Recently I wrote a column that included an offhand comment about how I was pretty sure people who believed the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 terror attacks were pathetic lunatics living in basements, whose Web sites got 10 hits per day. I've since heard from many such people, assuring me that they don't live in basements, that they aren't crazy, and that their Web sites are very popular.
I was also encouraged to check out the "9/11 Truth" movement, for what I was assured was conclusive evidence of an unspeakably evil government plot. Having done so, I've discovered a number of interesting things.
First, the 9/11 Truth movement features a wide variety of claims, ranging from the quite plausible (the government's negligence prior to the attacks was not wholly displeasing to certain members of the Bush administration), to the wildly improbable (the World Trade Center towers were brought down by controlled demolitions), to the certifiably insane.
The latter category includes claims such as that 9/11 was a plot to steal $160 billion in gold buried under the World Trade Center (this theory is put forth in the film Loose Change, which has purportedly sold 100,000 copies); that no airplanes hit the towers (the theory here involves sophisticated holographic imaging equipment); and that the passengers supposedly killed on the four flights hijacked that day were all herded onto United Airlines Flight 93, which landed safely in Cleveland before the passengers were transferred to a top-secret NASA facility.
If you're curious, you can also find plenty of stuff about how it was all really the work of satanists, or an elite secret society that was set up several thousand years ago by space aliens. (A morbidly amusing sidelight to the 9/11 Truth movement is that many of its members have become convinced that other members are either unwitting dupes or conscious agents of the government, who are propagating obviously outlandish theories for the purpose of discrediting the movement as a whole).
Anyway, in a couple of respects my comment was clearly wrong: 9/11 conspiracy theories have gained quite a bit of cultural traction, and they've garnered a number of at least superficially respectable advocates. (This group includes people like former assistant treasury secretary and Wall Street Journal associate editor Paul Craig Roberts, BYU physics professor Steven Jones, and Morgan Reynolds, former chief economist for the Department of Labor).
Indeed, the most noteworthy aspect of the 9/11 Truth movement is its almost complete invisibility in the mainstream media. For example, my own ignorance can be explained by such facts as that, as far as I could discover, The New York Times has run exactly one story that even mentions the movement's central claim: that the World Trade Center towers were brought down by controlled demolition (the story immediately dismissed this as absurd).
Which leads me to suggest a little theory of my own: Suppose that on Sept. 11, 2001, Al Gore had been president. Suppose further that Saddam Hussein had plotted to kill Gore's father. And suppose that from the first days of the Gore administration, plans had been drawn up to invade Iraq. My guess is that, within a few months, some of the less obviously crazy 9/11 Truth types would have found a forum for their theories on The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. The more unhinged advocates would start popping up on Fox News specials with titles such as 9/11: What Really Happened?
In the blogosphere, academics like Glenn Reynolds would post chin-scratching ruminations, demanding a "truly independent investigation of these troubling charges," which would in turn inspire demagogues of the Michelle Malkin variety to screech nonstop about "the biggest cover-up in American history."
All this would bully journalists into writing "balanced" stories about even the nuttiest allegations, in an attempt to counter right-wing charges regarding how "liberal media bias" was keeping such allegations from getting the serious attention they deserved. And eventually 38 percent of the public would believe Al Gore blew up the World Trade Center. How's that for a conspiracy theory?
Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Email to: email@example.com.
© 2006 The EW Scripps Co.