Conspiracy Nation: myths, madness, and the “truth” about 9/11

Almost every high-profile airplane crash these days is trailed by a conspiracy theory.

 Where to start?  Conspirobabble stretches back to the death of Dag Hammarskjold and the heydays of the Bermuda Triangle.  The modern era got going with the 1983 shoot-down of Korean Air Lines flight 007 by a Soviet fighter.  Since then, the Internet has become a potent incubator of myth and misinformation, spreading pseudo-truths with the lackadaisical tap of a SEND button.  Five minutes with a keyboard and mouse and you’re privy to more feverish speculation than the old Grassy Knollers ever could have dreamed of.

Prior to 2001, the 1996 TWA tragedy was probably the most mulled over disaster in the minds of the intellectually eccentric.  Flight 800 blew up like a giant roman candle in the July twilight off Long Island, the result of a short circuit igniting vapors in an unused fuel tank.  What came next was a sideshow of at least four books and enough World Wide Web puissance to power a 747 through the sound barrier.  Even mainstream commentators registered intense skepticism that flight 800 could’ve crashed the way it did.  After all, fuel tanks don’t simply explode.

Except, under very unusual circumstances, they do.  Indeed it’s not likely, but it’s neither impossible nor unprecedented.  The airplane, an old 747-100 destined for Paris, had been baking on a hot tarmac up until departure, superheating the vapors in its empty center fuel cell (a 747 does not need full tanks to cross the Atlantic).  Later, an electrical short deep in the jet’s mid-fuselage bowels provided the ignition.  At least two other fuel tank explosions have taken place.  A Thai Airways 737 once burst into flames while parked at the gate in Bangkok, killing a flight attendant.  Per FAA behest, airlines have begun phasing in a system that uses nitrogen as an inert filler in vacant tanks.

We heard more whispering after American 587 went down in New York City less than two months after 2001 terror attacks.  Officially the crash was caused by crew error, compounded by a design quirk in the A300’s rudder system, but the mongers had other idea: a bomb destroyed the plane, and the government, along with the airlines, fearing paralysis of the economy, decided to pass off the crash as an accident.

Then we have September 11th itself.  If you haven’t been paying attention, cyberspace is awash with claims that the attacks were an inside job.  The specific assertions are too numerous and complicated to list here exhaustively.  They vary website to website, overlapping, underscoring, complimenting and contradicting one another to the point of madness.  The Pentagon was struck with a missile, not a 757; the planes that hit the World Trade Center were remotely controlled military craft; the real flights 11, 175, 77 and 93 never existed, or were diverted to secret bases; controlled demolitions felled the twin towers.  And so on.

The same technological magic that makes the spread of wild conjecture so effortless should, you would think, make countering and dismissing it no less easy.  Strictly speaking, indeed it does.  But it depends who’s paying attention, and the human proclivity for believing in conspiracies is a lot stronger these days than our proclivity for analyzing and debating them.  Maybe that’s human nature, or maybe it’s some perverse/inverse fallout of technology.  Either way, there are lots more people around hungry to make us believe something than make us not believe something.  A pro-conspiracy Website is certainly a lot more exciting, and will garner a lot more hits, than an anti-conspiracy Website.  Both kinds are out there, but it’s the conspiracy traffickers, regardless of their credibility, who believe more passionately in their cause, and consequently garner more attention.

It’s not beyond reason that some aspects of the 2001 attacks deserve more scrutiny than the 9/11 Commission granted them.  But those who most urgently wish us to believe so have done themselves no favors by expanding the breadth of their contentions beyond all plausibility: particulars of the conspiracy theories fall anywhere from compelling to lunatic.  I’m genuinely curious about why surveillance video from the Sheraton hotel near the Pentagon was confiscated and never made public – if in fact that’s true.  On the other hand, I’m told that the aircraft that struck the World Trade Center were artificial images projected by laser, and that the real flights never existed.  There’s so much flak out there, it’s difficult to tell what’s genuinely mysterious and worthy of a closer look, and what’s nonsense.   I propose a conspiracy theory that the conspiracy theories are themselves part of a conspiracy, intended to discredit the idea of there being a conspiracy — and to divide and conquer those who might sleuth out certain facts.

I don’t deny that at times important truths have been concealed from public view. But we also need to remember Carl Sagan’s famous quip about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary proof.  It’s distressing that so many people become married to a preposterous idea based on little more than erroneous interpretations of some pictures and selective, manipulative use of evidence.  We see this with September 11th, with the “chemtrails” theory (don’t get me started on that one), and still others.  And I’ve learned to wary when attempting to reason with such people.  Ultimately, it’s like arguing religion.  Evidence, or a lack of it, has little to do with what motivates many believers, and contradictory facts are simply not accepted.  At the heart of their convictions is something only partially subject to reason.  It’s faith.

Below is a point-by-point look at the most commonly cited evidence of a 9/11 conspiracy…


1. The terrorist pilots lacked the skill and training needed to fly jetliners into their targets

This is an especially popular contention with respect to American flight 77.  Hijacker pilot Hani Hanjour was a notoriously untalented flier who never piloted anything larger than a four-seater. Yet he is said to have pulled off a remarkable series of aerobatic maneuvers before slamming into the Pentagon.  The pilots of American 11 and United 175 also had spotty records and had flown only private planes.  They should have had great difficulty navigating to New York City, and even greater difficulty hitting the twin towers squarely. To bolster this idea that the hijackers were Oswaldian pawns, the conspiromongers often invoke impressive-sounding jargon and fluffery about high-tech cockpits, occasionally trundling out testimony from pilots.

Reality: The cabal’s feats did not require in-depth technical knowledge or a high degree of skill.  The attackers, as private pilots, were completely out of their league in the cockpits of those 757s and 767s; however they were not setting out to perform single-engine missed approaches or Category-3 instrument landings with a failed hydraulic system – or to land at all.  They were setting out to steer an already airborne jetliner, in perfect weather, into the side of a building.  Though, for good measure, Mohammed Atta and at least one other member of his group did buy several hours of simulator training on a Boeing 727 (this was not the same type of jet used in the attacks, but it didn’t need to be).  Additionally they obtained manuals and instructional videos for the 757 and 767, available from aviation supply shops.

Hani Hanjour’s flying was exceptional only in its recklessness.  If anything, his loops and spirals above the nation’s capital revealed him to be exactly the shitty pilot he by all accounts was.  To hit the Pentagon squarely he needed only a bit of luck, and he got it.  Striking a stationary object — even a large one with five beckoning sides — at high speed and from a steep angle is very difficult.  To make the job easier, he came in obliquely, tearing down light poles as he roared across the Pentagon’s lawn.  If he’d flown the same profile ten times, seven of them he’d probably have tumbled short of the target or overflown it entirely.
As for those partisan pilots known to chime in on websites, take them with a grain of salt.  As somebody who flies 757 and 767s for a living, I think my testimony carries some weight.  Ask around and you’ll discover that the majority of professional pilots feel the way I do.


2. The non-wreckage of Flight 77

According to the would-be detectives, it wasn’t a passenger jet that hit the Pentagon, but either a radio-controlled fighter or a missile.  The conspicuous dearth of wreckage proves this.  This is the “magic bullet” of September 11th.  Almost no recognizable pieces of the supposed, 80-ton 757 were found at the scene.  Why wouldn’t the wings have sheared off, many bloggers have demanded to know.  Where’s the tail?  “Airplane crashes leave wreckage,” insists one Website, complete with a slide show of past disasters showing the plainly visible remains of tails, wings, and sections of fuselage.  In addition, we’re sometimes shown photos of a small turbine engine found at the crash scene – allegedly the same engine found in high-speed cruise missiles.

Reality: Airplane crashes do leave wreckage, though not always in the shapes and sizes you might expect.  Flight 77’s demise was an exceptionally high-speed, head-on, explosive collision with the reinforced masonry façade of an office building — a type of impact rarely seen in air disasters and guaranteed to cause total destruction.  The wings of an airplane, going 400 miles per hour into such a building, do not, under any circumstances, bend or shear off.  They shred into fragments, along with the rest of the plane.

Many small pieces of flight 77 were found in semi-recognizable condition, most of them inside the building and hard to discern amidst the rubble.  A slice of aluminum skin from the upper fuselage, along which part of the American Airlines livery is still visible, was photographed on the Pentagon lawn.  And that small turbine was the plane’s auxiliary power unit.


3. The hole truth

The impact pattern with the Pentagon façade, we are told, is inconsistent with the size and shape of a 757.  The hole is too narrow.  And there is no outline of where the wings or tail would have struck, as seen on the World Trade Center towers.

Reality: The hole is not too narrow.  The fuselage of a 757 is about 13 feet wide, which roughly matches the entry wound into the Pentagon.  Many conspiracy sites inflate a 757’s fuselage diameter, citing values that include its landing gear or tail.  In any event, we shouldn’t expect an aluminum airframe colliding with heavy masonry to leave a silhouette.  The damage would be greatly dispersed — exactly as the Pentagon footage shows — and points of impact not necessarily obvious.  We saw ghostly, wingtip-to-wingtip outlines of the 767s that struck the World Trade Center because the exterior of those skyscrapers was a thin curtain wall of glass and lightweight steel.  The Pentagon was an immensely more formidable structure, and the damage, both of the plane and to the building, reflected this exactly as it should have.


4. Eyes and ears

Numerous witnesses saw a small plane or missile-like object streaking toward the Pentagon.

Reality:  As professional investigators will attest, eye and ear-witness accounts of airplane accidents are notoriously unreliable.  But for the record, an even greater number of people spoke of seeing an American Airlines 757 streaking toward, and smashing into, the Pentagon.  Their testimony is conveniently absent from the conspiracy sites.
One of those people was Mike Walter, a news reporter who was stuck in traffic near the Pentagon.  He watched the jet slam into the Pentagon and was interviewed widely.  “Referring to the American Airlines jet metaphorically as a weapon,” explains Walter, “I’d described it as being like ‘a cruise missile with wings.'”  This quote was taken out of context to support the conspiracy theories.  It was even cited in Thierry Meyssan’s l’Effroyable Imposture, a book that became a number one bestseller in France.  Walter says, “It’s tough being in journalism and seeing your own words being used to persuade people to believe something that simply isn’t true.  Anyone who has seen the full text of that interview knows that I was clearly talking about the American Airlines jet.  Because that’s what I saw.”


5. Radar ruse

Watching on their screens, some air traffic controllers believed flight 77’s radar track was that of a military plane.

Reality: Why wouldn’t they have thought so?  How many civilian jetliners zoom around a city, spiraling down to tree-top level at 400 knots?


6. The wreckage of United flight 93

Flight 93’s impact in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, was evidenced only by a small impact crater. Emergency crews and reporters, responding to reports of a downed plane, said there were no signs of a crash. No airplane parts, no bodies, no luggage. This suggests that flight 93 either never existed or had gone down elsewhere, and the crash scene was put together as badly improvised theater.

Reality: Indeed first responders saw nothing that resembled a plane, because, really, there was nothing that resembled a plane. According to the black boxes, the skyjackers had put the 757 into a near vertical dive at maximum power. Similar to the case of American 77, the jet disintegrated in a manner totally consistent with an ultra-high speed, direct-impact crash. For the sake of comparison, have a look at the debris field from the crash of American Eagle flight 4184 near Roselawn, Indiana, in 1994. This was a commuter plane that dove into soft earth at half the speed of United 93, yet only the tiniest pieces remained.  When PSA flight 1771 crashed in California in 1987, hitting the ground in a similar high-speed nose-dive, the largest remaining pieces were described as “the size of a human hand.” Tom McMillan’s excellent book, “Flight 93,” chronicles the Shanksville crash and subsequent recovery efforts in great detail. The trees surrounding the impact crater were full of bits of luggage and human remains, much of it caught up in branches. Plenty of aircraft debris was later excavated from the crater itself.

Elsewhere in this rat’s nest, I cannot speak for aspects that extend beyond the aviation side — such as the purported demolition of the twin towers, etc.  Simple extrapolation tells us to be wary.


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