September 2011: Ten years after 9/11

A tip of the cap to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

Ten years after, even Al Qaeda has grown tired of the delusions of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists: the terrorist network’s English-language magazine, Inspire, recently chided Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for not properly crediting Al Qaeda as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

“The Iranian government has professed on the tongue of its president Ahmadinejad that it does not believe that al Qaeda was behind 9/11 but rather, the U.S. government,” an article in Inspire says. “So we may ask the question: why would Iran ascribe to such a ridiculous belief that stands in the face of all logic and evidence?”

Apparently Al Qaeda’s leadership doesn’t like it when people blame Bush-Cheney, Zionists, Mossad, Wall Street financiers, the military industrial complex, or the Babylonian Brotherhood (a secret group of reptilian humanoids) for the planes that slammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field outside Shanksville, PA on September 11, 2001.

Don’t expect Inspire‘s proclamation of Al Qaeda’s responsibility for 9/11 to change any Truther minds. After all, the reasoning will go, Al Qaeda is controlled by the CIA and disseminates disinformation on command. Truthers will also argue, no doubt, that the CIA drone attacks in Yemen that killed the American-born cleric Anwar Awlaki and an editor of Inspire, Samir Khan, were designed to silence them and/or remove them as potential witnesses.

While its support has been fading, there is still some life in the Truther movement. A public opinion survey conducted for the BBC this year found that 15% of Americans thought that a U.S. government conspiracy had been behind the attacks. While it is true that similar numbers of Americans believe in astrology, alien abductions and that the NASA faked the moon landings, it’s still jolting to find that many people accepting the toxic notion that the government would murder thousands of its own citizens.

A conspiracy did guide the attacks on September 11, but it involved those young jihadists dispatched by Al Qaeda in what the editor-in-chief of Inspire, Yahya Ibrahimnow, calls “The Greatest Special Operation of All Time.” While Al Qaeda undoubtedly planned the attacks, what remains unclear is the extent of financial and operational support the radical group received from Saudi citizens both in the Middle East and in the United States. Some recent revelations have raised troubling questions about Saudi involvement and U.S. attempts to downplay their severity.

Exploring the Saudi connection

It’s well known that some 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and that the Bush Administration approved the quick exit from the U.S. of Saudi royals and members of the extended bin Laden family in the days after 9/11. While the Saudi monarchy has vigorously denied any connection to 9/11, the actions of Saudis in the U.S. before the attacks have raised many questions.

The Miami Herald broke a deeply disturbing story on Sept. 8 that a Saudi family in Sarasota, Florida had vanished from a gated community there on August 30, 2001. They reportedly left behind a brand new PT Cruiser in the driveway of their luxury home and a refrigerator stocked full of food. According to counter-terrorism sources, the family (Abdulazzi al-Hiijjii, his wife Anoud and their two children) had direct contact with three of the 9/11 hijackers receiving pilot training in Venice, Florida and had phone contact with some of the other Al Qaeda operatives in the U.S.

The Herald reported that former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the congressional Joint Inquiry into 9/11, said he had not been informed about the Sarasota situation, saying it “opens the door to a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11. … No information relative to the named people in Sarasota was disclosed.”

A week later the FBI’s head agent in Tampa, Steven Ibison, released a statement to the St. Petersburg Times saying that his agency had investigated “suspicions surrounding” the al-Hiijjii family, but found no evidence tying them to the hijackers.

The reports of these connections prompted Rep. Kathy Castor and Graham to call for further investigations. Graham told MSNBC that he spoke with the White House’s chief of counterterrorism to ask that the administration look into the Sarasota case.

It would not be surprising if such an investigation revealed deeper ties between Saudi nationals in the U.S. in 2001 and the Al Qaeda network and less than stellar fieldwork on the part of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies charged with counter-terrorism.

Our lack of preparedness for 9/11 has become more and more apparent. Recent revelations about passenger screening at Logan Airport (disclosed in the settlement of a lawsuit by the family of one of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 175) suggests that the screeners were poorly trained, ill informed about terror threats, and that many of them were immigrants who spoke limited English.

Further proof came with the release by the Rutgers University Law Review of audio tapes showing the chaotic response by civil and military aviation controllers to the 9/11 skyjackings. Contrary to what FAA and military officials told the 9/11 Commission, they did not understand, or respond quickly enough, to the cascading events of that Tuesday morning.

It’s understandable why many in the government and law enforcement resist exposing the failures, inadequacies, and incompetence of the American counter-terrorism effort prior to 9/11. Nor does there appear to be any appetite in Washington for exploring the involvement of individual Saudis in the execution of Al Qaeda’s plot, as Saudi Arabia is our “ally” in the oil-rich Middle East. But we deserve to know the full story of what happened that day in September, no matter who is embarrassed.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

August 2010: Ground Zero confusion, our carnivorous past, and other observations

A tip of the cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

THE MORAL HIGH GROUND IN THE DEBATE OVER THE SO-CALLED GROUND ZERO MOSQUE HAS PROVED TO BE SLIPPERY. Attempts to cast all opponents of the proposed controversial Cordoba Center/Park51 as intolerant or bigoted ran into trouble when some unexpected voices weighed in against the proposed location for the community/cultural center, two blocks north of Ground Zero. Somehow characterizing Howard Dean, Nat Hentoff, Donald Trump, Sen. Harry Reid, and Abraham H. Foxman (national director of the Anti-Defamation League)—who have all expressed reservations about the siting of the center so close to the World Trade Center—as Islamophobic didn’t ring true.

Yet the debate over the Cordoba center has been ugly at times: Sarah Palin (who called it the “9/11 mosque”) and Newt Gingrich (who warned it represented “an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization”) have both appealed to America’s baser instincts, and right-wing candidates around the country have attempted to capitalize on the Ground Zero controversy.

Because of the heated nature of the debate, there’s been a fair amount of confusion over the issues involved. What’s clear is that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and the Park51 developers have a legal and constitutional right to build the center. If the idea behind the Cordoba Center is, as its founders claim, to foster healing and interfaith dialogue, then they should be open to rethinking its location. The firestorm of criticism over perceived insensitivity to Sept. 11 victims and survivors, a point of view held by most Americans, makes continuing ahead with the current plans a divisive move. If the idea is to heal the 9/11 breach, then Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his colleagues should be open to efforts by Archbishop Timothy Dolan and New York governor David Patterson to find a compromise site.

SCIENTISTS NOW SURMISE THAT WE WERE BUTCHERING MEAT MUCH EARLIER IN TIME THAN PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT. Nature reported that “slashed animal bones suggest early hominins were chopping up predator kills earlier than we thought, based on research in Ethiopia. The report highlights the crucial role that large-animal meat played in making us who we are (homo sapiens). We are, it seems, carnivorous by nature.

SMELL, SEX, AND NATURAL SELECTION APPEAR TO BE CLOSELY INTERTWINED, ACCORDING TO INTRIGUING NEW RESEARCH. Smell has been singled out as a key determinant in sexual attraction (based on “sweaty t-shirt research” where men and women rate the smell of prospective mates).

Now WebMD reports:

A woman is sexually attracted to men who smell like a good genetic match, but birth control pills make her desire the “wrong” men, a U.K. study shows.

Who is the right man? Studies suggest women are attracted to men whose genetic makeup differs from their own. Having a genetically different mate increases the chances for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.

In experiments, women on the pill preferred the smell of genetically similar men. The researchers theorize that birth control may cause a woman to respond as if she were pregnant, where other studies show genetically similar males become more attractive.

Researcher S. Craig Roberts told WebMD: “If this really happens in the real world, women on the pill would end up choosing a more genetically similar mate than she would otherwise choose and the implications go on from there.”

Don Draper of Mad Men seems to understand this dynamic of smell: his come-on line in Season Four has been: “You smell good.” While some find it lame, Draper is clearly a keen student of evolutionary biology.

RECENTLY RELEASED FBI FILES STRONGLY SUGGEST THAT THE LATE HOWARD ZINN, BEST-SELLING AUTHOR OF A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES WAS ALSO A COMMUNIST PARTY MEMBER DURING THE 1940s. Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, notes that Zinn kept his CPUSA membership a secret in his Weekly Standard piece “Aside from That, He Was Also a Red.” Radosh, no fan of the radical historian, sees Zinn’s impact in highly negative terms: “Writing his tendentious history, which influenced a new generation to regard our country’s past with disdain, became his substitute for the old activism. That legacy is worse than anything he ever did as a member of the Communist party.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM HOCKEY GREAT WAYNE GRETSKY: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

November 2009: Mr. Obama’s unimaginative Afghan strategy, a bungled stimulus, bothering about sex, and other observations

A tip of a Pilgrim’s hat to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA HAS NOW DECLARED THE CONFLICT IN AFGHANISTAN “MR. OBAMA’S WAR.” Barack Obama’s West Point speech escalating the war by sending a surge of 30,000 American troops—following the 21,000 soldiers and Marines he dispatched earlier in the year—means, as CNN’s Gloria Borger noted, that Obama “owns the war.”

What hasn’t provoked much comment, however, is how unimaginative and conventional Obama’s approach to Afghanistan has been.

Obama had promised a multilateral approach to foreign policy, and yet his AfPak strategy disappoints in how heavily it relies on American troops for the surge beginning in 2010. As James G. Neuger and Janine Zacharia of Bloomberg News reported: “Obama took office with the U.S. supplying 54 percent of the foreign troops in Afghanistan, a figure that he will push past 70 percent.”

Why didn’t Obama persuade Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and other Muslim-majority nations with troops in Afghanistan to dramatically increase their “boots on the ground”? That would have sent the welcome message to the Muslim world that Afghanistan has become a coalition effort to resist Islamic extremism.

The U.S.-forces-centric policy Obama has approved is exactly what could have been expected from John McCain had he been elected—a conventional response lacking the application of soft power and the much-vaunted Obama charisma.

Even the contribution from NATO of an additional 7,000 troops is short of the 10,000 the U.S. had requested. According to Reuters, Canada and the Netherlands may pull out nearly as many troops in the next two years as the new NATO surge level. European public sentiment runs strongly for withdrawal. Where has been Obama’s creative, unconventional response? Why didn’t he go on the road to the major European capitals—London, Paris, Bonn, Rome—and make a compelling case for his Afghanistan strategy?

Obama has talked bravely of shared commitment in international peacekeeping efforts, but the reality is that the U.S. and Great Britain will bear the brunt of the escalation in Afghanistan. Obama the Candidate criticized the Bush Administration for unilateralism in its approach to Iraq and Afghanistan—and yet when confronted with a crucial decision Obama the President offered none of the creative change his admirers insisted he would bring to foreign policy.

DID PRESIDENT OBAMA AND HIS ADVISORS IGNORE ADVICE ON THER STIMULUS PACKAGE THAT COULD HAVE JUMP STARTED JOB CREATION? According to a Fred Barnes column in the Weekly Standard (“Obamanomics 101“), Obama heard from Jim Owens, the head of Caterpillar, in February that the U.S. stimulus package had too little funding for roads, bridges, and other infrastructure (unlike, he told the President, China’s economic recovery plan) and would not encourage Caterpillar or others to hire workers. Obama, according to Barnes, “either hadn’t understood what Owens told him or simply refused to accept it.”

This led to an embarrassing episode at Caterpillar ‘s Peoria plant, where in a speech Obama claimed that the federal stimulus would prompt Caterpillar to rehire laid off workers, something Owens quickly had to deny. It now appears that Owens was right—heavily allocating stimulus funding to save public sector employee jobs, instead of investing in infrastructure, has contributed to elevated levels of private sector unemployment.

UNIVERSITY OF OREGON RESEARCHERS ASKED “WHY DO WE BOTHER WITH SEX“? It’s not as lame a question as it seems, because “it’s far more efficient for living things to reproduce solo.” (Remember, in Greek mythology Athena sprang from the forehead of Zeus!)

Experimenting with a worm species (nematode C. elegans) which has both males and hermaphrodites, the Oregon researchers showed that sexual reproduction increased the gene pool to allow for adaptation to hostile conditions. This drive to survive is key to evolution—the “joy of sex” is Nature’s way of encouraging genetic diversity.

CUBAN AGENT 202—RETIRED U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL WALTER KENDALL MYERS—WAS SENTENCED TO LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE FOR SPYING ON THE U.S. IN NOVEMBER. Myers agreed to cooperate with authorities to gain a lighter sentence for his wife, who joined him in passing secrets to the Cubans.

Myers spied for Fidel Castro’s Communist regime for three decades, and he joins the infamous list of those in the American elite willing to betray their country on ideological grounds.

YALE FOOTBALL COACH TOM WILLIAMS DELIGHTED HARVARD FOOTBALL FANS EVERYWHERE WITH HIS BOLD BUT RISKY PLAY-CALLING in this year’s version of The Game. With the Elis clinging to a 10-7 lead, Williams elected to run a fake punt on 4th and 22 on his own 28 yard-line with some two-and-half minutes left in the game. Harvard’s defense stopped the trick play seven yards short of a first down, and capitalized with the game-winning touchdown three plays later, winning 14-7.

Dave Solomon of the New Haven Register called it an “ill-conceived decision” and added:

And as much as Tom Williams will say today that he made the right choice, we feel certain that whenever he faces a similar situation, be it next year, in 10 years or 25 years, he’ll remember the call he made at Yale on fourth-and-22 and opt for the sensible solution.

THREE CHEERS FOR HARRY CHRISTOPHERS FOR HIS INSPIRED CONDUCTING OF HANDEL’S “MESSIAH” ON THE FIRST FRIDAY IN DECEMBER. It was Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society’s 156th annual performance of Handel’s masterpiece.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM AMERICAN CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (1932-1968): “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

July 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Universal health care and American history, Cronkite’s many sides, Anthony Blunt the hollow man, and other observations

With an acknowledgment to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

OUR FRONTIER HERITAGE EXPLAINS, IN PART, WHY AMERICANS HAVE BALKED AT UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE SCHEMES, whether proposed by President Harry S Truman in 1945, Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1993, or Barack Obama in 2009. (One irony of history is that Richard Nixon’s vision of private-public universal health coverage, proposed in 1974, garnered bipartisan support but was derailed by Watergate.)

A national identity founded on rugged individualism has translated into a reluctance to embrace programs aimed at collective welfare, even during periods of crisis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal positioning of Social Security as, in effect, a government-backed individual retirement account (rather than a transfer payment program for the elderly) was a recognition of that reality.

It is this uniquely American emphasis on individual liberty, coupled with uneasiness about centralizing power in the federal government, that makes passing health care reform so difficult. While it’s true that the Feds currently control between 35% and 45% of what’s spent on health care in the United States through Medicare, Medicaid, etc., the idea of further expanding that power (what the Obama plan’s town hall critics have been labeling “socialism”) runs counter to a national identity founded on self-reliance and personal freedom. For now, many Americans (if you believe the public opinion polls) prefer to see power dispersed among many interests (insurance companies, doctors, trial lawyers, Big Pharma) rather than concentrated in the hands of an all-powerful government.

There are less centralized ways to move closer to universal coverage. (Whether 97% or 98% coverage is close enough is another question). The idea of decoupling health insurance from employment and establishing individual portable health insurance accounts (with contributions from the employer, the individual, and the government) seems much more in keeping with American traditions. John Mackey of Whole Foods recently made the case in the Wall Street Journal for altering the tax code so that that employer-provided health insurance and individually-owned health insurance enjoy the same tax benefits. Properly constructed, such an approach could also introduce true competition into the health insurance marketplace and lower costs (see Geico’s impact on car insurance rates as an example of how competition can work to drop prices).

THE “BEER SUMMIT” AND “BIRTHERISM” PROVIDED A MEDIA-CIRCUS DIVERSION from the political struggles over ObamaCare in July. The confrontation between Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. and Cambridge police officer James Crowley that led to the White House sit-down had great cable news appeal: black versus white, town versus gown, working class versus upper class, Boston Irish versus Black Irish (Gates has traced his white heritage back to Ireland, and is distantly related to Crowley!).

President Obama’s involvement insured that the dispute took on much greater significance than it deserved by linking it to racial profiling. Since Crowley and Gates dispute what they said to each other, it’s impossible to say whether race played a part. Certainly Crowley’s decision to arrest Gates was an overreaction to what was, most likely, Gate’s overreaction to being asked for identification while standing in his own front parlor. The most fascinating question: did Gates actually say “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside“?

Meanwhile a ragtag group of right-wingers, the Birthers, had their moment in the sun, courtesy of CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who helped them tout their bizarre theory—that Barack Obama was born in Kenya not Hawaii and therefore constitutionally ineligible to be president. Throughly debunked in 2008, this conspiracy theory proved irresistible for cable news executives hungry for controversy-driven ratings and liberal Democrats looking to connect the Republicans to the crackpot strain of the radical right. The Birthers share a culture of conspiracy with the 9/11 Truthers and JFK assassination Buffs, a topic I’ve addressed at greater length at the Washington Decoded website (“Birthers, Truthers, and Buffs: The Paranoid Style.”)

BROADCASTER WALTER CRONKITE, A JOURNALISTIC LEGEND OF THE OLD SCHOOL, died on July 17 and his obituaries revealed a much more complex and interesting figure than you’d imagine for America’s Anchorman. Cronkite might actually have deserved the title of “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

For example, Cronkite’s impoverished Depression childhood included eating hamburgers his mother made from dog food. In the 1950s, he hosted CBS’s The Morning Show with a puppet (Charlemagne the Lion). He was a college drop-out. He swapped off-color jokes with Ronald Reagan and considered Dwight Eisenhower a hero. He liked scotch and cigars, dancing, and playing practical jokes. He flew on B-17 combat missions. According to Edward Alwood in the Washington Post, Cronkite “became a behind-the-scenes ally” of the gay liberation movement. An avid sailor later in life, he had been an aspiring race car driver in the 1950s, participating in the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1959. He helped nudge along peace between Israel and Egypt.

In short, “Uncle Walter” crammed an amazing amount of living in his 92 years on this planet.

IN ANTHONY BLUNT’S POSTHUMOUSLY RELEASED MEMOIR, ENGLAND’s “FOURTH MAN” expressed scant remorse for spying for the Soviets for some three decades and betraying Queen and Country. As Ben Macintyre noted in The Times of London, Blunt’s manuscript is “remarkable for what it does not reveal. Blunt does not go into detail about his own spying activities, or the consequences for others of his actions.”

Blunt should have been called “The Hollow Man,” not the “Fourth Man,” for his careerism and narcissism. When his espionage on behalf of the Soviet was discovered by British counterintelligence, Blunt struck a deal with the authorities so he could stay in England and continue his career as an art historian. (“I realised quite clearly that I would take any risk in this country, rather than go to Russia.”) Not until 1979, when Margaret Thatcher exposed Blunt’s treason and the Queen stripped him of his knighthood, did Britons learn of his double-dealing.

PLENTY OF REMORSE IN RED SOX NATION AS BOSTON HERO DAVID “BIG PAPI” ORTIZ was implicated in baseball’s steroid scandal when it became known that his name had appeared on a list of players who tested positive for doping in 2003. Ortiz denied using steroids, but apologized for the distraction and acknowledged being “careless” in using supplements and vitamins which may have caused positive test results. Baseball fans continue to wonder, however, whether any of the records set or championships won during the Asterisk Era should be considered authentic. A sad day in Mudville…

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AMERICAN RABBI AND THEOLOGIAN ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL (1907-1972): “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

December 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Liberty and equality in the Obama years, financial schemes and common sense, fathers and sons, and other observations

With a doffed ski cap (for borrowing his catch-phrase) to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA WILL TAKE OFFICE WITH BROAD POPULAR SUPPORT and it will be fascinating to see if he decides to move the United States more towards equality, at perhaps the cost of some liberty, and whether that will mean more justice—to use the philosophical framework established by Mortimer J. Adler in his book Six Great Ideas.

Adler’s thinking illuminates some of the questions President Obama will face: should he pursue equality of opportunity or equality of outcome with his economic policies? Will Americans support a shift towards a European-style social democracy, with universal health care and the government as employer of last resort? And how will any increased taxation or government regulation to achieve these goals be received?

THE CRASH OF 2008 WILL, NO DOUBT, BE COMPARED WITH THE CRASH OF 1929, and when it is, one can hope that historians turn to the words of classicist Victor Davis Hanson for a diagnosis of what went wrong:

After the junk bond meltdown, the S&L debacle, and now the financial panic, in just a few years the financial community destroyed the ancient wisdom: deal in personal trust; your word is your bond; avoid extremes; treat the money you invest for others as something sacred; don’t take any more perks than you would wish others to take; don’t borrow what you couldn’t suddenly pay back; imagine the worse case financial scenario and expect it very may well happen; the wealthier you become the more humble you should act.

Hanson’s approach may seem somewhat simplistic, but it was an abandonment of financial common sense that helped spark the meltdown. Look no further than the mariachi singer in California given a mortgage by WaMu with his photo in costume as a substitute for proof of income! Is it any wonder that the house of cards came tumbling down?

A SAD REMINDER OF THE LASTING NEGATIVE POWER A CRITICAL FATHER CAN HAVE OVER HIS SON came in the New York Times obituary of Van Johnson, the movie actor, who died Dec. 12 at the age of 92. The obituary noted that Johnson had a distant relationship with his father (who had frowned on his desire to act), and recounted this story:

According to his stepson, Ned Wynn, when Mr. Johnson became a star, he invited his father to California and proudly took him to the famous Chasen’s restaurant. Charles Johnson refused to eat anything but a tuna fish sandwich.

“Van was devastated,” Mr. Wynn wrote in a memoir, “We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills.” “He had wanted to show his father that now, after years of a gray, loveless, miserly life, he was a star, he could afford steak. And the old bastard had beaten him down one more time.”

MAKE WAR, NOT LOVE MAY BE THE PRIMATE WAY, according to Lionel Tiger, noted anthropologist, who reports in a Wall Street Journal article “Of Monkeys and Utopia: The state of nature is not a state of pacifism” that bonobos, a type of chimpanzee reputed to solve conflict through love-making, may actually be as aggressive and combative as the rest of us. Tigers says the laboratory research of Emory University’s Franz de Waal, which touted the sweet-tempered libido-driven behavior of the bonobos, hasn’t held up in the field studies where “Gottfried Hohman of the Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig has seen groups of bonobos engage in clearly willful and challenging hunts.” Another paradise lost!

DO OUR MOST CREATIVE WRITERS THINK CLEARLY WHEN IT COMES TO POLITICS? In The Sunday Times Minette Marrin recently reconsidered the rabid anti-Americanism of the late English playwright Harold Pinter, a fan of the noxious Slobodan Milosevic, and some other politically misguided writers (ranging from Tolstoy to Sartre to V. S. Naipaul) and concludes that there’s little if any connection between writing talent and political acumen. She concludes: “We should be careful, both readers and writers, of the bewitchment of language: it can often mean less than you might think.”

CLUELESS CONSPIRACY THEORISTS OF THE MONTH AWARDS. First prize goes to those netroots bloggers suggesting that the death of Michael L. Connell, an Internet consultant for the Bush and McCain presidential campaigns, in a small plane crash has some sinister connection to alleged vote fraud in Ohio in the 2004 election. In response to the speculation that Connell was ready to reveal a vote-rigging plot, his wife Heather told Huffington Post‘s Thomas Edsall: “…He [Connell] did nothing wrong. He wasn’t about to talk, because there was nothing to talk about. Nobody did anything wrong. We won the elction fair and square. Deal with it.” The preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report: Connell attempted to correct his approach to Akron-Canton Airport in misty, foggy conditions and declared an emergency before crashing.

Second prize goes to Princeton professor Richard A. Falk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, who when not bashing the Israelis is supporting the “9/11 Truth Movement” and claiming “serious discrepancies between the official version of what took place and the actual happenings” of 9/11. Falk apparently has a problem with the recently released NIST analysis of the collapse of WTC 7, although he is vague about whether his “counter-narrative” includes controlled demolition or energy weapons as a cause for the building’s destruction.

PANDORA, A QUITE CLEVER WEBSITE, MATCHES YOUR EXISTING MUSICAL TASTES to a database (“The Music Genome Project”) plays new songs that are similar. You let Pandora ( know which ones you like and—voila—it continues to find even more matching songs and before long you’ve created an Internet radio station. Caution: it can be quite addictive!

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM NEW YORK JOURNALIST MURRAY KEMPTON (1917-1997): “It is function of government to invent philosophies to explain the demands of its own convenience.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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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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WTC 7 report: end of the line for 9/11 conspiracy theories?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology just-released final report on the collapse of World Trade Center 7 in 2001 following the 9/11 terrorist attack concludes that fire, not controlled demolition, was the cause of 47-story building’s destruction.

At an August 21st news conference, Shyam Sunder, the lead investigator for the federal building and fire safety investigation of the WTC disaster, explained: “Our take-home message today is that the reason for the collapse of World Trade Center 7 is no longer a mystery. WTC 7 collapsed because of fires fueled by office furnishings. It did not collapse from explosives or from diesel fuel fires. It collapsed because fires—similar to those experienced in other tall buildings—burned in the absence of water supply to operate the sprinklers, and burned beyond the ability of firefighters to control fires. It fell because thermal expansion, a phenomenon not considered in current building design practice, caused a fire-induced progressive collapse.”

Sunder directly addressed the question of whether controlled demolition had brought down WTC 7, a favorite theory of the “9/11 Truth Movement” and its celebrity hanger-ons, like Jesse Ventura, Charlie Sheen, and Rosie O’Donnell, noting that the investigative team had considered that possibility and rejected it. NIST concluded that “blast events inside the building did not occur” and “found no evidence supporting the existence of a blast event.” A NIST WTC 7 fact sheet summarized the case against controlled demolition:

In addition, no blast sounds were heard on the audio tracks of video recordings during the collapse of WTC 7 or reported by witnesses. According to calculations by the investigation team, the smallest blast capable of failing the building’s critical column would have resulted in a sound level of 130 decibels (dB) to 140 dB at a distance of at least half a mile, if unobstructed by surrounding buildings. This sound level is consistent with a gunshot blast, standing next to a jet plane engine, and more than 10 times louder than being in front of the speakers at a rock concert.

For the building to have been prepared for intentional demolition, walls and/or column enclosures and fireproofing would have to be removed and replaced without being detected. Preparing a column includes steps such as cutting sections with torches, which produces noxious and odorous fumes. Intentional demolition usually requires applying explosive charges to most, if not all, interior columns, not just one or a limited set of columns in a building.

The NIST WTC 7 team also found another popular 9/11 conspiracy theory, that thermite/thermate was used to sever columns was highly unlikely: “To apply thermite to a large steel column, approximately 0.13 lb of thermite would be needed to heat and melt each pound of steel. For a steel column that weighs approximately 1,000 lbs. per foot, at least 100 lbs. of thermite would need to be placed around the column, ignited, and remain in contact with the vertical steel surface as the thermite reaction took place. This is for one column … presumably, more than one column would have been prepared with thermite, if this approach were to be used.” NIST concluded that it was “unlikely that 100 lbs. of thermite, or more, could have been carried into WTC 7 and placed around columns without being detected, either prior to Sept. 11 or during that day.”

A blow to the 9/11 conspiracy theorists

The final NIST WTC 7 report represents a major blow to the promoters of 9/11 conspiracy theories. They began by claiming that the Twin Towers (WTC 1 and 2) had been felled by controlled demolition as part of a government “false flag operation.” Their argument had obvious flaws—it wasn’t hard to imagine that two large airliners loaded with jet fuel smashing into skyscrapers could inflict massive damage—and that was what the first NIST report concluded.

Their focus then turned to WTC 7, with many conspiracy theorists seizing on the fact that the building was not hit directly by the planes and “mysteriously” collapsed hours later. Again, they argued for controlled demolition, forcefully enough that NIST included explosions as a possible cause for the collapse in its investigation.

With the demolition theory for WTC 7 having been considered and rejected, the 9/11 conspiracy theorists are in a bind. The final NIST report offers what Sunder called a “simple and straightforward and elegant” explanation for the collapse of the building. The simplicity of the theory—that unchecked fires led to a chain of failures and then progressive collapse—and the extensive computer modeling of the hypothesis place it squarely in the best traditions of the scientific method.

The alternative theory advanced by the so-called 9/11 Truthers is far-fetched and requires a complete suspension of disbelief. Professional demolition experts have repeatedly explained that it takes weeks of work to prepare a building for a controlled demolition. And how could such a massive conspiracy, involving hundreds if not thousands of people, be kept silent? And what of the lack of any evidence of an explosion, as pointed out by the NIST team?

Despite the “on-the-record” scientific studies now explaining the WTC disaster, it’s unlikely that all members of the “9/11 Truth Movement” will go away quietly. Some make considerable amounts of money hawking 9/11 conspiracy DVDs and books. Others cling to the notion for deep-seated psychological reasons. Some are deluded. Yet the weight of the evidence is clear: the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings was directly caused by the actions of the 9/11 terrorists. To believe otherwise is to not only embrace an alternative theory, but to accept an alternative reality.

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