Conspiracy Theories

May 15, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

This is one of those commentaries that, if written in a "real-world" publication, would generate limited (if any) controversy. But this isn't the real world. This the Internet, and the Internet is a place where all sorts of baseless rumors and theories take root. In particular, I'm referring to a bizarre minority belief that the United States government aided, abetted, or turned a blind eye to the events of 9/11/2001.

For the most part, I am an anti-conspiracy theorist. I believe that the simplest explanation is the most likely one. I'm especially resistant to conspiracy theories when they involve the government. If even relatively small things like Watergate, Iran/Contra, and Clinton's cigar couldn't stay hidden, what's the likelihood that an operation requiring hundreds of partipants would remain under wraps? One of my fundamental beliefs is that there's a level of incompetence in government (and I'm not referring to a particular administration - this is a general statement) that disallows any sort of major conspiracy going forward without being uncovered. I'm talking about hard evidence, not speculation. A smoking gun or, if you will, a stained dress.

The release of United 93 has re-invigorated the 9/11 conspiracy theory engine. "Don't you realize," an e-mailer wrote me, "that everything in the film is based on lies?" I engaged in correspondence with four or five such individuals. It's amazing how similar the tone and content of their e-mails were. It was as if one person was writing with four different names. They were selling, but I wasn't buying. My reaction was much the same as when Jehovah's Witnesses show up at my front door. Be polite, but dismiss them as soon a possible.

There are as many conspiracy theories as there are conspiracy theorists. Some claim that the United States knowingly turned a blind eye to terrorist activities. Others believe that there were no terrorists - the government orchestrated the attacks, bringing down the Twin Towers with explosives (in a "controlled demolition"), attacking the Pentagon with a missile, and shooting down United 93. The more creative (or paranoid) the mind, the more inventive the variant.

The common denominator is that all of these theories rely on dubious eyewitness accounts, half-baked pseudoscience, falsehoods, comments taken out of context, and twisted statistics. Last year, Popular Mechanics put together an excellently researched and scientifically solid article debunking the most common aspects of the 9/11 conspiracy theories, but this hasn't taken the wind out of anyone's sails. The reason, upon careful consideration, is obvious: adherence to a conspiracy theory is like the belief in a religion. When hard facts fail, faith takes over.

One conspiracy theorist accused me of not having an open mind about his point of view. When I threw the charge back at him, he didn't have a response. My determination that the accepted account is pretty much accurate doesn't have anything to do with a belief in what the government feeds the public and the media. It's based on an examination of the facts that have been presented. I have yet to see a 9/11 conspiracy theory that's more stable than a house of cards built on a foundation of tissue paper.

The religion parallel goes deeper. Faith and close-mindedness aren't the only characteristics. There's also the need to proselytize and a sense of superiority towards those who don't share these beliefs. No one can doubt the passion felt and exhibited by conspiracy theorists. A Google search of "World Trade Center conspiracy" brings up more than 9 million hits. Many of those are cursory mentions, but some are whole websites devoted to one theory or another. There's even a web-based movie out there, Loose Change, that attempts to use video to illustrate its dubious theories. (Although called a "documentary," it makes Fahrenheit 9/11 look like a model of balanced journalistic excellence.)

There's a predictability to the responses this commentary will generate. Some will write nasty e-mails decrying my attack on their beliefs. Others will patiently explain that I have been misguided by the mainstream media. Others will stridently argue their case. Only a few will write to agree with me - because most will assume that common sense doesn't need a reinforcing pat on the back.

One final word... I don't see those who accept conspiracy theories as being "anti-American," as some have argued. There's nothing more American that questioning the government or the status quo. I just wish these people would channel their passion in a more productive direction rather than chasing ghosts and erecting a fantasy world built from suspicion and paranoia. Hard as it may be to admit, sometimes things are what they seem to be. (Or, as the old saying goes, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.)