As a student of human nature, Benjamin Franklin knew that the demands of confidentiality are often little match for the gossip instinct. "Three may keep a secret," he wryly noted, "if two of them are dead." How much more difficult must it be for dozens of people - living, breathing, sentient people - to keep a secret? What about hundreds of people, or perhaps even thousands?
Franklin's commonsense calculus finds little reception among conspiracy theorists like Kevin Barrett. A lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Barrett has earned widespread opprobrium for featuring "alternative theories" of the September 11 terrorist attacks in a course on Islamic religion and culture. Barrett's syllabus draws inspiration from his membership in Scholars for 9/11 Truth, an organization of professors, students, and other academics which argues that America's day of horrors was orchestrated by the United States government itself.
The Barrett affair highlights continuing controversy over the political climate at universities and the thin line dividing education from indoctrination. Barrett may have even upstaged the previous poster boy for academic radicalism, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill. After all, in claiming that the "little Eichmanns" got what they deserved, Churchill implicitly endorses Fact #1 of the September 11 atrocities: that the Twin Towers were toppled by Islamic hijackers seeking to avenge the perceived evils of America. Barrett and his cohorts reject Fact #1 in favor of a far more invidious reading of events, thus betraying an even lower view of their country.
As a particularly vile case of campus kookery, the Barrett episode would be bad enough. However, it also reflects a troubling trend in public opinion. Conspiracy theory has now officially gone mainstream. A Scripps Howard News Service poll conducted this past summer claims that 36% of Americans believe that elements of the United States government either carried out the September 11 attacks or knowingly allowed them to occur, with the aim of igniting a war in the Middle East. Animosity toward the Bush administration's handling of Iraq surely factors into these numbers, but good propaganda - its proponents would say anti-propaganda - does not hurt either.
Once relegated to disseminating their peculiar worldview via ham radios and grainy leaflets, today's tinfoil hat brigade has harnessed the power of the internet to carry its message to the masses. Countless websites claim to offer the "real story" behind September 11, while slickly edited and readily available web videos, such as the infamous Loose Change, morph fact into fiction and fiction into fact.
Conspiracy theorists have also received timely assists from more traditional sources of authority. A small number of elected officials, including former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and British MP Michael Meacher, have echoed and thus helped legitimize September 11 conspiracy claims. In fact, Meacher once planned to sponsor a viewing of Loose Change in the Houses of Parliament. Mainstream media outlets have picked up the slack as well. Most notably, Time Magazine and the Washington Post both published rather sympathetic profiles of the self-proclaimed "Truth Movement" during the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the attacks.
Finally, the Bush administration has done its part to fan the conspiracy flames by routinely playing too close to the vest with vital information, thus giving doubters an added excuse to believe that something sinister lurks in the shadows. One example of this was the administration's initial reluctance to support an independent commission to investigate the events of September 11. Another was its recent but grudging release of Pentagon security camera footage - a handful of fuzzy frames which comes off like a modern-day Zapruder film.
So where do we go from here? Stemming the tide of revisionist nonsense often presents a dilemma. One can confront the nonsense head-on, but in doing so grant it broader exposure than it might otherwise enjoy. Alternatively, one can ignore the nonsense to deprive it of much-needed publicity, but thereby risk that it will fester and eventually take hold.
In the case of September 11 conspiracy theories, however, the dilemma is all but moot. Not only did the genie leave its bottle long ago, but passivity is hardly sufficient in the face of such extraordinarily high stakes. When historical revisionism cuts to the very heart of a society and undermines its will to defend itself against merciless enemies, simply ignoring those distortions is tantamount to a slow suicide. Aggressively confronting the September 11 conspiracy theories is therefore imperative and long overdue.
Conspiracy theories, like criminal cases, may be contested on three basic fronts: motive, physical evidence, and opportunity. The motive angle is by far the least productive, as it allows for the greatest degree of subjective interpretation. People tend to see events through their own prisms, and ascribe motives which adhere to pre-existing worldviews. It should therefore be of little surprise that the most vehement promoters of September 11 conspiracy theories often display a palpable animus toward America, Bush, Jews, or capitalism - standard hobgoblins which are invoked to explain each new case of human suffering. As such, arguments attesting to the general goodness of America or the decency of the president's character will do little to coax such people back to the realities of September 11. However, better exposing the biases which drive many "Truthers" should help to fortify the general public against their siren song.
Physical evidence is a far more powerful club to use against the revisionists. The editors of Popular Mechanics should be applauded for their authoritative yet eminently readable new book, Debunking 9/11 Myths. Fleshing out an article published in March 2005, David Dunbar and Brad Reagan compile analyses from scores of experts to systematically dismantle the litany of "evidence" often cited by the conspiracy crowd. Lo and behold, we learn that the impact of the planes and the resultant fires were more than sufficient to bring down the towers (no "controlled demolition" needed here), that damage to the Pentagon was consistent with an aircraft strike (so much for the "missile theory"), and that the passengers on United 93 were indeed capable of using cell phones to collect the information which would ultimately inspire their revolt.
Debunking 9/11 Myths provides a tidy summary of the findings laid out in detail by the report of the 9/11 Commission, as well as by studies on the structural damage to the World Trade Center and Pentagon undertaken by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Together, these resources comprise an invaluable arsenal of facts with which to combat the September 11 rejectionists. They should prove particularly useful among those perennial critics of America who always claim to be impressed by science.
That leaves the question of opportunity. Paging through the many myths debunked by Dunbar and Reagan, one is struck by the massive scale of this purported conspiracy. Regardless of what one chooses to believe about September 11, just about everybody agrees that it could not have been the work of a few shadowy men on a grassy knoll. As such, the most powerful argument against the conspiracy theories may be the one which Benjamin Franklin himself would have offered: the inability of such a large group of people to keep such a terrible secret for such a long period of time.
September 11 conspiracy theories are ultimately undone by the math. How many sets of hands would have been required to preposition demolition charges at the World Trade Center, doing so without detection in one of the most famous and well-trafficked office complexes in the world? How many sets of eyes would have overseen the disposal of American 77 and the subsequent firing of a cruise missile into the Pentagon? How many people would have been involved in the diversion of air defenses, the shoot-down of United 93, and the planting of aircraft debris on the Pentagon lawn? Any reasonable estimate easily places the number of direct conspirators in the hundreds.
Equally troublesome are the legions of indirect conspirators, people who supposedly have intimate knowledge of the "truth" yet play a vital role in suppressing it. Chief among these are the investigators charged with compiling the official history of that dreadful day: the members and staffers of the 9/11 Commission; the engineers at NIST, FEMA, and ASCE; and the myriad journalists who have covered the story for more than half a decade. After all, if the "Truthers" could have figured out "what really happened" using only their laptops and deductive reasoning skills, then surely professional investigators backed by nearly unlimited resources would have reached similar conclusions. Of course, we are asked to believe that those conclusions have been muzzled by the pernicious neocons, Jews, or Haliburton executives.
Yet despite the massive scope of this alleged conspiracy, not a single conspirator has stepped forward to expose the plot: not one technician who placed the demolition charges, not one member of the military who participated in the firing of the cruise missile or the downing of United 93, not one engineer who fudged his or her analysis of the structural damage. The silence of the indirect conspirators is, in many ways, the most deafening of all. While one might argue that those directly involved in the plot would have been liquidated, the people who supposedly cover for their murderous deeds are still very much with us. What could successfully compel every last conspirator to remain silent? Is there not a single person with second thoughts, or pangs of guilt, or an axe to grind?
The possibility of maintaining control over such an extensive conspiracy appears even more risible when one considers the ongoing circus of leaks involving classified government information. During the past year alone, the New York Times and Washington Post have exposed the NSA's terrorist surveillance program, the CIA's overseas detention facilities, the Treasury Department's targeted monitoring of financial transactions, and many more once-secret tools for neutralizing the Islamist agents of death. Not only have these ossified media organs readily obtained classified information from unhappy insiders, but they have also demonstrated little hesitation in publishing it -national security be damned. That said, would the New York Times file away credible leaks from September 11 conspirators? Would its editors and reporters suppress evidence that President Bush oversaw a modern-day version of the Reichstag fire?
The ego factor should also not be discounted. Consider the accolades routinely heaped upon leakers and whistleblowers - as long as they are not Linda Tripp. The anonymous paper-pushers who exposed vital anti-terror programs have been lauded by the media as heroes and patriots, valiantly resisting an allegedly reckless president who treats the Bill of Rights like a bar napkin. Also recall that three whistleblowers credited with exposing corporate malfeasance and the FBI's pre-September 11 bungling were honored as Time Magazine's Persons of the Year in 2002. Add to that the near-coronation of Mark Felt, who recently emerged from the fog to claim the legacy of "Deep Throat," and one is left with a striking question: If the September 11 attacks were a project of the United States government, they why haven't any whistleblowers stepped forward to seize their honored place in history?
In short, September 11 conspiracy theories are proven hollow not only because they fail to stand up to the physical evidence, but also because they violate the laws of human nature. It is difficult to believe that the details of such a massive - and massively evil - plot could remain hidden in a world where Matt Drudge still has an internet connection and Seymour Hersh still has a pulse. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, the conspiracy theorists ask us to believe the impossible: that thousands of people may keep a secret, even if none of them are dead.
Despite their many fallacies, the theories promulgated by Kevin Barrett and company remain a malignant force. Such historical revisionism aims to gradually chip away at our resolve to identify, combat, and ultimately defeat the grave threats now assembled against our country and our civilization. Unfortunately, it is accomplishing just that. The conspiracy theories must therefore be opposed at every turn and with every possible resource - including well-deserved ridicule.
Winning the Long War begins with remembering the events and lessons of September 11. As the Irish novelist and playwright Oliver Goldsmith famously warned, "Don't let us make imaginary evils, when you know we have so many real ones to encounter."
David J. Rusin holds a Ph.D. in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Pennsylvania. His interests include foreign affairs and security policy. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.