Considering 9/11 and 3/11: why the conspiracy theories persist

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that we—Americans—are not the only ones who must now confront conspiracy theories about terrorist attacks.

About a third of the Spanish public disbelieves the “official version” of the March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid, just as a dismayingly sizeable number of Americans think that they haven’t been told the truth about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

In Spain, the 3/11 conspiracy theories are produced by the Right: the claim is that the Spanish Socialist government is covering up evidence that ETA, the Basque separatist movement, colluded with radical Muslims in the bombings. (The right-of-center Popular Party government had initially, and wrongly, blamed ETA in the first hours after the event.) The evidence strongly points to a small-scale conspiracy by a radical Islamic cell, largely North African in composition, seeking to both emulate Al Qaeda and punish the Popular Party prime minister Jose Maria Aznar for his support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The Associated Press reports that the ETA theories “are kept alive by Popular Party leaders and the country’s most influential right-wing newspaper, El Mundo, which has run a series of articles casting doubt on the government’s case” and notes that they have proven resilient:

“It’s extraordinary how these conspiracy theories have survived, and if anything have expanded and contaminated people’s minds,” said Charles Powell, a political scientist at San Pablo-CEU University in Madrid. “One has to remember that the March 11 attacks were the first time a Spanish government has been brought down as a result of a terror attack … and that has proved extremely disconcerting, particularly to conservative voters.”

In the United States it is predominately the Left providing the foot soldiers for the 9/11 Denial Movement, although there are a few fringe Right proponents (such as talk-radio host Alex Jones). This despite ample evidence that 9/11 was an Al Qaeda operation (I’ve previously explored the fantasies of the 9/11 Truth Movement).

Why conspiracy theories persist

So why do these grand conspiracy theories persist? There are several possible explanations.

Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” that those with extreme political views—true believers—often embrace conspiracy theories as a way to explain why others have failed to support their extremism. They cannot accept that their political marginalization might be due to their own unappealing ideology; only a powerful conspiracy can explain why they are not in power.

I think there may be a global conspiracy meme at work as well. Years of movies and television programs that suggest hidden elites, secret societies and intelligence agencies control our destiny, from the X Files to Bourne Conspiracy to the DaVinci Code to Syriana, must have had some impact. This made-in-the-USA fiction has been widely exported and we can only guess at whether it has pre-conditioned global audiences to assume governments always lie (particularly the U.S. government) and that conspiracies underlie any significant political event.

It is true that government officials lie—they often do—but state-sanctioned conspiracies involving large numbers of people have proven exceedingly difficult to pull off. Conspiracy theorists must assume that thousands of government conspirators will stay silent over long periods of time about monstrous acts—a dubious proposition in democratic societies like Spain and the U.S.

Yet, there is something perversely reassuring about a grand government conspiracy: it suggests that the world is a rational place, that there is a reason for the disappointments and evils encountered in life. If only the conspiracists can be exposed and routed, a New Age of peace and harmony can be inaugurated, this thinking goes.

The world, however, is messy, confusing, unpredictable and contradictory. The events on 9/11 were triggered by a small-scale conspiracy—the Al Qaeda cells involved in the planning and execution of the attacks—but the U.S, government’s pre- and post-attack response was marked by over-confidence, incompetence, sloppiness, and in some aspects, negligence. What 9/11 conspiracy advocates see as signs of collusion or conspiracy, looks more like the FUBAR fumbling familiar to those who have experienced the “fog of war.”

The impact of the “Bush Lied” campaign

There is another factor in play, at least in the United States. Relentless attacks on George W. Bush, suggesting that he and his Administration “lied” the U.S. into the war in Iraq, has deepened the paranoia and increased suspicion of the government.

Some leftists, such as David Corn, Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hayes, have decried the looniness of the 9/11 Deniers and have publicly worried that these evidence-free conspiracy theories would sidetrack the Left from more central concerns.

Hayes further argues in The Nation (December 2006) that a credulous media—too eager to swallow and parrot the Bush Administration line—is responsible for the growth of the paranoid theories, because mainstream journalists “posit a world of good intentions and face-value pronouncements, one in which the suggestion that a government would mislead or abuse its citizens for its own gains or the gains of its benefactors is on its face absurd.” The consequence, Hayes argues, is that people gravitate to conspiracy theories as they abandon the government-approved pablum they believe they are being fed by the media. Hayes believes a skeptical, and aggressive, press is the antidote.

Yet I think we already have seen that press skepticism in action. As the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the focus has been on why the U.S. invaded in the first place. No question has consumed the media more over the past three years. When the Democrats ran their 2006 congressional campaign asserting that Bush had misled the country into war, they found the theme resonated with voters.

If anything, the idea that Bush deliberately lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) has become conventional wisdom in much of the mainstream media. Frank Rich’s recent New York Times column, in which he mused about the “secret machinations” of the White House Iraq Group, and “covert administration schemes” and “its lies in fomenting the war” is an example of the full-throttle questioning of the Bush Administration’s integrity and motives.

It requires no great leap of logic to jump from “Bush conspired to lie and mislead to justify a war in Iraq, indifferent to the potential loss of life,” to “Bush conspired to stage (or allow) the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to justify war in Afghanistan and later Iraq, indifferent to the potential loss of life.” Once you postulate that Bush is a cynical manipulator, willing to lie and fabricate, and to callously sacrifice American soldiers for his own ends, it is easier to believe the 9/11 theories, which require accepting a level of monstrous complicity on the part of the President, and all around him.

A quick glance at public opinon polls over the past several years supports this connection. As more Americans began to believe that Bush deliberately misled the country about WMDs in Iraq (from 31% in June 2003 to 53% in January 2006), more Americans also began to believe that the U.S. government either assisted or took no action to prevent the 9/11 attacks.

There are alternative explanations for the mess in Iraq—that a Bush Administration bent on deposing Saddam Hussein made a series of ill-considered and short-sighted decisions, accepting sketchy WMD intelligence, slighting any option short of war, and ignoring the advice of top military officials, diplomats, and allies. Many argue (and I am in this camp) that these decisions were simply wrong-headed from the start—but did not involve sinister manipulation or deliberate lying. Those who maintain otherwise, who argue “Bush lied us into Iraq,” should not be surprised at the unintended consequences of these assertions—and the grassroots paranoia and extremism that have followed.

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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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16 thoughts on “Considering 9/11 and 3/11: why the conspiracy theories persist

  1. It took me a very long time to jump on the ‘conspiracy theory’ bandwagon but now that I’m here I’m convinced. You raise some interesting and valid points with regards to this administration’s and the media’s actions helping to fuel the fire as it were. Where you are now is where I was a couple of years ago. I’m sure you’ve looked into some of theories, some of which are outrageous and do no credit to the ‘Truth Movement’ so I won’t go into them with you today suffice to say that starting with the premise that we “…must assume that thousands of government conspirators will stay silent over long periods of time about monstrous acts” is flawed. By your own admission the official version of events states that “The events on 9/11 were triggered by a small-scale conspiracy”, supposedly only 19 men. Thousands wouldn’t be needed for most of the theories I subscribe to either. All it would take would be a few key people in a few key positions in a few key institutions, starting with, say, the vice-presidency, to pull this off. I don’t think it’s ‘our government’ or even ‘this administration’. Its elements within both with an agenda of their own.

  2. Ah, yes. Tinfoil hats. Sorry. I wasn’t suggesting you needed one to protect you against alien mind rays or what have you. What I was implying was that to take every announcement the Pentagon makes which is parroted by the mainstream media without digging a little deeper yourself or applying to it any critical thought is foolish. I made the mistake of taking this entry as an honest attempt by you to asses why conspiracy theories regarding 911 persist, and even flourish, in spite of announcements like The Big Confession or the Popular Mechanic’s article. I shouldn’t have taken you seriously & I apologize. Judging by all the comments your blog seems to generate I was one of the only ones to do so. But no worries. Your being reduced to the tinfoil hat response so soon has set me straight. I won’t waste my time here anymore. You take care of yourself as best you can, Okay. Buh-bye.

  3. Mr. Lourenco,

    It’s not Pentagon propaganda to suggest that Al Qaeda was responsible for 9/11.

    1. Osama Bin Laden has taken responsibility for the attacks as part of the Al Qaeda jihad against the West, and has threatened further attacks.

    2. Al Qaeda has released video of some of the 9/11 attackers taken before their suicide mission.

    3. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has taken responsibility for the planning of 9/11.

    4. There is extensive evidence of the training and preparation of the Al Qaeda cell involved in 9/11, including their training at flight schools in the U.S. and activities in Germany and Spain.

    5. If it was not Al Qaeda, who was it? The alternative explanations offered for the 9/11 attacks are so convoluted and contradictory it’s hard to respond.

    If there is a dark, deep 9/11 conspiracy, why hasn’t the 9/11 “Truth” Movement come up with a consistent and comprehensible explanation? Whether MIHOP or LIHOP, what is offered as an explanation isn’t “reality-based.”

  4. It all gets pretty much routine as people like you always use one or more of the following modes of attack:

    (i) NIST has covered all the bases – you need to refute NIST to win an argument here.
    (ii) Taunt the CT (conspiracy theorist) with “where’s your evidence?”
    (iii) Question the CTist’s credentials – “Are you a scientist?”; “Are you an engineer?”
    (iv) Ask the CTist why there are no peer-reviewed journal articles refuting NIST.
    (v) Ask the CTist if they are going to submit an article to a peer-reviewed journal.

    While this may be a source of entertainment for you, this type of attitude is not particularly helpful to anyone seeking to understand how the Twin Towers collapsed. In fact, I would say you are fixated only on smothering scientific debate under a blanket of NIST, FEMA, Kean, Fox and CNN “Truths”! But as Leonardo da Vinci so aptly states: “Whoever in a discussion adduces authority uses not intellect but rather memory.”

    I have worked as a research scientist in industry and academia for MANY years but I do not recall ever witnessing such an endless appeal to authority, by one side in a debate, as I see, often more than not coming across as dogmatic followers of a creed. Thus, ironically you have become a modern band of Inquisitors doling out their autos-da-fe to heretic CTists for simply having the temerity to question NISTIAN authority.

    In truth, the NIST Report is seriously flawed in many respects. It is inconsistent and contradictory in the way it treats the tipping of the upper section of each tower. It assumes that global collapse ensues without modeling the collapse. Its fire simulations generate such a wide array of temperature profiles as to be essentially useless. Its assumptions about the loss of thermal insulation are mere speculation. It ignores the important effects of massive releases of corrosive gases in the fires. Its metallurgical analysis of the steel is perfunctory. It ignores evidence (micron sized spheres) for the presence of molten iron in the towers prior to collapse. It mentions sulfidation, which it does not explain, while ignoring chlorination. And finally, NIST still cannot explain the collapse of WTC 7 after 6 years of trying….. This is mainstream Bible!?!?!?

  5. Responses to two recent posts.

    First, Mr. Aguilar, the testimony in the 3/11 trial in Spain to date has pointed only to Islamic terrorists, not to ETA. I cannot speak to the explosives issue—I would think that the defense in the trial will explore any inconsistencies in the government case.

    Second, Peter T.,

    Your post reads like something cut-and-pasted from a comment elsewhere, because it’s a laundry list of arguments I do NOT make.

    I appeal largely to logic, not authority. But there is room for authority in assessing scientific information—I have more trust in the analysis of a physicist with decades of industry experience than I do a conspiracy theorist whose education, say, ended after introductory physics.

    As one who prefers logic, I’m tired of the lists of rhetorical questions on NIST reports. Say what it is that you believe. Are you suggesting molten iron was caused by detonation? Say it. The same for sulfidation? If that is what you are driving at, you might want to explain how WTC 1, 2 and 7 were all pre-rigged with explosives, a task that would take months according to demolition experts. And another logical question: why bother with the crashing jets into the WTC buildings? If it is a MIHOP conspiracy, why not just announce it was Middle Eastern terrorists with truck bombs (like the first WTC bombing)?

    And NIST’s WTC 7 report has been delayed—for the exact kind of computer modelling of collapses that you were saying hadn’t been performed for WTC 1 and 2.


  6. Mr. Jeffersonflanders,

    The physical evidence in the 3/11 trial has pointed towards ETA, not Islamists.

    DNT and Nitroglicerine, detected on the trains, ARE NOT components of Goma-2 ECO, but of Titadyne no matter what the State Attorney and the international media (or you and I) say.

    Moreover, the testimonies in the trial of 3/11 have shown that the detainees are not radical Islamists at all. The Egyptian, the alleged mastermind, has condemned not only 3/11, but also 9/11. El Chino’s Spanish partner has confirmed he was no radical. Read El Chino’s amazing life:

    Yes, he had a son studing in a Catholic school. Those are the facts.

    If you want to read more testimonies of the 3/11 trial, I’ve translated this one

    I hope, sincerely, it is not too hard for your stomach. If it is bullet proof, you may also read something about the Casablanca attacks:

    IMHO I won’t mix together 9/11 and 3/11. They are completely different attacks. Only people that wants to cover up the latter, does it, and these people will ultimately lose.

  7. Your argument, boiled down:
    1. People are paranoid from hollywood movies, and are “reassured” by a grand conspiracy
    2. Thousands of conspirators must have been involved
    3. More recent Bush lies have made people more skeptical.

    Therfore, Osama bin Laden was responsible for the attacks of sept.11th, 2001.

    I’m sorry but, your conclusion just does not follow logically from the statments you provide.

  8. Dear Adam,

    My argument, boiled down is the following:

    1. The evidence against a 9/11 conspiracy on the basis of MIHOP (Made it Happen on Purpose) or LIHOP (Let it Happen on Purpose) is overwhelming

    2. Without evidence or reason backing them, those who cling to conpiracy theories do so for other reasons—it reassures them of order in a messy world; it helps explain why their political ideology hasn’t succeeded; it meets other psychological needs

    3. Those who push the false “Bush deliberately lied on WMD” meme encourage conspiracy theory thinking

    4. We’d all be better off with reality-based thinking


  9. The bigger point you put forth here is that Bush-Cheney didn’t “lie” to the public about WMD. Do you sincerely believe that the Neo-Cons and PNAC folks did not intentionally mislead the entire world about the reasons to invade Iraq? Leaving the 9/11 conspiracy issue aside, if you trust W. and DIck Cheney AT ALL, then you really aren’t asking enough questions. And you’re incredibly naive.

  10. Dear Mr. Bonser,

    I’d recommend that you read either Ron Suskind’s “One Percent Doctrine” or Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack” to see that the Bush-Cheney administration’s decision to invade Iraq was based on a doctrine of preempting “rogue nations” who MIGHT pass on WMD to silent terrorist partners. You need a very low threshold of evidence to trigger action with this approach.

    And if Saddam’s generals believed that he had WMD in 2003 up until months before the US invasion, why should not the US have believed it? From the New York Times:

    ¶The Iraqi dictator was so secretive and kept information so compartmentalized that his top military leaders were stunned when he told them three months before the war that he had no weapons of mass destruction, and they were demoralized because they had counted on hidden stocks of poison gas or germ weapons for the nation’s defense.

    It is not a question of trust, but rather looking at the evidence.

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