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Column: Why conspiracy theories are still alive, ten years after 9/11

As the tenth anniversary of the attack approaches, Tamara Lush explores why many still believe it was an inside job.

Bryan Black, of North Texans for 9/11 Truth
Bryan Black, of North Texans for 9/11 Truth
Image: AP Photo/LM Otero

IN DEALEY PLAZA in Dallas, Texas, with the white “X” painted on the spot where President Kennedy was assassinated, ask anyone about the grassy knoll and the second gunman.

Conspiracy theories come with the territory here. And at Barbec’s Restaurant on the other side of this sprawling city, six men sit on a covered porch and convene a meeting of the North Texans for 9/11 Truth group and talk about the government’s lies about 9/11.

The group has 50 active members; 200 on the mailing list. And they number among many thousands who, after years of investigations, don’t believe the official version of how the World Trade Center collapsed, who was responsible or what the government knew and when. Politics doesn’t have anything to do with it; two were once staunch, Bush-voting conservatives; two are progressives and two weren’t even interested in current events until after the 2001 attacks.

“Before 9/11, I was a working class person, going through life, pretty much accepting everything given and told to me,” said Bryan Black, a 50-year-old carpenter from Commerce, Texas, “I’m starting to see things. I’m more open to sceptical conversation.”

The sceptics — they prefer the term “9/11 truth activists” instead of “truthers” — have persisted, even thrived in the decade since 2001, with proponents from former Alaska Sen Mike Gravel to comedian Rosie O’Donnell. And unlike the years that Kennedy assassination conspiracies took to develop, they have mobilised with lightning-like speed on the Internet, with YouTube videos of the trade centre collapsing again and again.

“There’s really a foundation of reality here,” said Ted Walter, who has worked unsuccessfully to prod New York City officials into reopening an investigation of how 7 World Trade Center collapsed on the afternoon of Sept 11. “We believe that if all of the American public saw footage of building 7 on the nightly news, it would lead to widespread skepticism of 9/11.”

The ‘security blanket’

For many, conspiracy theories aren’t terrifying; they’re more comforting than the idea that an event as terrifying as Sept 11 could be so — random. Conspiracies can be a “security blanket” for explaining away the horrific, asserts Patrick Leman, a University of London professor who researches 9/11 theories. “It stops us from having to confront the unpredictability of life.”

Jonathan Kay, a columnist with the Canadian newspaper The National Post and the author of a book about conspiracy theories, said it’s normal for people to seek out complicated and detailed explanations of big events. “There is something in the human mind that rebels against the idea of random forces or individuals being able to bring down powerful people or powerful icons,” said Kay.

There’s no real estimate of the numbers of people in the 9/11 “truth” movements — there’s no one leader of the sceptics. A group called Remember Building 7 presented New York’s City Council with a petition in 2009 signed by 80,000 people calling for an independent probe into the attacks. Other groups include Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, Scholars for 9/11 Truth and the 9/11 Commission Campaign, founded by Gravel.

The “truthers” generally have about a dozen beliefs surrounding what happened on that day, although there are some variations on who was responsible for the attacks and why:

  • Explosives brought down the World Trade Center, not hijacked jetliners.
  • There were warnings of the impending attacks from 11 different countries, and fighter jets could have intercepted at least one of the four planes that day.
  • Criminal conspiracies within the government caused the attacks.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology conducted a probe that took six years to complete of the tower collapses; the last report found that fire caused the collapse of 7 World Trade Center, a skyscraper north of the twin towers. In the collapses of the twin towers, the agency found that extreme heat from the jetliner crashes caused some steel beams to lose strength, causing further failures in the building until the entire structure succumbed.

Pedestrians flee the dust-filled streets after the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

The investigation “was the most comprehensive examination of a structural failure ever conducted,” said Shyam Sunder, lead investigator of the collapse investigation, and it led to 40 building code changes to make safer, terror-proof skyscrapers. NIST maintains a website with its reports and computer-based animations that reconstruct its findings to reach out to the public.

Sunder acknowledges it hasn’t reached everyone. “We really can’t explain why some people question our findings about the WTC collapses when we have done our best to present those findings and how they were derived as clearly as possible,” Sunder wrote in an e-mail. It begs the question: why is there such a distrust of government when it comes to 9/11? Is it due to feeling alienated from a fractured political system, a bad economy, or something else?

For Bob McIlvaine’s son, it was the injuries found on his son Bobby’s head, arm and skin that made him think the hijacked jetliner and building collapse couldn’t have done it. He believes that explosives were detonated in the towers’ basement before the planes hit the towers.

‘My son was murdered’

McIlvaine has not been able to determine where his son was when he died, but from the injuries — which include skin that was burned post-mortem — he assumes that his son was in or near the tower’s lobby. McIlvaine questions the government’s explanation that a fireball came down through the elevator shafts and burned those in the lobby. “I spend three hours a day, every day, doing research on 9/11,” said McIlvaine. “To me, this was a murder investigation. My son was murdered.”

Tom Theimer watched the World Trade Center crumble while drinking coffee and watching television in his suburban Dallas home. Shaken, he bought flags for his porch and bumper stickers for his car reading “We will never forget.”

A few years later, a friend of Theimer’s wife casually mentioned that 9/11 “was an inside job.” Theimer was livid and turned to the Internet, to prove the friend wrong. The websites, the books and the documentaries he saw online persuaded him. He was wrong, and so was the system. “I was duped,” Theimer said. “It really hurt. I cried. I couldn’t sleep for months.”

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Theimer said that he and others in Dallas are planning to show a new 9/11 documentary on the 10th anniversary. Remember Building 7 is trying to raise $1 million by Sept. 11 to support a new investigation into the collapses. A conference on alternate 9/11 theories is being held in Toronto on Sept. 11.

Shooters on the grassy knoll

The conference is headed by the International Centre for 9/11 Studies, which was founded by James Gourley, a 31-year-old Dallas-area attorney who began to question the events of Sept 11 during law school, while watching an activist make his argument on C-Span.

Gourley is aware of the theories about how skeptics are simply trying to justify and explain a random, horrific event. “It’s basically a backwards way of saying we’re psychologically deranged,” he said. “It’s questioning the psychology of the people instead of questioning the facts.”

Even in the heart of the conspiracy theory world, some find the alternate theories hard to believe. At Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Scott Dew hawked commemorative Kennedy assassination newspapers to tourists, standing under an oak tree, just steps from a white “X” painted on the asphalt that marks where President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

Dew’s newspapers — which cost $5 each and come encased in a plastic sleeve — devote several pages and diagrams to the varying theories of bullet projectiles and second shooters on the grassy knoll.

Kennedy’s assassination was “a conspiracy by the government,” Dew says. “Back then, in ’63, this was a money and power deal.” But Sept. 11? A conspiracy? He shakes his head. “I believe bin Laden was the attacker. I don’t believe the other theories that President Bush or the government had anything to do with it. That would just be a little too sinful,” he said.

Tamara Lush is an Associated Press journalist travelling through the United States and writing about the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

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