sparked an industry for conspiracies
LONG before the terror strikes of 9/11, St Louis taxi driver George Acosta had his suspicions about the US Government. "I knew something was wrong," Acosta, a third-generation Mexican-American, said this week. "The Government wasn't interested in working for the people any more. They were leaving our borders wide open; they were overheating the economy. I just felt the whole system was corrupt."
Looking for answers, Acosta, 50, did what confused, disaffected Americans often do: he tuned into talk radio. It led him to Texas shockjock Alex Jones, a hot gospeller of the 9/11 conspiracy movement that believes the Bush administration, not deranged Muslim terrorists, planned the terror attacks of five years ago. Acosta became an instant convert.
"When I started listening to Alex Jones it was like a light bulb being turned on inside my head," he says. "The guy is just incredible."
Five years after 9/11, the conspiracy movement is the itch that will not go away. Conceived by Jones before 9/11 had even happened, it has a thriving membership that organises seminars and conferences and uses the internet to trade ideas and peddle self-published books and papers.
The membership is mostly ordinary folk such as Acosta but there are also film stars such as Charlie Sheen and a band of academics known as "the nutty professors" who give an appearance of intellectual and scientific respectability to theories that would otherwise be dismissed as the idiot paranoia of fringe-dwellers. The movement has been encouraged by surprising polling data that shows the US has a long way to travel before it comes to terms with the events of 9/11. A Scripps Howard-Ohio University poll in July found more than one-third of Americans suspect US officials either helped in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop them.
University of Florida law professor Mark Fenster, author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, argues this poll is misleading because the numbers supporting a conspiracy drop sharply when respondents are quizzed on specific scenarios.
So concerned is the US Government about this quintessentially American phenomenon of conspiracy fears that two new reports - one from the US State Department, the other a seven-page fact sheet from the National Institute of Standards and Technology - have been released ahead of the fifth anniversary of 9/11 to debunk the theorists' allegations with established facts.
The most common theory is that the Bush administration planned and executed the 9/11 attacks to justify the invasion of Iraq. This involved explosives being secretly planted in advance at the World Trade Centre that were detonated after the hijacked airliners struck to ensure the twin towers fell.
But there are other, even wackier claims, such as the one that says United Airlines Flight 93 was never hijacked and never crashed in Pennsylvania but was diverted to Cleveland. Another contends the Pentagon was hit not by an airliner but a cruise missile.
Then, way out on the extremist end of the conspiracy spectrum, is Jones, who claims sinister forces in Europe are seeking world domination and have enlisted Western governments, including the Bush administration, in a diabolical plot to curtail freedom.
Normally people who advocate this kind of lunacy are branded nutters or con artists or both, but on July 25, 2001, Jones got lucky when he "predicted" the events of 9/11 on his little-known radio show in Austin, Texas.
Jones told his listeners a large terrorist attack was imminent and the CIA would blame Osama bin Laden. "Call the White House and tell them we know the Government is planning terrorism ... we know the Joint Chiefs of Staff want to blow up airliners," Jones ranted at the time.
When the terrorist strikes came seven weeks later, Jones's career was made. His radio spots and his cable access television show now have a nationwide following and his books and films sell on internet sites such as Infowars.com and PrisonPlanet.com.
If Jones was responsible for spawning 9/11's conspiracy movement, he's no longer its leading light. That dubious honour has passed to the academics, among them University of Minnesota professor emeritus of philosophy James Fetzer and Brigham Young University professor of physics Steven Jones. Fetzer and Jones (who is no relation to Alex Jones) are the co-founders of Scholars for 9/11 Truth, an organisation of more than 300 academics, students and other so-called experts. Of these, 85 allegedly hold current academic affiliations.
While these numbers represent just a fraction of the estimated one million full and part-time employed academics in the US, they are more than enough to fill a list of speakers at 9/11 Truth conferences such as the one in Chicago this year that attracted 500 attendees.
When Steven Jones appears at such events, he is invariably the star attraction. He has conducted scientific research on whether molten metal present at the World Trade Centre site is evidence that thermite, a high-temperature incendiary, was involved in bringing down the towers. Naturally enough, Jones says his investigations confirm thermite was present. As Sheen put it an interview with Alex Jones in March: "Call me insane, but did it sort of look like those buildings came down in a controlled demolition?"
To an untrained eye, maybe, but NIST's 200 technical experts found differently. After reviewing tens of thousands of documents, interviewing more than 1000 people, reviewing 7000 segments of video footage, analysing 236 pieces of steel from the site and performing tests and computer simulations, they found the towers collapsed because the impact of the planes severed and damaged support columns, dislodged fire insulation that coated the steel floor trusses and columns, and dispersed jet fuel over multiple floors that "ignited multi-floor fires which reached temperatures as high as 1000C, weakened the floors and columns with dislodged fireproofing to the point where floors sagged and pulled inward on the perimeter columns".
"This," continues the NIST fact sheet, "led to the inward bowing of the perimeter columns and failure of the south face of WTC 1 and the east face of WTC 2, initiating the collapse of each of the towers. Both photographic and video evidence - as well as accounts from the New York Police Department aviation unit during a half-hour period prior to collapse - support this sequence for each tower."
While Fenster says aspects of the US character can easily give rise to notions of conspiracy - namely an obsession with populist traditions and, ironically enough, a well-developed fear and scepticism about concentrations of power - he says conspiracy movements generally don't last long.
He predicts the 9/11 conspiracy theorists will fade away with the Bush-Cheney administration. "There is a real, deep-seated mistrust of the Bush administration that has been amplified by the war in Iraq and the fallout from Hurricane Katrina and made it a particularly ripe time for conspiracy theories," Fenster says.
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