October 2009: Fuzzy stimulus math, mixed signals on free speech, Hannity’s sad double standard, and other observations

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

THE WHITE HOUSE ANNOUNCED THAT FEDERAL STIMULUS SPENDING HAS “SAVED OR CREATED” 640,329 JOBS SO FAR. Not 640,328 or 640,330, but 640,329. Of course this is nonsense—there’s no precise way to accurately calculate any job creation or job savings impact and the Obama Administration opens itself up to mockery for its fuzzy math.

The problem for President Obama is managing perceptions: after passage of a $787 billion spending bill the Administration claimed would keep national unemployment at 8 percent, the reality has been jobless figures in the 10 percent range and fears of a jobless recovery or a “W” shaped recession, despite GDP growth of 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2009.

Has economic stimulus spending worked? The impact of cash-for-clunkers, first-time home buyer tax credits, and other cash injections into the economy clearly impacted the third quarter growth numbers. As to the other stimulus spending: a focus on propping up education and public sector employment, rather than heavy investments in infrastructure projects, may prove misguided in the long-term. If unemployment remains in the 10 percent range, voters will punish Congressional Democrats in the 2010 elections.

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION IS SENDING MIXED SIGNALS ON FREE SPEECH ISSUES. In early October, the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Council decided to “support Egypt in recognizing limits on free speech for those who insult or denigrate religion,” a move law professor Jonathan Turley and other free speech advocates denounced as ill-advised pandering to Muslim nations. Near the end of the month, however, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled that the U.S. will resist a push for an international convention barring “religious antidefamation.

Are members of the Obama team too comfortable with international legal standards that suppress free expression? Stuart Taylor Jr. of the National Journal Magazine warns that the U.N. resolution concession is representative of an administration “seeded with left-liberal thinkers who have smiled on efforts to punish speech that is offensive to favored racial and religious groups.”

IF SEAN HANNITY OF FOX WANTS TO PROVIDE FAR RIGHT AUTHOR JEROME CORSI with a platform on his cable show, he owes it to his audience to disclose Corsi’s extremist views. Corsi, who turned up on Hannity’s Oct. 13 show to promote his latest book, is a Birther and a Truther—that is, Corsi questions whether President Obama was actually born in Hawaii and consequently his eligibility to hold high office, and he has supported the “9/11 Truth Movement” in claiming that jetliners did not bring down the World Trade Center towers.

Hannity’s double standard is troubling: he challenges those on the left who voice 9/11 conspiracy theories (Sean Penn, Rosie O’Donnell, Mark Cuban) but remains silent when right-wingers like Corsi express similarly noxious views.

IS RUSSIAN PRESIDENT DMITRY MEDVEDEV’S REJECTION OF THE CULT OF STALIN A SINCERE DISTANCING FROM “PUTINISM”? On October 30, the day of remembrance of victims of political repression in Russia, Medvedev “called on Russians to remember the political terror under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, distancing himself from the historical ambivalence of his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin,” according to Lucian Kim of Bloomberg News.

Will Medvedev’s comments make a difference? The recent arrest of Mikhail Suprun, a Russian historian researching the fate of Germans sent into Stalin’s Gulag during World War II, and the seizure of his personal archives, raises questions about the openness of Russian authorities to confronting the past.

FROM JAY LENO’S ROUTINE (Oct. 26): “Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused the White House of “dithering” over the strategy in Afghanistan. Today the White House said they’re thinking it over, and they should have a response within six to eight weeks.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM THE BIBLICAL KING SOLOMON (Proverbs 29:23): “A man’s pride shall bring him low: but honor shall uphold the humble in spirit.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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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

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and the dark temptations of paranoia

There’s something to be said for paranoia, at least from an evolutionary perspective. Our prehistoric ancestors faced a brutal, unforgiving world where misjudging a threat could prove fatal. Suspicion of strangers was a natural instinct, and a well-developed sense of “friend or foe” might mean you were more likely to survive and pass on your genes.

Long after the survival threat to homo sapiens became less pressing, the paranoid proclivity remained. When it is triggered by environmental or genetic factors, and causes abnormal suspiciousness and delusions of persecution or danger, clinicians call it “paranoid personality disorder.” As Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, has observed, “…it’s interesting to note how many psychopathologies, including paranoia, may simply be evolutionary ingrained tendencies turned up a notch too high.”

Many authors, artists and film-makers have been fascinated by the alienation present in paranoia, and while it seems to be a modernist concern (consider: Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” or Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”) the theme surfaced in literature well before the advent of Freudian psychiatry. While Nathaniel Hawthorne did not set out to directly address the impact of paranoia in “Young Goodman Brown,” his haunting short story has retained its appeal long after its 1835 publication, I would argue, precisely because it taps into the feelings of isolation, fear of the Other, and, yes, the dark temptations of paranoia that are part of the human condition.

What do I mean by the dark temptations of paranoia? It’s that natural, and gratifying, inclination to blame others for our misfortune. It includes our very human tendency to bear grudges, to question the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends, to fear being exploited or deceived, and to credulously accept conspiracy theories. And “It wasn’t my fault. They were out to get me” offers a tempting explanation for trouble, one that neatly shifts any blame for failure or disappointment onto malevolent others.

Paranoid reality or paranoid dream?

Many literary critics have seen “Young Goodman Brown” (along with The Scarlet Letter) as part of Hawthorne’s critique of Calvinist theology as practiced in New England, especially the Puritan fascination with predestination and the role of the Elect—those divinely-selected Christians assured of a place in heaven. Certainly the story is crammed with religious symbolism and imagery and touches on many of these themes. Yet the universal appeal of the story lies in its portrayal of a young man struggling with his growing sense that the world has turned against him, and the open question as to whether his new-found disillusionment with family and friends is grounded in reality or reflects a delusional dream-state.

As with many horror stories, “Young Goodman Brown” relies on a series of small revelations, dark imagery, and hints of the supernatural to build suspense. Goodman Brown of Salem sets off on a mysterious journey with, we are told, an “evil purpose”; his wife, Faith, (“aptly named”) tries to entice him to stay home, but he refuses.

Once in the dark forest, Goodman Brown encounters an older man, a “fellow-traveler” whose companionship is not “wholly unexpected” by Goodman. Hawthorne foreshadows events to come as Goodman Brown wonders: “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!”

Soon we learn that the devil, indeed, is at his elbow (disguised as his grandfather and carrying a staff “which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent”), that his religious mentor Goody Cloyse is a witch, and that Goodman Brown’s father and grandfather before him had embraced the occult.

When Goodman Brown reaches the clearing where the devil worshipers will hold their Satanic ceremony of initiation, he recognizes “a score of the church members of Salem village famous for their especial sanctity.” And these “grave, reputable, and pious people” are joined by “men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame”—good and wicked, sinners and saints joined in their “homage to the prince of all.” He is staggered by the enormity of the deception, aghast at his discovery that the Elect of his community are part of this “impious assembly,” one he has come to join.

Even worse, however, is discovering that the young woman also awaiting “baptism” into this congregation, “trembling before that unhallowed altar,” is his own wife. Young Goodman Brown hesitates, and then calls on his wife to join in resisting “the evil one.” In a flash he finds himself alone, “amid calm night and solitude,” but whether Faith has also turned away from Satan, “he knew not.”

When he returns to Salem Goodman Brown is a changed man, shrinking from contact from the minister, snubbing his wife when he meets her. Then, in an intriguing twist, Hawthorne introduces doubt about the reality of Young Goodman Brown’s experience. Perhaps he hasn’t uncovered a coven of “fiend-worshippers” but instead imagined the scene:

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?

Be it so if you will; but, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.

Is Goodman Brown’s nightmarish experience just that: a nightmare? Or has he discovered the reality behind the scrim of Puritan convention? The psychic damage has been done, in either case, for he can no longer encounter the townspeople, or his wife, without seeing them as secretly in league with the Devil.

A modern psychiatrist, rejecting prima facie the existence of Satan, might very well diagnose Goodman Brown as harboring paranoid fantasies. His belief that everyone around him had joined a sinister, and hidden, conspiracy would suggest paranoid personality disorder. (If the people of Salem were actually involved in witchcraft and secret devil worship, then the situation becomes much more complex.)

Contemporary demons

We may no longer believe in witches or the presence of Satan, but we still confront our own contemporary demons. Paranoia continues to have its artistic fascination. The Puritans of the Bay Colony had theological underpinnings for their fears, ours stem more often from half-baked ideologies (for example, 9/11 conspiracy theories) or junk science.

There has been a brisk demand for horror films trading on the thrill of group paranoia. It’s why Hollywood has fashioned four film versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a science-fiction story of alien invaders who secretly transform humans into “pod-people.”

The first film version came in 1956 (reflecting concerns about Communist subversion), the best-known remake followed in 1978 (trading off post-Watergate paranoia), the third in 1993 (with fears of toxic waste and a compromised environment as a backdrop), and the most recent in 2007, retitled The Invasion, (starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig and featuring a plot revolving around an alien virus).

Since the AIDs epidemic, paranoia about infection has been a continuing theme in popular culture, whether in the form of science fiction thrillers about pandemics (Twelve Monkeys, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Children of Men) or in the current fascination with vampires (the Twilight series, HBO’s “True Blood,” 30 Days of Night). Then there is 2007’s very popular I Am Legend, the most recent cinematic version of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel (following The Last Man on Earth in 1964 and The Omega Man in 1971), which offers moviegoers both infectious disease and vampirism.

Fearing a global epidemic is not irrational, as the spread of AIDs and the outbreaks of bird flu in China and foot and mouth disease in Britain have highlighted the danger, but the probability of an unchecked pandemic is much less than Hollywood screenwriters would have you think, and the probability of vampire and zombie attacks approaches nil. But in troubled times, cathartic fear and loathing (the stuff of group paranoia) always plays well at the box office.


Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

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 (www.pandora.com) 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
All rights reserved

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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.”

August 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

Fisking Robert Fisk’s 9/11 fantasies, a farewell to the Scooter, and other observations…

With a tip of the cap to legendary New York newspaperman Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

“FISKING” IS THE TERM COINED FOR THE PUBLIC DEBUNKING (by bloggers, journalists, and other critics) of claims made by British journalist Robert Fisk. A quick glance at “Robert Fisk: Even I question the ‘truth’ about 9/11” which appeared in The Independent in late August, helps explain why Fisk’s reporting raises so many eyebrows.

In his article, Fisk tries to distance himself from the more extreme elements of the 9/11 Truth Movement (the “ravers” he calls them) but then announces: “I am increasingly troubled at the inconsistencies in the official narrative of 9/11.” Fisk proceeds to list a number of these “inconsistencies,” which turn out to be a cobbled-together list of rhetorical questions that are favorites of the conspiracy theorists.

Fisking Fisk’s 9/11 questions is quite simple. Here are the answers to the four major questions he poses:

1. ”[W]here are the aircraft parts (engines, etc) from the attack on the Pentagon?” Much of the aircraft, a Boeing 757, was destroyed upon impact, but there are numerous photos of the wreckage of American Airlines Flight 77. You can find them here, here, and a photo of what’s left of an engine here, along with other wreckage photos and extensive eyewitness accounts of the debris found inside the Pentagon. (What’s really behind this question? Some 9/11 conspiracy theorists claim a missile slammed into the Pentagon, not the jet.)

2. “Why did flight 93’s debris spread over miles when it was supposed to have crashed in one piece in a field?” Some debris from Flight 93 did spread after impact, which is common in such commercial airline crashes, but not nearly as far as 9/11 conspiracy theorists assert. The “wide-spread debris theory” is thoroughly debunked here and here. (What’s behind the question? Many conspiracy theorists claim that Flight 93 was shot down by a military aircraft, a scenario which would produce scattered debris).

3. ”If it is true, for example, that kerosene burns at 820C under optimum conditions, how come the steel beams of the twin towers – whose melting point is supposed to be about 1,480C – would snap through at the same time?” This represents a complete misunderstanding of the causes of the Twin Towers collapse. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) concluded after a three-year study that “the impact of the planes severed and damaged support columns and dislodged fireproofing insulation coating the steel floor trusses and steel columns, which meant that the subsequent fire, which reached 1000 degrees Celsius, weakened the floors and columns to the point where they bowed and buckled, causing the towers to collapse.” (What’s behind this question? Many conspiracy theorists contend that the Twin Towers were brought down by controlled demolition, refusing to accept the conclusions of NIST and other scientific studies.)

I would encourage Fisk, and other 9/11 doubters, to take the time to watch this simulation of a jet hitting one of the towers, developed at Purdue University, to better understand how impact led to the collapse.

4. ”What about the third tower – the so-called World Trade Centre Building 7 (or the Salmon Brothers Building) – which collapsed in 6.6 seconds in its own footprint at 5.20pm on 11 September? Why did it so neatly fall to the ground when no aircraft had hit it?” While no aircraft hit WTC 7 directly, the building was badly damaged by debris from the collapse of nearby WTC 1. NIST’s working hypothesis is that WTC 7 fell because of the collapse of a critical column due to “fire and/or debris induced structural damage.” And the actual collapse of WTC 7 took longer, some 15-18 seconds (according to the seismic data), much of this activity not evident on the videos of the collapse.

My questions for Fisk would be: did you do any research on 9/11 before writing your piece? Talk to civil engineers? Read the NIST reports? You would be asking a different set of questions if you did.

A VERY STRONG ARGUMENT CAN BE MADE THAT “THE LIVES OF OTHERS,” last year’s Oscar winner for best foreign-language film was flat-out the best film of 2006 in any language. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film, now available on DVD, follows an East German Stasi agent assigned to spy on a playwright and his actress girlfriend and traces the compromises and betrayals that become tragically common in a police state. The acting in the film is superb, understated and yet emotionally moving.

A Hollywood remake, in English, is slated for 2010, although it is hard to imagine it having the power or authenticity of the original.

AMMUNITION FOR ANTI-MONARCHISTS: news from Norway that Princess Märtha Louise is looking to charge people for teaching how to communicate with angels. “Now, some are calling for her to renounce her royal title” according to Der Spiegel. At least the embarrassing family members (Billy Carter, Margaret Trudeau, Cécilia Sarkozy, Neil Bush, etc.) of leaders in democratic countries eventually fade from sight when the leader leaves office.

I MET FORMER YANKEE GREAT PHIL RIZZUTO some 33 years ago, in 1974, when he was in Boston announcing a Yankees-Red Sox game. Rizzuto stopped by WEEI, where I was working as a weekend news writer, to record a syndicated radio spot. The diminutive Hall of Famer proved to be more than happy to talk baseball with a teenager. Nicknamed the “Scooter,” Rizzuto, who died August 13 at the age of 89, was an unaffected and genuinely warm man. Vale!

YOGI BERRA, a teammate of Phil Rizzuto and noted American philosopher, provides this month’s words of wisdom: “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved


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