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Five years of myths


By Larry Smith


"This is the 5th anniversary of the lie that bases all of our foreign and domestic policy...America has been hijacked." -- 9/11 conspiracy theorist

"That's the problem with dipping one's toes into the waters of conspiracy theories. One might just sink to its bottomless depths." -- Cinnamon Stillwell, SF Gate.


I entertained a pair of Canadian college students over the summer. Cousins of West Indian descent, they came from a solid middle class background - born in Canada, well-educated, well-spoken and  well-behaved.


During one conversation, the approaching fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington came up. And it was clear that these two level-headed students from Toronto were convinced that the attacks were not the work of radical Islamic terrorists, but of the US government itself.


"Haven't you seen 'Loose Change'?" They asked smugly. No, we hadn't. So a little research was in order - starting with Wikipedia (http://www.skepticwiki.org/wiki/index.php/9/11_coverup).


Turns out there is a veritable cottage industry of conspiracy theories swirling around the 9/11 disaster, and a multitude of debates about the collapse of the three World Trade Centre buildings, the explosion at the Pentagon, and the crash of United's flight 93 in Pennsylvania. It is the current generation's JFK assassination plot.


Countless conspiracy web sites litter the Internet, and polls show that more than 40 per cent of Americans and 60 per cent of Canadians flatly discount the official 9/11 story. Hollywood has cranked out at least two major films on the disaster in time for next week's anniversary.


But director Oliver Stone's big-budget movie cannot begin to compete with a $6,000 video produced by 22-year-old Dylan Avery, from Omeonta, New York (population 13,000) called 'Loose Change', which has been downloaded over the Internet millions of times.


The hour-long documentary is now into its second edition, and working on a third. You can find it on Google Video. It uses actual news footage, interviews and speculation to piece together a variety of conspiracy theories and makes a plausible case on a casual viewing.


The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were the worst in recorded history. According to the 9/11 Commission report, more than 2,600 people died in New York; 125 died at the Pentagon; and 256 died on the four hijacked planes. The death toll surpassed that at Pearl Harbour in December 1941.


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In a recent article, Vanity Fair writer Nancy Jo Sales said, "Nine-eleven conspiracy theories have been circulating for years, producing millions of Web links, scores of books, and a nationwide collection of doubters known as the '9/11 Truth' movement....For those who can't find information about the alleged cover-up on the nightly news, there is 'Loose Change', which just might be the first Internet blockbuster."


What, for example, were the explosions some witnesses heard after the towers were hit by planes? How could the towers collapse on themselves and fall so fast unless explosives were involved? And why was the site of the collapse not treated as a crime scene?


Why were the black boxes from American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 never found, when the passport of one of Flight 11's alleged hijackers turned up unscathed a few blocks from the World Trade Centre?


How did American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, disappear into a small round hole, leaving no trace of its 124-foot wingspan on the building? And what about all the forewarnings that the government ignored?


For conspiracy buffs, the official accounts are improbable, so the whole affair was a "Neo-con, Zionist, right-wing conspiracy". Most of these folks believe the twin towers were brought down by explosives in a controlled demolition, that a cruise missile hit the Pentagon, and that United Airlines Flight 93 was shot down by US fighters over Pennsylvania.


Although it has been suggested that New York realtor Larry Silverstein, who took over the WTC lease just six weeks prior to the attack, benefited from a $2 billion-plus insurance payout, the chief culprit in these theories is the Bush administration, backed by the neo-conservative think tank, Project for a New American Century. The alleged motive was to end division over a contested election and ensure American control of the world.


But don't think that the 9/11 doubters are all left-wingers - many of the same conspiracy theorists also deny that the Holocaust took place. And the 'Loose Change' video cites a newspaper called the American Free Press as a reference (http://www.americanfreepress.net/). That far-right publication describes itself as "maverick, independent and grass-roots", but many consider it simply anti-Semitic.


Although they draw huge conclusions, conspiracy theorists tend to rely on a handful of anomalies to discount well-established fact: "This is at the heart of all conspiratorial thinking," wrote Michael Schumer in Scientific American recently. "Such notions are easily refuted by noting that scientific theories are not built on single facts alone but on a convergence of evidence assembled from multiple lines of inquiry."


For example, Popular Mechanics magazine researched an article last year (which became a book) that reviewed 300 sources and consulted more than 70 experts to deal with a number of common points that 9/11 conspiracy theorists like to focus on... such as the steel failure in the WTC towers



"Some of these misconceptions arise from the source material, which is often video or photos on the Internet - and from that people spin these wild theories. When you put conspiracy theory data - which might be footage of a building not coming down the way they might expect - in opposition to the (10,000-page) National Institute of Standards and Technology report, which tested 236 pieces of steel in controlled laboratory conditions, there's a total mismatch."


And, of course, the real world is always far more chaotic than the way conspiracists portray it, because emergencies and disasters are uncontrolled events - and as in the case of the WTC collapse, often unprecedented events. So it is all the more important not to confuse coincidence with causation.


Larry Smith writes a column called "Tough Call" every Wednesday for the Bahamas Nassau Tribune. A former reporter and editor, he now operates a communications agency in Nassau (www.bahamasmedia.com). He also blogs at Bahamapundit.


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