminal event came not from bearded Islamic extremists living in a cave in Afghanistan, but from within high-level rogue elements of our own government.”
Such claims would be dismissible, somewhere between offensive and absurd, if not for the fact that in the seven years since the attacks, the conspiracy theory has steadily won converts. In a September 2007 Scripps Howard poll, 62 percent of Americans surveyed said that it was either “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that the federal government “had specific warnings of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, but chose to ignore those warnings”—phrasing that might include government incompetence as well as outright conspiracy. But in another poll in July 2006, Scripps had already found that 36 percent of Americans believed the federal government “either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action” because it “wanted to go to war in the Middle East.” Sixteen percent, meanwhile, thought that it might have been secret explosives that brought down the World Trade Center, while 12 percent said that a U.S. cruise missile—and not a hijacked airplane—hit the Pentagon.
Type “9/11” and “conspiracy” into Google and you’ll get over 8 million page matches. Purple bumper stickers reading 9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB have become ubiquitous. The documentary Loose Change, an account of the supposed conspiracy produced by upstate New York twentysomethings, has been viewed on YouTube more than 1.5 million times. And this summer, petitioners have been stopping New Yorkers on street corners, seeking signatures for a ballot initiative that would create “a new, independent investigation of the attacks” to “follow the evidence wherever it might lead.” These folks seem more earnest and engaged than the grim, grizzled, Lyndon LaRouche–inspired conspiracists of the past, perhaps because they’re surfing a pop-culture wave of validation. Like characters in The X Files, they believe that “the truth is out there.”
The “9/11 Truthers,” as they call themselves, have a dizzying catalog of accusations—a Top 40 list is available on 911Truth.org—but the usual suspects include explosives to bring down the Twin Towers, missiles to hit the Pentagon, the complicity of Dick Cheney, and the mysterious inaction of the military and the FAA. The Truthers even have a “peer-reviewed” online periodical, the Journal for 9/11 Studies, which cites engineering and architectural reasons why airplanes alone couldn’t have felled the towers. Among the converts to this approach is conservative author Jerome R. Corsi, whose most recent book is the bestselling ObamaNation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality.
Like many New Yorkers, I lived through the attacks and their aftermath. I saw the first plane scream past my window and was covered in ash after the collapse. So when I see people embrace the blame-America-first impulse in Lower Manhattan, I lose my sense of humor. In search of some perspective, I called Professor Patrick J. Leman, a conspiracy-theory specialist at the University of London, to ask a decidedly unacademic question: What is going on?
“There is an underlying psychological phenomenon called ‘major-event/major-cause’ thinking,” Leman explains. “If there’s a big event, we like to find a similarly big cause to explain what happened. It provides us with a sense that the world is a relatively predictable place. Because the alternative—imagining that something big, like the death of a president, can be caused by something minor, like a lone gunman—presents us with a view of the world that’s unpredictable and scary and difficult to control.” In reality, of course, no organization is organized and discreet enough to pull off a secret worldwide plot, which is why the Truthers need a Big Brother for their story to work. “Conspiracy theorists need a competent and malevolent conspirator,” Leman says. “And if you have a lot of Keystone Kops messing around, that’s not going to work very well.” The 9/11 Truthers would rather believe that their government is all-powerful and evil than imperfect and well-intentioned. Faced with a real conspiracy, they must invent their own.
Of course there is an alternative to all the Truthers’ accusations: accepting the word of Osama bin Laden, who has taken credit for the attacks on film. But the Truthers disregard his claims, along with the findings of the voluminous 9/11 Commission Report and Popular Mechanics’s thorough Debunking 9/11 Myths. “The man shown in the video, though bearded, Arabic, and of darkish complexion, is much heavier than all known photos and videos of the actual Bin Laden,” explains the website 911HardFacts.com. “The man in the video is seen writing something down with his right hand. Bin Laden is well-known to be left-handed.” As Leman says, “A conspiracy theorist is always going to see a conspiracy—whatever evidence you give to them.”
It’s always been the Truthers’ hope to move from an online congregation to an outright political movement. At the beginning of this presidential cycle, it seemed that they had found their candidate in Ron Paul, who blamed the attacks on American foreign policy. Paul took care to distance himself from the conspiracy theories but also never discouraged the Truthers’ support. Truthers hit the campaign trail hard, venturing to Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, and points in between, carrying signs and stoking grassroots protests. They seemed to spend at least as much time trying to shout down Rudy Giuliani (whose campaign I was working on) as they did supporting Paul, dogging the former New York mayor’s campaign events with handheld cameras and hysterical questions. In the Democratic Party, their favorite targets were Bill and Hillary Clinton. Since the primaries ended and Paul folded up his tent, the Truthers have had only Green Party presidential nominee Cynthia McKinney, a self-identified Truther herself, to rally around.
Fortunately, signs indicate that the Truthers may be running out of steam. They have scuttled and rescheduled their conventions; a website promising the “Summer of Truth” hasn’t had an update since February. It may be that the imminent passing of George W. Bush from the national stage—and the rise of two presidential nominees not associated with 9/11—has cooled the activists’ fervor. Or perhaps they are lying low for fear of disrupting what may be a big Democratic year. But if they have briefly forgotten about us, we should not forget about them. We have the body count to prove how deadly serious America’s jihadist enemies are. So here’s a suggestion on the seventh anniversary of the attacks, consistent with our commitment never to forget them. Let’s call the 9/11 Truthers what they are: apologists for al-Qaida. Perhaps that will help nudge public opinion about the attacks back to reality.