Skepticism

20 Years of 9/11 “Truther” Conspiracy Theories

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Well, it’s been 20 years since terrorists hijacked some commercial airliners and crashed them into things, and what a 20 years it’s been! I was 20 years old and living in Boston. I woke up every morning to Howard Stern, and I was listening to him when he said there were reports that something had hit the World Trade Center. I got out of bed and turned on the news, which eventually started running a live feed, which is how I got to see the second plane hit live. My boyfriend at the time had come into the room and was watching and said “is this a replay of the plane hitting?” And I said “Uhhhhhhhhhhh I think we just watched a lot of people die live on television.” I don’t remember the Challenger disaster when I was 5 years old, so that was a new one for me.

It was scarring, I’ll be honest. I went to class that day and there was a girl on a cell phone in the hallway just sobbing. Everyone walked around like zombies. The next week was full of false alarms. Sirens everywhere. Bomb units everywhere. It sucked, and then in a way it got worse because George W. Bush started pushing for war, and the number of people in favor of it was astounding. I wasn’t even as progressive back then as I was now — in fact, that might have been the big thing that pushed me left, as I saw all these “liberals” just going along with it, absolutely frothing at the mouth for war. At first I was like “yes, this requires a response, we probably SHOULD go to war with Saudi Arabia” but then it was like “wait…Iraq? Afghanistan?”

So around the end of 2002 I started marching against the war. By this time I had moved from Boston to Seattle, and made a bunch of hippie friends. And among them I noticed a few people who didn’t just think the wars were unnecessary power grabs, but who also thought that George W. Bush somehow “did” 9/11. There didn’t seem to be one coherent explanation — some people thought that the Bush administration was warned of the attacks and decided to do nothing; some thought the administration actually arranged for Al Qaeda to attack; and as years went on, I learned that many people thought the World Trade Center had been brought down with explosives. “But we SAW the second plane hit!” Doesn’t matter. It wasn’t real, or it was but needed extra help to bring down the towers — just loads of various “theories,” some of which were mutually exclusive but believed altogether just the same.

By the time I joined the skeptic community in 2004, “9/11 Trutherism” was a full-blown movement that had critical thinkers and scientists scrambling to explain things like “jet fuel doesn’t have to melt steel to weaken it and make a building collapse” over and over and over and over again, in newspapers and magazines and Congress and talking head news shows. They were still at it 13 years later when the National September 11 Memorial & Museum opened, handing out little pamphlets that insisted there was more to the story. At that point I think I just assume this would be like the JFK assassination, in that it was going to persist for decades and people would vaguely assume there must be “something” to the rumor.

But 9/11 took place in a different world than JFK. One year after 9/11 Truthers protested the opening of the 9/11 museum, a teenager did this while learning about the event in history class. That Vine went viral, and it’s not because other young people thought it was true that Bush did 9/11 — it went viral because they thought the conspiracy theory was funny. Because it’s stupid. Back in 2015 Laura Hess documented the meme-ing of 9/11 over on Slate — teens who weren’t old enough to remember the attacks weren’t mocking the victims (though plenty of people have done that, too), but the conspiracy theorists who spread completely bonkers ideas about 9/11. She ended by pointing out that the “Bush did 9/11” memes were probably nearly dead because they had moved from Vine to Facebook, where memes go to die.

In fact, the jokes are still landing six years later. Last month George W. Bush posted a video of Trump Tower shot from a plane, sending Twitter into a full on “I’ll fucking do it again” meltdown.

Like Hess, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Mocking the victims would be immoral, but in this case there are two targets: George W. Bush and 9/11 conspiracy theorists. I know that Bush didn’t orchestrate 9/11, but there is compelling evidence that his administration was irresponsible in understanding and mitigating the known threat that Al Qaeda posed, as detailed in the findings of the 9/11 Commission Report. So did Bush “do” 9/11? No. But is it just deserts if he’s remembered for being largely responsible for it? Kind of!

And then we have the conspiracy theorists. I’ve long believed that there is a huge danger to the 9/11 conspiracy theory achieving popular support because it would hinder Americans from actually understanding the disastrous foreign policy that led to that horrific event. You can say “Never Forget” all you want, but there’s nothing to be gained by remembering that terrorists killed 3,000 people on September 11, 2001 without also remembering (and understanding) why they did it, how they did it, why the Bush Administration responded by invading Iraq and Afghanistan, why “liberals” supported that, and what the long term impact of that decision is.

And that’s why I supported the scientists and skeptics who actively fought 9/11 misinformation like “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.” All we could really do at the time was offer the facts. The 9/11 Commission Report helped, because it was specifically written to be as thorough as possible to take the air out of burgeoning conspiracy theories. As one commission member said at the time, “It is extremely difficult to dislodge or anticipate conspiracy theories once they start.”

9/11 Truthers even had their own “Plandemic” in the form of a video called “Loose Change” that became wildly popular in 2004, leading to skeptics like Mark Roberts going on news shows to debate the chucklefucks who made it to show that they had absolutely no idea what they were saying.

Despite our best efforts, the Truthers have managed to persist and to sow enough doubt that regular people aren’t totally sure. A 2010 survey found that 15% of respondents thought it was “credible” that the towers were brought down in a controlled demolition, and another 10% weren’t sure. In 2016 a survey of 1,500 American adults found that 54% thought the US government is hiding information about 9/11. And a 2019 survey found that 23% of respondents believed 9/11 “was an inside job.”

Now in 2021 Spike Lee has produced a docuseries about 9/11 which attracted a lot of acclaim but a wee bit of controversy due to his final episode featuring a 30-minute segment with “Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth,” a group of conspiracy theorists who think the towers were brought down by controlled demolition. This came out just before the series debuted thanks to a New York Times profile of Lee. After outrage on the part of scientists, historians, and critical thinkers, Lee went back to the editing room and cut that out. He left in footage of someone suggesting that Flight 93, which crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, was purposely shot down. We know that it crashed thanks to the heroic efforts of the passengers on board, all of whom died in the effort, because the black box recordings contained a detailed account of the absolutely terrifying ordeal they went through, but hey, why not drop in a random completely unfounded conspiracy theory into your documentary?

It’s horrifying that someone with as big a platform as Spike Lee was ready to spread these stupid claims a full twenty years after they first sprung up, and nearly as long since they had been thoroughly debunked. Confronting conspiracy theories with facts wasn’t enough to stop them from proliferating — something to keep in mind as we continue to fight Q-Anon and COVID stupidity today. Facts aren’t enough, but maybe outright mockery is the key.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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2 Comments

  1. In September 1940, William L. Shirer, then a correspondent for CBS in Berlin, noted that the general public STILL believed that the war had started when Poland invaded Germany.

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