Confronting reality: Occam’s Razor and the 9/11 “Truth Movement”

When I walked across Cooper Square last Thursday just after dark, I found two columns of bluish light rising into the Manhattan night sky, an illuminated reminder of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The “Tribute in Light” was a sight that stirred memories of that tragic day in New York seven years ago, and all that has followed.

It is a changed country now: innocence lost; American soldiers and marines in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq; and many Americans deeply conflicted about the “War on Terror” and what focusing on homeland security means for civil liberties in a democratic society. And, after the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, and numerous foiled plots, there is a deep unease about our continued vulnerability to terrorism.

Others have responded to the danger of Islamic terrorism, however, by minimizing the threat, or blaming the victim, or embracing conspiracy theories that obscure the reality of 9/11. I found evidence of that last week when, along with John Ray, a very bright Carnegie-Mellon student who blogs at Conspiracies R Not Us, I appeared on the Toronto-based show “The Agenda with Steve Paikin” to offer the skeptics’ view of the “evidence” behind 9/11 conspiracy theories. Also on the show: two Canadian academics, Graeme MacQueen and Michael Keefer, who argued that the American government deliberately staged the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to provide a pretext for war in the Middle East. (You can view the program in its entirety here.)

I was somewhat surprised that MacQueen and Keefer proved to be such fervent members of the 9/11 “Made it Happen on Purpose” (MIHOP) school, because it’s a hard position to defend considering its logical gaps and inconsistencies. For starters, MIHOP advocates won’t concede the obvious: that 19 Arab terrorists hijacked four airplanes on 9/11; that Al Qaeda engineered the attacks; that jetliners loaded with fuel made effective weapons; and that the explanations of structural engineers and fire safety experts for why the World Trade Center towers and nearby buildings collapsed make sense. Instead, most in the MIHOP school contend that the Twin Towers and World Trade Center 7 were brought down by controlled demolition; many think the Pentagon was hit not by a plane but by a missile; and few accept what they call the “official story” about the crash of United 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. MIHOP believers see “an inside job” and/or a “false flag operation” behind the events of 9/11 and blame the “neo-cons” in the Bush Administration (and sometimes, with an anti-Semitic twist, the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, as well).

Occam’s Razor and 9/11 conspiracies

As I pointed out on “The Agenda,” these grand conspiracy theories violate Occam’s Razor, the insight of a 14th century Franciscan that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is the best. These theories also run afoul of basic logic: Why crash airliners into buildings AND bother rigging them beforehand for controlled demolition? Wouldn’t the attacks alone be enough of a provocation? For that matter, why bother with hijacking planes? Wouldn’t a massive truck bomb, or bombs, work just as well and present fewer logistical challenges? Why not replicate the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center (or Oklahoma City)? Why make the conspiracy so elaborate and so complex?

The controlled demolition theory doesn’t make much sense either. To rig a large office building with explosives takes professional demolition firms months to accomplish. How could massive amounts of explosives been placed secretly in three skyscrapers, let alone one, without detection? And as John Ray noted, the larger the conspiracy gets, the greater the number of people involved—to the point where hundreds of thousands must be part of the “cover-up.” Would they all remain silent? Would no one be moved to confess? With all of the media attention following 9/11, wouldn’t the secret have leaked out? Further, there isn’t any evidence of controlled demolition, something that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) noted in its reports on the collapse of WTC 1, 2 and 7: no witnesses, no seismic record, no demolition equipment in the wreckage.

The “Alice in Wonderland” nature of the MIHOP fantasies makes them relatively easy to debunk. The Let It Happen on Purpose (LIHOP) argument, on the other hand, while also flawed, relies on a more subjective approach to the question of 9/11. LIHOP advocates say 9/11 happened because the Bush Administration had advance knowledge of Al Qaeda’s plans and, eager to fight a war for oil, either turned a blind eye to the plot, or worked to facilitate it. There is no “smoking gun” evidence for LIHOP, and the record suggests incompetence, indifference, and ignorance on the part of the authorities, not collusion, but since LIHOP asks us to assume the worst about the U.S. government, it has gained adherents from the far Left and Right, and will continue to attract support.

Confronting the reality of 9/11

My appearance on “The Agenda” provoked further comment in the days that followed: I received several emails from Canadians (including those from a retired pilot and a firefighter) apologizing for what they saw as the anti-Americanism of MacQueen and Keefer, and assuring me that most Canadians accepted the reality of 9/11. I replied that no apologies were necessary, that Canada had supported the U.S. in its pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that the leaders of the 9/11 “Truth Movement” were Americans. I also received some nasty feedback from foot soldiers in that movement, denouncing me as a CIA media plant and hinting darkly of the fate that awaited such “traitors.”

Despite their nastiness, my sense is that that the 9/11 “Truth Movement” is losing ground. The debunking done by Popular Mechanics, the BBC, and independent bloggers and skeptics, and the recent release of the NIST’s WTC 7 report ruling out controlled demolition as a cause of the building’s collapse, has put the 9/11 deniers on the defensive.

At the same time, it seems that many in the U.S. are slipping back into a pre-9/11 complacency on the question of terrorism. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released last week found only one in 10 Americans who say terrorism is the most important issue in voting for president, and “concerns about an impending terrorist strike are at the lowest point on record” since 9/11.

Also last week the New York Times carried a chilling op-ed piece by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic (“On Nov. 4, Remember 9/11“) warning of the dangers of nuclear terrorism and noting that “[m]any proliferation experts I have spoken to judge the chance of such a detonation to be as high as 50 percent in the next 10 years. I am an optimist, so I put the chance at 10 percent to 20 percent.” Goldberg doesn’t flinch from confronting the reality of 9/11 seven years later: “The next president must do one thing, and one thing only, if he is to be judged a success: He must prevent Al Qaeda, or a Qaeda imitator, from gaining control of a nuclear device and detonating it in America.” It is advice that we can only hope that Senator Obama or Senator McCain will heed.


Debunking some specific claims made by MacQueen and Keefer on “The Agenda”

John Ray and I tried to refute as many of the outlandish claims made by Professors MacQueen and Keefer during our appearance on “The Agenda.” We didn’t get to deal with all of them, and so, in the interests of setting the record straight, I am offering a more detailed debunking of six of their claims.

1. American air defenses were deliberately weakened by war games on 9/11. FALSE.

While it is true there were a number of military exercises that day, it made no difference in the readiness of the American military to respond to a hijacked jet, and, if anything, might have allowed a quicker response to terror attacks (if there had been more timely communication between civilian air traffic controllers and their military counterparts, which there wasn’t). There were only 14 fighter jets on alert in the contiguous 48 states, none of which were diverted because of the “war games.”

SEE: Popular Mechanics, “Debunking the 9/11 Myths” and the website Debunk 9/11 Myths.

2. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been politicized by the Bush Administration, and therefore cannot be trusted to investigate the WTC collapses. FALSE.

There is no evidence that NIST has been politicized. The WTC reports were reviewed by professional associations of architects, structural engineers, and fire safety experts (for example, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the Structural Engineers Association of New York (SEONY), and National Fire Protection Association) without anyone questioning NIST’s objectivity, professionalism or adherence to the scientific method. The one dissenter cited by Professor Keefer, fire safety expert James Quintiere, has differed with NIST over its investigative approach but agreed with NIST’s conclusion that controlled demolition was not involved. In Quintere’s comments on NIST’s WTC 7 report, he dismissed demolition claims, according to Newsday:

Quintiere stressed, however, that he never believed explosives played a role. He said NIST wasted time employing outside experts to consider it.

3. At the Zacarias Moussaoui trial, the FBI testified that conservative commentator Barbara Olson could not have called her husband from the doomed flight (AA 77) that crashed into the Pentagon. FALSE.

The FBI identified one interrupted phone call from Olson, and could not determine who was the source for four other calls from the plane. It is likely that some of these unidentified calls were made by Olson, as reported by her husband. The 9/11 Commission reported:

The records available for the phone calls from American 77 do not allow for a determination of which of four “connected calls to unknown numbers” represent the two between Barbara and Ted Olson, although the FBI and DOJ believe that all four represent communications between Barbara Olson and her husband’s office (all family members of the Flight 77 passengers and crew were canvassed to see if they had received any phone calls from the hijacked flight, and only Renee May’s parents and Ted Olson indicated that they had received such calls).The four calls were at 9:15:34 for 1 minute, 42 seconds; 9:20:15 for 4 minutes, 34 seconds; 9:25:48 for 2 minutes, 34 seconds; and 9:30:56 for 4 minutes, 20 seconds. FBI report, “American Airlines Airphone Usage,” Sept. 20, 2001; FBI report of investigation, interview of Theodore Olson, Sept. 11, 2001; FBI report of investigation, interview of Helen Voss, Sept. 14, 2001; AAL response to the Commission’s supplemental document request, Jan. 20, 2004.

SEE: 9/11 Commission Report, Note 57

4. The WTC 7 fires “died down” and couldn’t have caused the thermal expansion described by NIST and the resulting progressive collapse. FALSE.

Fires raged, unchecked, on many floors of WTC 7 for some seven hours. Firefighters reported this at the time, and FEMA and NIST found photographic evidence of this.

SEE: Photos here from the scene.

5. The steel sample taken from WTC 7 had damage suggesting the impact of thermite or some unexplained chemical. FALSE.

Here’s what the BBC has reported about his claim.

In New England the claims of the mysterious melted steel from Tower Seven has been unravelled at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute near Boston.

Professor Richard Sisson says it did not melt, it eroded. The cause was the very hot fires in the debris after 9/11 that cooked the steel over days and weeks.

Professor Sisson determined that the steel was attacked by a liquid slag which contained iron, sulphur and oxygen.

However, rather than coming from thermite, the metallurgist Professor Sisson thinks the sulphur came from masses of gypsum wallboard that was pulverised and burnt in the fires. He says:

“I don’t find it very mysterious at all, that if I have steel in this sort of a high temperature atmosphere that’s rich in oxygen and sulphur this would be the kind of result I would expect.”

SEE: BBC News, “The Conspiracy Files

6. WTC 7 is the only steel-framed skyscraper in the world to have collapsed solely because of fire. TRUE.

WTC 7 is also the only steel-framed skyscraper with vulnerable long-span construction subjected to unchecked fires for seven hours (a sprinkler system was disabled when the water main broke). 9/11 “Truth Movement” advocates point to office tower fires in Madrid and Caracas which didn’t bring those structures down, yet fail to note that these buildings had their steels columns encased in cement (unlike WTC 1, 2 and 7).

SEE: Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories


An extended commentary on the 9/11 “Truth Movement” can be found at “Exposing the 9/11 conspiracy fantasies.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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August 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Palin and the Iron Lady gambit, American voters and racism, Country crossover, and other Campaign 2008 observations

With a wave of the political banner to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…(campaign version!)

PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL JOHN MCCAIN’S CHOICE OF ALASKA GOVERNOR SARAH PALIN AS his running mate is, conventional wisdom holds, a risky move for the Republican standard-bearer because of Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience. But Palin exudes a certain toughness—from her willingness to take on the Alaskan political establishment to her lifelong NRA membership—and McCain may be counting on the “Iron Lady” factor: voters are more likely to vote for a hard-edged, conservative (e.g., Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir) than for a softer, more conciliatory female candidate. The new-found respect for Sen. Hillary Clinton expressed by many on the Right was generated, it can be argued, from Clinton’s perceived “toughness,” especially on foreign policy (she did, after all, threaten Iran with “obliteration” if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons).

IF BARACK OBAMA LOSES HIS HISTORIC RACE FOR THE PRESIDENCY, WILL WHITE RACISM be the cause? That’s been the theory advanced by some pundits, including Jacob Weisberg of Slate (“Racism is the only reason Obama might lose“) and New York Magazine’s John Heilemann (“The Color-Coded Campaign: Why Barack Obama Isn’t Doing Better in the Polls“).

But as Matt Bai noted in his op-ed, “The Race Isn’t About Race,” in the New York Times:

While it’s entirely possible that Mr. Obama’s race is costing him some support, it’s also true that the electorate that voted in the last two presidential elections was almost symmetrically divided between the two parties. It would defy the laws of politics if, at this early stage of the campaign, moderate Republicans and conservative independents were to reject Mr. McCain (a candidate many of them preferred back in 2000) simply because they don’t like George W. Bush.

Bai has it right, it seems to me. The question boils down to this: would white working-class swing voters cast a ballot for a very liberal Senator named Barry O’Brien with, in Bai’s words, “remarkably little governing experience and almost none in foreign policy…”? Enough of these culturally conservative voters didn’t support the liberal John Kerry nor the (then) centrist Al Gore. Why would yet another Ivy League-educated candidate, whose dispararging comments about working class voters (“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”) have been widely publicized expect to automatically pick up the support of Reagan Democrats?

WITH REAGAN DEMOCRATS IN PLAY, SUDDENLY COUNTRY MUSIC IS POLITICALLY CORRECT, as Sen. Obama chose to play Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America” after his acceptance speech at the close of the Democratic National Convention. Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn were George W. Bush supporters (and the song was featured in the 2004 Republican campaign), but Brooks said that they were “flattered” by Obama using the song: “Seems ironic that the same song Bush used at the Republican Convention last election would be used by Obama and the Democrats now. ­Very flattering to know our song crossed parties and potentially inspires all Americans.” (Another Brooks and Dunn song, “That’s What It’s All About,” has been playing at McCain rallies.) In another crossover, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” was the country-tinged song played after Sen. McCain announced Sarah Palin as his VP pick, a song Entertainment Weekly noted was “by Bon Jovi (a prominent Democratic supporter) and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles (who played a Democratic convention event earlier this week).”

KID ROCK, THE DETROIT SINGER/SONGWRITER, DOESN’T THINK MUCH OF CELEBRITIES ENDORSING POLITICAL CANDIDATES. Kid Rock (AKA Robert James Ritchie) commented: “I truly believe that people like myself, who are in a position of entertainers in the limelight, should keep their mouth shut on politics because at the end of the day, I’m good at writing songs and singing.” He added: “What I’m not educated in is the field of political science. And so for me to be sharing my views and influencing people of who I think they should be voting for … I think would be very irresponsible on my part.”

Meanwhile, former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken has picked up momentum in his race against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman for the U.S. Senate seat. The two are now tied in the latest public opinion polls. Should Franken win, will more liberal Democrat celebrities decide to run? Among those mentioned as possible candidates: Alec Baldwin, Jon Bon Jovi, and George Clooney.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM ARGENTINE FABULIST JORGE LUIS BORGES (1899-1986): “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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