[I wrote this article two years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was originally published in The Skeptic magazine.]
On the morning of September 11th, 2011, New York City solemnly remembered the thousands of people who lost their lives in the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks of ten years ago. At the newly completed memorial where the Twin Towers once stood in Lower Manhattan, the names of the 2,977 people who died in the towers, the Pentagon, and on the hijacked airplanes were read by family members and friends. Their voices reverberated for blocks around the subdued streets of the financial district.
But two blocks from the Ground Zero memorial, opposite the peace-ribbon-covered railings of St. Paul’s Chapel at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street, the victims’ names were drowned out by a general rabble punctuated by chants of “controlled demolition, 9-11” and “three buildings, two planes”. Here dozens of people were gathered wearing identical black t-shirts with the logo ‘9/11 was an inside job!’ and armed with placards, banners, fliers and DVDs to give to strangers. Many passers-by stopped to listen to the chants and rhetoric of the ‘Truthers’, to start conversations or arguments with them, or simply to take pictures and videos of the curious gathering with camera phones.
These street-rallies have become an annual occurrence, an uninvited guest accompanying the official 9/11 memorial events each year, distracting from the real grief and pain still felt by many New Yorkers. This year may have been their strongest showing yet. Many of the ‘Truthers’ had travelled from other parts of the U.S.; some had flown in from overseas just to be part of the demonstration. After ten years the 9/11 conspiracist movement is perhaps stronger than ever. Yet ten years of extensive investigations have not produced a single scrap of credible evidence to back up the conspiracist claims; no verified traces of explosives in either the Twin Towers or WTC 7, no evidence that Bin Laden or other members of al-Qaeda were employees of the C.I.A., no evidence of any member of the U.S. government conspiring to bring about the events which unfolded. By now we can be reasonably sure that the conspiracy theories are not true. Yet the theorists continue to make a lot of noise and garner popular support.
The conspiracist worldview paints the world in black and white terms – the valiant and righteous conspiracy theorists battling against the monolithic and psychotically evil conspiracy. But reality is shades of grey. While the U.S. government is probably not the perpetrator of an evil conspiracy, neither is it blameless. There were things that could and should have been done differently leading up to 9/11. We know, for instance, that the C.I.A. had intelligence that two of the hijackers were living in the U.S for months before the attacks. The F.B.I. would have had the authority to investigate the men if they knew of their presence on U.S. soil. One C.I.A. agent repeatedly emailed his superiors specifically requesting permission to pass this information on to the F.B.I. His emails went unanswered.
The problem was not conspiracy within the government, but incompetence. Endemic lack of inter-agency communication – failure to divulge information to those who most needed it – rendered everyone blind to the clear and present danger right in front of their eyes, and meant that essential actions which could have thwarted the plans were not taken. Mistakes were made, and by calling attention to them we may be able to prevent the same mistakes from being made in the future. However, according to those in the know, the network of U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies is now more complex and convoluted than ever, with ever-increasing levels of bureaucracy and redundancy. These real issues receive much less attention from the public than the conspiracy theories.
By painting over the grey areas of reality and making scapegoats of imagined conspirators, conspiracy theories distract attention from real and potentially rectifiable issues. We can’t combat a conspiracy which doesn’t exist, but we can force those in charge to learn from their mistakes.
September 12th, 2011