9/11 conspiracy theories: time for truth

Two cheers for the University of New Hampshire for affirming the principle of academic freedom and resisting calls to dismiss, discipline, or curb the teaching of psychology professor William Woodward, an academic who believes that the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks were orchestrated by the U.S. government.

Woodward’s discussion of those controversial views in his class led some prominent New Hampshire politicians, including the Governor, John Lynch (who termed Woodward’s opinions “crazy”) and U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, to call for his dismissal.

The UNH administration reviewed Woodward’s teaching practices, looked at course materials and student evaluations, and concluded it should not take action. An Iraq war veteran in Woodward’s class told reporters that Woodward had not tried to indoctrinate his students (nor, apparently, was the professor particularly successful in convincing any of students that he was right).

Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, defended Woodward (in an email to Inside Higher Ed), making the traditionalists’ case for academic freedom:

“So long as the faculty member teaches within his or her discipline and is careful to teach the truth as set by the highest standards of scholarship within their discipline, they and their universities should not be subjected to political intrusions. This rule applies even in highly charged times like today. Professors outside the classroom should speak truth to power as their conscience dictates and inside the classroom they should speak the truths of their discipline.”

Bowen has it more or less right—although you have to strain a bit to fit 9/11 conspiracy theories into the “truths of their discipline” when that discipline is psychology (unless, perhaps, you are considering the mental health of conspiracy theorists). By all accounts Woodward has made only passing references to his 9/11 opinions in the classroom, noted that they are controversial, and has not let them dominate his teaching. (Woodward has been quoted as saying he hopes to teach a new class that would explore September 11th “in psychological terms.”)

UNH would deserve a third cheer if, at the same time it backs Woodward, it confronted the 9/11 conspiracy question head-on by sponsoring lectures, seminars and teach-ins to provide students with the facts. It’s a process that would expose the entire 9/11 “inside job” argument as baseless. A campus-wide discussion could enhance student’s critical thinking skills—they would learn in short order how flimsy the claims of the conspiracy buffs are and how the evidence doesn’t support them.

An unecessary exercise? Unfortunately, no. A shockingly high number of Americans apparently do not believe the bipartisan 9/11 Commission’s conclusions that Osama bin Laden and al-Quaida bear responsibility for the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll in early August found that “more than a third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East.” If the poll is even directionally correct, that would suggest one in three UNH students might harbor the same beliefs.

UNH is not the only college campus where such views are held—the so-called Scholars for 9/11 Truth (of which Woodward is a member) claim some 75 of the group’s 300 members have “academic affiliations.” Kevin Barrett, an adjunct instructor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, caused a similar uproar with his desire to teach the “Truth about 9/11” to his introductory class on Islam.

What will any dispassionate review of the facts about 9/11—on campus or off—show? Rather than a conspiracy, the voluminous record suggests incompetence and miscommunication on the part of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, sloppiness and confusion by the air defense and air traffic control systems, and a false sense of invulnerability to terror attacks held at every level of government.

The notion that the World Trade Center buildings were rigged with explosives, or that the Pentagon was hit by a cruise missile, are “theories” that have been throughly discredited—look no further for refutation than the Federal Emergency Management Agency or National Institute of Standards and Technology’s reports on the collapse of the WTC buildings, or the eyewitness testimony of first responders at the Pentagon.

There are, fortunately, resources and documents to help set the record straight. The U.S. State Department has posted web pages refuting most of the common conspiracy theories, and a Popular Mechanics investigation debunking the 16 most persistent conspiracy theories has been expanded into a book, Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts, which includes interviews with some 600 experts (and eyewitnesses). Two journalists, David Corn of the Nation, and Salon’s Farhad Manjoo, have been leaders in fact-based reporting on the topic.

Of course this may not matter to Scholars for 9/11 Truth or others promoting the “U.S. government false flag operation” meme—it has become a matter of faith that the attacks were “an inside job,” and any evidence to the contrary is regarded as fabricated by the conspiracists. As the historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, (a reflection prompted by the Age of McCarthy), those who fabricate convoluted conspiracy theories will not let the facts get in the way; their fantasy world becomes satisfyingly coherent, “since it leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities.”

I would imagine that most American university presidents and deans clearly recognize the intellectual shakiness of the 9/11 conspiracy movement, but figure that it will never take root on college campuses. They may think that engaging in debate legitimizes the conspiracy fringe. That both underestimates the staying power of “the Paranoid Style”—to date there’s been no let-up in the campaign to rewrite the history of 9/11—and cedes the field to those who shown more interest in attacking the Bush administration than in finding the truth.

When a third of American adults question whether their government has been involved in a massive conspiracy and cover-up—a notion unsupported by any credible evidence—it’s clear that dignified silence or ignoring the question isn’t going to work. America’s higher education leadership share in the duty to, in George Orwell’s words, “restate the obvious.” Those in the academy should take every opportunity to capitalize on this “teachable moment” on their campuses and encourage truth-telling about 9/11 sooner rather than later.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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3 thoughts on “9/11 conspiracy theories: time for truth

  1. I find it funny that you say “no credible evidence” but you don’t mention any of it. You assert though, that everything that is put out by the government is automatically true, even though we have been lied to over and over thoughout our history. I think it’s good that our people question the government, MAYBE in the future we’ll know why people hate us instead of acting all shocked and awwed.

  2. Nowhere do I say that the government’s position should be accepted without questioning.

    In fact, there has been government evasion and about the 9/11 attacks. Officials at the FAA have been caught lying about their agency’s actions the day of the attack (See: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/02/washington/02faa.html?ex=1314849600&en=a5b7cacbe1ca8cea&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss) and the Defense Department has been relucant to share information about the attack on the Pentagon and on the performance of our air defense.

    But these evasions are clearly because some government agencies did not do a very good job on 9/11—not because they are hiding some massive conspiracy.

    As to the claims of a 9/11 conspiracy, I did not repeat them, nor the “evidence” they cite, because they are dealt with at length in the citations I gave.

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