The CIA couldn't have organised this...
The geopolitical blunders that have followed 9/11 are the best evidence yet that there was no government conspiracy, says Michael Shelden
Michael Shelden | September 8, 2006
Five years after the attack on the World Trade Centre, a group of 75 American academics is claiming that the truth about 9/11 has been covered up. The leader of the group - Steven E Jones, a physics professor at a university in Utah - has studied debris from the disaster and concluded that explosives were used to bring down the towers.
A group of US academics believe that there was a conspiracy to blow up the Twin Towers in the hope of gaining public support for a war in the Middle East
"We are investigating the possibility of thermite-based arson and demolition," he told the New York Times last week.
According to Professor Jones, the burning jet fuel from the two airliners that crashed into the buildings could not have generated enough heat to cause the structures to collapse. He suggests that explosives were deliberately placed at strategic points in both towers and were detonated after the planes hit the buildings.
"The planes were just a distraction," says James Fetzer, a retired professor at the University of Minnesota. "The evidence is so overwhelming, but most Americans don't have time to take a look at this."
Jones and his academic supporters - who call themselves 9/11 Scholars for Truth - believe that a shadowy group of neoconservatives knew of the attack in advance and conspired with the CIA to level the towers in hopes of gaining widespread public support for a war in the Middle East.
"We don't believe that 19 hijackers and a few others in a cave in Afghanistan pulled this off acting alone," says Jones. "We challenge this official conspiracy theory and, by God, we're going to get to the bottom of this."
Of course, this is not the first time such a conspiracy theory has been put forward. Most have been dismissed but many in the American media appear to be taking these claims more seriously. Clearly, none of the journalists concerned was present at the seminars Jones gave last month at his Mormon university - Brigham Young, in Provo, Utah - where he aired some of his other favourite ideas.
Jones is convinced, for example, that Jesus was wandering through ancient Mexico around AD 600, paying calls on various Mayan villagers. He has published "evidence" that the Mayans were well aware of the "resurrected Lord" centuries before the Spanish priests crossed the Atlantic and gave them the Good News.
And, for the past 10 years, Professor Jones has also been trying to sell Third World countries a solar funnel cooker based on the highly disputed scientific theory of cold fusion.
The cooker doesn't appear to have caught on. But Jones is having much better luck with his 9/11 conspiracy theories. A poll conducted by Ohio University in July revealed that more than a third of the American public believes that the federal government assisted in the World Trade Centre attacks or took no action to stop them.
When told of these findings, Lee Hamilton - the former vice chairman of America's 9/11 Commission - said he wasn't surprised. "A lot of people I've encountered believe the US government was involved. Many say the government planned the whole thing. Of course, we don't think the evidence leads that way at all."
So why is it that millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic who would scoff at Jones's theory of a Mayan Christ or pass on his offer of a solar cooker are more than happy to embrace his vague, unsupported charges of a vast conspiracy?
The Ohio University poll provides one clue. It found that the people who were most likely to believe in the 9/11 conspiracies were those who "regularly use the internet but who do not regularly use ''mainstream" media". Alone in a darkened room with paranoid cyber-friends as your only company, you can easily begin to entertain all sorts of bizarre notions, especially when trying to make sense of an event as grotesque as the collapse of two skyscrapers.
And, after five years of seeing the event constantly replayed, many people have obviously become detached from the reality of the terror, and are ripe for imagining that it is a kind of computer-generated spectacle engineered by a fiendish team of Dr Strangeloves.
But what about those other professors supporting Jones's cause? Surely, they can't all be misguided. In such a large group of "leading academics" - as one newspaper called them - there must be a few who have solid proof of a conspiracy.
Don't bet on it. Most of them aren't scientists but instructors in the liberal arts at second-rate colleges who have spent much of their careers tilting at various windmills. Professor James Fetzer of Minnesota, for example, thinks that JFK was killed by several shooters and that the moon landing in 1969 may have been a hoax.
When he appeared with Jones at a conference in Chicago during the summer, he suggested that Americans arm themselves and give their support to a military coup.
"There actually was one weekend," he told his audience, "where I said to myself, my God, it's going to happen this weekend, and I'm going to wake up and they will have taken these guys off in chains."
Like the Holocaust, the tragedy of 9/11 is such an incomprehensible tragedy that it was bound to lead some people into denying the obvious. But the Bush administration has inadvertently given Jones and his followers encouragement by doing so much of its work in secret and by giving the public so many false stories. The paranoia of one group has been fed by the arrogance of the other.
It is going to take much more than five years for some real scholars to understand what happened on 9/11 and to explain what it meant. But one thing seems clear now - almost everyone in power over-reacted at the start. The exaggerations began with the initial reports of casualties, which were initially estimated to be as high as 20,000 dead.
All of civil aviation in a country 3,000 miles wide was shut down for days because four planes were hijacked in a small corner of the north-east. Armed soldiers patrolled the airports and dozens of innocent terrorist "suspects" were imprisoned without charge. Most ridiculous of all, rumours were spread that Iraq was sitting on a pile of nuclear and chemical weapons to be launched in the next wave of terrorism.
Both Republicans and Democrats were caught up in this hysteria. They all thought the sky was falling and panicked, lashing out mindlessly at enemies real and imagined. Both Bush and the Clintons beat the drums warning of WMD.
The President and Congress wanted to launch an invasion in the Middle East, but not because they had planned it that way. It was just that nobody was going to be satisfied until this 21st-century Pearl Harbor was avenged with an old-style victory over an enemy state.
It was the Second World War all over again, with Saddam Hussein standing in as Hitler and Bush trying to play the part of a Navy fighter pilot like his dad.
The most persuasive argument against a conspiracy is the profound incompetence that subsequent events have revealed at every level among the supposed conspirators. The same people who are making a mess of Iraq were never so clever or devious that they could stage a complex assault on two narrow towers of steel and glass tucked alongside the Hudson River.
That was a job for desperate men with nothing to lose and a goal that was clear and simple. The quiet student of architecture and engineering - Muhammad Atta - figured out that the best way to bring down the towers was not by targeting the base, but by undermining the vulnerable top.
And he concluded that the best way to hijack a commercial jet was to strike behind the cover of the curtain dividing first class from economy. Such wicked plans were stunning in their basic utility.
Yet the simplicity and single-mindedness of the terrorists - who keep focusing relentlessly on transport - has produced such confusion in the West that all the potential targets are still relatively insecure, and the least significant battleground in the fight - Iraq - is swarming with the troops and high-tech weapons needed elsewhere.
If there is a nefarious plot in all this bad planning, it is one improvised by a confederacy of dunces. A five-year war is a high price to pay for the failure to stop 19 men hijacking four planes on a sunny day in September.
# Michael Shelden is professor of English at Indiana State University