The Catholic Church Welcomes a Holocaust Denier

I knew the Catholics were having trouble finding enough people to be clergy, but I didn't think things had gotten this bad (HT: Pam's House Blend):

I believe that the historical evidence — the historical evidence — is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolph Hitler... I believe there were no gas chambers.

Those are some choice words from Richard Williamson, one of four bishops excommunicated 20 years ago after being appointed by the breakaway archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and whose excommunication Pope Benedict has now lifted. Here are some other viewpoints of Williamson's. First, there's the ever-popular "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" meme:

By lies, Judeo-Masonry brought about the first two World Wars... By lies, Judeo-Masonry is preparing for the Third World War. (source)

He says that homosexuality naturally evokes a "violent repugnance", that homosexual behavior is a sin "crying to Heaven for vengeance", and favors us with the following quote, which I swear I'm not making up:

"Oh, but Our Lord had chawity, (unlike thumwun we know who wath tho nathty to Pwintheth Di!). Our Lord loved thinnerth, and faggotth, and tho thould we!!" So runs the objection! (source)

Predictably, he thinks that women should not receive higher education:

...because of all kinds of natural reasons, almost no girl should go to any university!

The deep-down reason is the same as for the wrongness of women's trousers [yes, he's also against those —Ebonmuse]: the unwomaning of woman. The deep-down cause in both cases is that Revolutionary man has betrayed modern woman; since she is not respected and loved for being a woman, she tries to make herself a man. Since modern man does not want her to do what God meant her to do, namely to have children, she takes her revenge by invading all kinds of things that man is meant to do. (source)

And just for good measure, how about throwing in some 9/11 conspiracy lunacy as well?

None of you believe that 9-11 is what it was presented to be. It was, of course, the two towers came down, but it was absolutely for certain not two airplanes which brought down those two towers. They were professionally demolished by a series of demolition charges from top to bottom of the towers. (source)

Make no mistake about it: By personally lifting this man's excommunication and welcoming him back into the fold, Benedict has sent an unmistakable message that he, and by extension the entire Catholic church, condones sentiments like this. His decision signals that these views are acceptable ones for a Catholic bishop to have. (Meanwhile, Catholics who believe that women should be ordained or that being gay is not a sin continue to be persona non grata to the leadership.)

Based on decisions like this one, it appears that whatever progress was achieved by John Paul II, this pope intends to roll it all back and then some. Even as the world advances, Benedict is deliberately moving the church backwards, as if intending to position it as a bulwark against modernity. And if that's what he wants, so be it. Nothing could better support the atheist contention that the Catholic church is an archaic and obsolete institution.

As parishes shrink and the church fades, ultraconservatives like Benedict are bent on accelerating the decline, by promoting the attitudes that have led to so many people leaving in the first place. They may well wind up presiding over a tiny and hardened remnant, one that matches their medieval vision but is otherwise irrelevant, as the rest of the world progresses in its moral outlook and ultimately leaves them behind.

January 29, 2009, 8:16 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink45 comments

Popular Delusions XI: Satanic Ritual Abuse

One of the surest marks of a pseudoscience is that it stays forever the same, never altering its claims, even as the world changes around it and revolutions in our knowledge come and go. While science evolves over time, with theories becoming refined to more closely track the truth, popular delusions stay the same through the centuries, at most changing their outer robes to match the spirit of the times.

I wrote about this in a past entry in this series, in which the demonic succubi and incubi that were once imagined to haunt sleepers become, in the modern era, gray-skinned alien abductors. Today's post concerns a different topic, and one that has likewise seen its manifestation mutate over the ages: the hysteria of alleged Satanic cults that subject children to horrific sexual abuse and violence. Some people claim to have been victims of these cults; some even claim to be ex-members. As always, Jack Chick provides a handy example of what a large number of Christians and other theists still actually believe.

But, as I said, many popular delusions update their outer trappings to match the times. This is also true of Satanic cult beliefs, which in modern times have taken on the form of secret conspiracies of pedophiles gathering to prey on children. The most infamous example is the 1980s McMartin case, in which a California family who owned a preschool were accused of hundreds of counts of sexual abuse of the children under their care. After a six-year trial and the expenditure of millions of dollars by the prosecution, the case ended without a single conviction. (This story was dramatized in the movie Indictment.)

The McMartin case in particular began with the allegations of one woman, later revealed to be mentally ill, who alleged that her son had been sexually abused by one of the teachers at the preschool. Taking her at her word, the police began a dragnet investigation that culminated with hundreds of children being interviewed by a California clinic, the Children's Institute International. The CII therapists took the approach that abuse was certain and the only obstacle was getting the children to admit it. Under their guidance, children were peppered with leading questions; the therapists described what they thought had happened ("I know that the kids were touched") and pressured the children to agree. When children denied those claims, they were told, "You better not play dumb", or "I don't want to hear any more 'no's", and informed that many of their classmates had already told the truth. When they gave in, they were rewarded. Despite the bizarre nature of the allegations that emerged from this technique (sex with movie stars, sexual abuse taking place in hot-air balloons, one of the alleged abusers killing a giraffe in front of them), these videotaped "confessions" were presented as evidence at trial. It has since been discovered, and is now widely known, that leading questions and high-pressure interviews such as this can readily generate false memories and false confessions, even in adults, and much more so in suggestible children.

Most Satanic panics, including the McMartin case, share the attribute of extremely implausible allegations for which no physical evidence is presented. The scope of the imagined conspiracies is inevitably vast, with estimates ranging from 50,000 to an astonishing two million murders by Satanic cults in the U.S. each year. (As that article notes, the higher estimate would mean that the annual death rate from Satanic cults surpasses the number of U.S. deaths in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.) Abuse and crime on such a massive scale should be easy to demonstrate, and yet no undisputed Satanic cult has ever been broken up and prosecuted, no physical evidence of such astonishing allegations ever presented. As with other conspiracy theories, the absence of evidence is taken by true believers to simply be further confirmation of the conspiracy's scope and power, even though the idea of such a massive cover-up being successful does violence to everything we know about human psychology.

What Satanic panics show, more than anything else, is the malleability of memory. In matters as important as this, we cannot rely solely on testimonial evidence: human beings are far too prone to tell untruths, to confabulate, and to unwittingly encourage others to do the same. The problem of sexual predators that molest children is very real, and all too common. But the idea of organized, underground cabals of devil-worshippers gathering to practice diabolical rites on innocents is a hysterical fantasy, nothing more. This kind of irrational overreaction only ensures that innocents will be unjustly swept up in dragnets of overzealous law enforcement, rather than targeting our legal resources where they are most needed to take on genuine predators.

Other posts in this series:

November 2, 2008, 12:09 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink41 comments

The 40th Skeptics' Circle

The doors of the Observatory are closed, and an eager crowd has gathered before them, milling about anxiously to await the unveiling of the newest Skeptics' Circle. Your host, Ebonmuse, steps up to a podium beside the doors and addresses the crowd thusly:

"Step right up, folks, to the Daylight Atheism Museum of Superstition and Pseudoscience! Dare to plumb the most bizarre depths of the human imagination! Marvel at the fascinating beliefs cultures throughout history have dreamed up to explain the world around them! We have a stupendous and spine-tingling assortment of strange and wild ideas for your edification and amusement. You'll laugh at their gullibility, you'll learn from their mistakes, and just maybe, you'll learn something about how your own brain works. Admission two for a penny - who'll be first to dare the weirdness within?"

He sweeps a hand dramatically toward the doors, which open onto a wild scene. The great telescope has been stowed away, and the vast domed room instead contains a madcap menagerie of trophies and exhibits that showcase the follies of humanity throughout history. Beneath the high ceiling, an elaborate orrery contains detailed models of the planets of the solar system encased in a set of interlocking crystalline Platonic solids. Animals crowd the decks of a scale model of Noah's Ark at the far end of the room, and putative Philosophers' Stones are scattered on pedestals, misshapen lumps some of which glow with their own inner light. Ancient statues of minotaurs, centaurs, mermaids and other fantastic beasts glare down on the exhibits in frozen stone.

Your host leads the tour group into the museum. "First, we have the Alternative Medicine wing - a durable field that's spawned all sorts of strange ideas. Just look at this authentic ancient Chinese acupuncture needle. Taking a cue from a classic pseudoscience, modern practitioners believe that sticking needles into people, and even into animals, can cure diseases by diverting the flow of an imaginary energy called qi! Skeptico sets them straight, in an essay titled No point to acupuncture on animals."

The next exhibit is a collection of hypodermic needles. "So like the acupuncture needle and yet so dissimilar, this one differs from the last exhibit in that it has actually cured people of suffering and disease. Sadly, some people reject the benefits of modern medicine in favor of ineffective quackery. Autism Street, in An Old New Twist on Undead Bad Science?, debunks a study claiming to detect correlation between autism and heavy metal levels in children's hair."

The tour's next stop is before an apparently empty glass case. "This case may seem empty, folks, but in fact, it contains the scientific integrity of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. They weren't using it, you see, so they've generously agreed to donate it as a permanent bequest to our museum. P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula gives us the full story in Damn the NCCAM."

Before a flourishing tray of deadly nightshade, poison ivy and hemlock, Ebonmuse continues, "And let's not forget, folks, that 'natural' medicine has been held out for ages as the cure to all ailments, as if the products of nature were somehow intrinsically better for you than the products of science. The Saga of Runolfr casts a critical eye on claims that consuming raw honey will cure pollen allergies, in The Cure for Allergies? And for a classic example of how 'natural' products can still be harmful, what could be more natural than HIV? A Moment of Science, in Skepticism Run Amok, an Appropriate Level of Skepticism in Evaluating HIV/AIDS Causation, asks why, if HIV does not cause AIDS, anti-retroviral drugs developed specifically to combat HIV are effective in extending AIDS patients' lifespans.

Our next exhibit, as you can see, is a single glass of ultra-pure distilled water. If the claims of homeopaths were correct, this would be the most powerful medicine known to man! The Two Percent Company informs us of the remarkable range of ailments that homeopaths claim to be able to treat with a single herb, in You Might Need Arnica Montana.

And finally, we have this table of assorted old-fashioned medical instruments - best not to ask what most of them do. The skeptical grandmaster Orac of Respectful Insolence is never one to shrink from the details, however, and gives us not one but two Friday Doses of Woo: Mere regularity is not enough and the appetizingly titled Would you like a liver flush with that colon cleanse?

Our next stop is the Psychics and ESP wing, another reliable source of uncritical thinking. The Island of Doubt, in The sense of being stared at ...not, registers disappointment that his alma mater, the University of British Columbia, is giving a platform to the notorious credulophile Rupert Sheldrake and his claims that people can psychically detect when they're being stared at.

Next, Skeptico again favors us in Medium guesses about serial killer, pouring rightful scorn on the vagueness and after-the-fact rationalizations of Allison Dubois.

And lastly, See You at Enceladus spins a tale of The Beirut Syndrome or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Credulity, about psychics who claim to have predicted the current warfare in Lebanon."

Beneath a gallery of faded and tattered documents, Ebonmuse continues, "History is the noble art of unearthing the past. Yet this genuine science, too, attracts the hoary speculations of the gullible. What we need is some skepticism to root them out, and thanks to several generous donations to this museum, we have it! The Second Sight, in Giant UFO Built Yowie Pyramids of Bullshit, offers sharp criticism of the true believers who are convinced of the existence of ancient contacts between pharaonic Egypt and aboriginal Australia; while Be Lambic or Green throws down the gauntlet against claims that Christopher Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci were the first Europeans to catch sight of the New World, in Rediscovering America."

As the tour takes another turn, the parchments and scrolls on display grow more ancient and venerable, and the sound of distant chanting echoes in the air. "That's right, ladies and gentlemen," your host announces, "we've come to that most sacred of all cows: religion. In Render unto Caesar [nothing], Infophilia analyzes the meaning of the biblical verse 'Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's,' concluding that it does not necessarily mean what it has always been construed to mean.

We also have an exhibit courtesy of Debunking Christianity that is titled Which Part Fits in Which Slot, Again?, remarking on the difference between natural events and miracles and the inconsistency with which Christian apologists invoke both categories. In a related vein, The Philosophy of the Socratic Gadfly asks whether 'ineffable' is a meaningful and useful term to use in arguments over the existence of God.

Atheist author Sam Harris has been making waves with his book The End of Faith, reviewed by Fearless Philosophy for Free Minds."

The last stop in this section, incongruously, showcases a Bible next to a vacuum cleaner. "But the comparison is more apt than you might think, as Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant explains in Jesus' Lubricant, which compares religious proselytizers to salesmen who steer every conversation into a pitch for their product.

After all this credulity, you must be hungry for some real science, my fellow skeptics. Luckily for you, we have exhibits on that too." He points upward, to where several smaller, less regular bodies orbit among the planetary models hanging below the ceiling. "What constitutes a planet? Interesting Thing of the Day gives a skeptical viewpoint in Xena: Troublemaker on the edge of the solar system.

In that vein, Humbug Online reenacts the Moon landing in the conspiracy theorists' preferred style, in Spooked911 Moon landing faked!

While we're on the topic, I'm particularly honored by the presence of our next benefactor: the illustrious Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy Blog. In Bad TV on the Science Channel: The Apollo 11 "UFO", the foe of bad astronomy everywhere mercilessly debunks a credulous and dishonest documentary which asserts that the Apollo 11 astronauts witnessed a UFO.

And isn't our Earth one planet among many? Deltoid and Thoughts from Kansas keep us up-to-date with the goings-on of this blue and green orb - with a refutation of the myth that environmentalists caused needless deaths by unconditionally opposing the use of DDT, in Zombie DDT Myth Will Not Die, and some good news for science from a recent slate of elections, in Final tallies: Science wins in Kansas.

A major part of science is critical thinking. In Doggerel #30: "You Need to Think Outside the Box!", Rockstar's Ramblings rants about claims that skeptics don't "think outside the box", pointing out that true believers are actually the ones whose thoughts are limited by their jumping to magic as the first explanation for everything.

And when it comes to understanding science," your host continues, "nothing is more important than educating the younger generation. Agnostic Mom has an account of one mother's plan to do just that, in An Accurate Guess Is Still Just A Guess."

As the tour nears its end, the tour group passes through a set of doors into a back room. "We have a special treat for you all today, one not open to ordinary visitors - a tour of our archived collections, the interesting material that just didn't fit anywhere else. For example, Salto Sobrius has donated an exhibit on the skeptical leanings of a classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy author, in Fritz Leiber, Skeptic.

And then there's Millard Fillmore's Bathtub, who debunks the religious mythology that has grown up around flag-folding ceremonies, in Flag ceremony update.

And last but not least, Unintelligent Design laments the credulous leanings of Alton Brown, host of the Food Network TV show "Good Eats", in Alton Say It Ain't So!"

Following a sign reading "This Way to the Egress", the tour lets out before the museum's front doors. Ebonmuse addresses the group one final time. "Thank you for attending, fellow skeptics and critical thinkers! It's been my honor to play host to you all, and I'd like to extend my special gratitude to the many excellent bloggers who generously contributed to this exhibit. Don't forget, the next Skeptics' Circle will appear at Interverbal in two weeks, so get those submissions in!"

August 3, 2006, 8:28 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink52 comments

Loose Marbles III

Shanksville / Flight 93

The last of the four planes hijacked on 9/11 was Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after the passengers apparently attempted to storm the cockpit and regain control of the plane. Here it is somewhat difficult to tell what the filmmakers' hypothesis is, other than their certainty that Flight 93 did not crash in Pennsylvania as reported.

The film extensively cites a video clip from 9/11 where a reporter from a local Fox affiliate at the Shanksville crash site said that there was no smoke, fire or large pieces, and "nothing you could distinguish" as part of a plane. The local coroner, Wally Miller, is quoted as saying, "It looked like someone took a scrap truck, dug a 10-foot ditch and dumped trash into it... there were no bodies there." The film's narrator claims that "an entire plane, along with its passengers, disappeared on impact".

In contrast to these selectively chosen reports, witnesses on the scene in Shanksville saw large, recognizable pieces of Flight 93, and there are photographs of airplane debris and passengers' personal effects recovered from the crash site (source, photos). The black box was also found (source). So were human remains (source), although not intact bodies, as might have been expected owing to the violence of the crash. If the filmmakers think this evidence is not what should be expected, it is up to them to argue that, not merely to present sinister-sounding out-of-context quotes and leave them hanging in the air.

"At 11:43 on September 11, WCPO, a local TV station in Cincinnati, Ohio, reported that two planes landed at Cleveland Hopkins Airport due to a bomb threat. United Airlines identified one of the planes as Flight 93."

This is the claim upon which most of this section rests, and it is incredible what an elaborate structure the filmmakers build up out of such flimsy evidence. This entire detailed assertion is based on one single AP news report that was acknowledged to be mistaken and withdrawn the same morning (source) - hardly an improbable event, given the chaos and confusion that reigned at the time. It was Delta Flight 1989, not United 93, that landed in Ohio. The filmmakers go on to list the original and the corrected report side by side as if they referred to two separate planes, not one and the same event. The amount of actual evidence they present to shore up this truly bizarre claim is nil.

This is a tactic that was also used in the previous part. As before, most of the film's conspiracy allegations are supported by news reports from the morning of September 11 - the exact time period when confusion was most rampant and mistakes and errors were most likely. From this chaos of erroneous and confused reports, the filmmakers have selectively extracted a few unrelated pieces and woven them together into a vast and sinister web of conspiracy. Essentially, they are attempting to find signal in noise.

"We can assume that the passengers from Delta 1989 are safe somewhere. The question remains, what happened to the 200 or so passengers from Flight 93?"

A very good question, which, again, the film never attempts to answer. Taking the conspiracy mindset, it is safe to assume that these people, if their plane did not crash in Shanksville, would have to be killed in cold blood by government agents to prevent them from appearing alive at a later time and ruining the entire conspiracy. But why would a conspiracy so ruthless not just actually put them on a plane and actually crash that plane? What would be the point of... doing whatever it was they did in Shanksville? (Something happened there. Do the conspiracy-mongers seriously believe that the conspirators literally dug a ditch at the site and dumped in a pile of scrap metal, while at the same time going to enormous effort and secrecy to dispose of the real plane some other way? For truth's sake, why?) As with Part I, the claims put forth in this section of the film are examples of the unexplained sinister assertion on a truly grand scale.

Other Issues

The film challenges the 9/11 Commission's conclusion that the black boxes from the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center were not found, although the passport of one of the hijackers, Satan al-Suqami, was found on the streets of Manhattan. "So, four different black boxes, made from the most resilient materials known to man, were destroyed. Yet a passport, made from... paper, managed to survive? Who writes this stuff?"

A moment's thought would reveal why this is not surprising. The black boxes on these two planes, being heavy and massive, were carried straight into the heart of the crash and the subsequent utter collapse of the towers. On the other hand, a flimsy paper passport could easily have been blown clear by the initial explosion and fluttered safely down to the streets. (Of course, if no personal effects of the hijackers were found, the filmmakers would no doubt be crowing about that fact as surefire proof of a cover-up. One cannot win against conspiracy logic.) Other fragile items such as seat cushions were likewise thrown clear of the collapse (photos).

"FBI Director Robert Mueller said that Flight 77's... [cockpit] voice recorder contained nothing useful."

What would count as "useful" in this context? There is not a shadow of reasonable doubt that Flight 77 was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. It is unclear what other information the cockpit voice data recorder would provide that would be of help. (Again, one cannot win against conspiracy logic. If the FBI had said that the cockpit voice recorder contained detailed transcripts of the hijackers discussing their suicide mission, would the filmmakers not just sarcastically ask, "Who writes this stuff?")

The film acknowledges that Flight 93's cockpit voice recorder was recovered from the crash site, while declining to speculate on how this affects their hypothesis that the plane did not crash but rather landed safely in Ohio. "For some reason, the last three minutes of the tape was unaccounted for."

Again, the unexplained sinister assertion is brought into play. If LC is correct, this record has to be a fake, so what would be the point of manufacturing a fake and leaving out the last three minutes? (Again we see how conspiracy logic is unfalsifiable. When evidence favoring the standard explanation is found, as with the passport, that supports the conspiracy theory; when evidence is not found, as with the cockpit recorder, that supports the conspiracy theory as well.)

"It's an interesting postscript that Flight 93 was spotted on April 10, 2003 at Chicago's O'Hare airport by David Friedman, a United Airlines employee... The tail number, N591UA, was spotted on Flight 1111, a United Airlines 757."

It is unclear why we should not consider this report a simple mistake, or the reuse of a number - unless we are to believe that the conspiracy decided to reuse the plane it tried to pass off as destroyed (evidently, this is a very budget-conscious conspiracy), and then neglected to repaint the tail number.

"According to the FAA, both N591UA and N612UA, Flights 93 and 175, are still valid, but Flights 11 and 77 are listed as destroyed."

Are we really supposed to see sinister significance in a bureaucratic error? Or are the filmmakers now claiming that Flight 175 did not crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center, as they previously acknowledged, and that the massive conspiracy behind this whole affair gave the game away by neglecting to alter the public records in this most trivial and obvious of ways?

We next move to the cell-phone calls made from the hijacked planes. The film asserts that these calls are "extremely peculiar", most consisting of only a few sentences, as if passengers on a plane hijacked by terrorists would have time for a lengthy chat.

Flight attendant Betty Ong placed a call from Flight 11. The film asserts that Betty Ong's call seemed unusually calm, considering the circumstances. "Does Ms. Ong sound like a woman on a hijacked plane...? Why is nobody in the background screaming?"

As one can plainly see from listening to the transcript the film presents, the likely reason for Ong's calm is that she did not know what had happened yet. She states that a person had been stabbed, that first-class passengers were having trouble breathing possibly because of Mace or some chemical agent, and that the pilots were not responding and they could not get the cockpit door open. She does not seem to have witnessed these events, and she does not say that the plane had been hijacked.

Another flight attendant, Madeline Sweeney, claimed in a phone call that there were four hijackers, whereas the FBI says there were five. She says the hijackers were in rows 9 and 10, while the FAA says they were all in row 8.

Is it so unusual that in the panic and confusion of the moment, a person on the plane might have gotten some details wrong? Or did the conspirators neglect to get their facts straight before placing fake phone calls?

Near the end of Sweeney's call, she cries, "I see water and buildings. Oh my God! Oh my God!" The film says, "Madeline was a flight attendant out of Boston for 12 years. I think she would have recognized Manhattan."

There is nothing about this call that indicates Sweeney did not recognize Manhattan. Rather, she cried out because she realized what the hijackers were about to do. And again, why is this something a conspiracy-affiliated imitator would say?

"A man claiming to be Mark Bingham called his mother, Alice... The caller says, 'Mom, this is Mark Bingham.' When was the last time you called your mother and used your full name? ...And then, 'You believe me, don't you, Mom?'"

People often do misspeak and say strange things in times of extreme stress, and of course passengers on the plane would want to convince their loved ones that their account of the hijacking was real and not a hoax or a prank. Why is this more likely under a conspiracy explanation? Why would an agent of the conspiracy imitating Mr. Bingham not just say, "Mom, it's me, your son Mark"?

"To date, none of these calls, except Betty Ong's call to American Airlines, has been released to the public."

Perhaps the government and the 9/11 families decided that the doomed passengers' final, highly private calls to their loved ones should not be released for mass public consumption. Why does this matter to the conspiracists, anyway, since they are already convinced that the calls we do know about were faked? (See below.)

The film discusses a conspiracy-theorist experiment called "Project Achilles" which allegedly found that cell-phone calls from a plane in the air are extremely unlikely to succeed. "At 8000 feet... [there was] a 0.1% success rate. For 32,000 feet - cruising altitude for a commercial airliner - he calculated a 0.006 success rate".

For something as unlikely as the filmmakers portray it, cell-phone use on commercial airlines happens with surprising frequency (source). And this is not to mention the fact that the hijacked planes had their own built-in Airfone systems specifically designed to allow passengers to call parties on the ground. We know for a fact that many of the successful 9/11 calls were made through Airfones; the film never so much as mentions the existence of this technology in this context.

"So how is it possible to fake a person's voice?" The film discusses "voice-morphing" technology developed by the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico that allegedly would have made this possible.

Strictly speaking, one cannot disprove this hypothesis, any more than one can disprove the hypothesis that what crashed into the Twin Towers were not planes but missiles disguised by advanced holographic technology. However, circumstantial evidence makes it highly unlikely. A great number of passengers on the hijacked planes had switched flights at the last minute, which would have made it extraordinarily difficult if not impossible for a conspiracy to do the intensive last-minute research required not just to gather enough voice data to imitate the person, but to find out enough personal detail about them to fool their friends and family. For example, one passenger told her sister the combination of her safe (source).

"On September 23, the BBC reported that Waleed al-Shehri was alive and well in Casablanca, Morocco. They also tracked down Abdul Aziz al-Omari... So how many hijackers turned up alive? At least nine of them."

What we have here is a simple case of mistaken identity. There are about one billion Muslims in the world, and no surprise, some of them share names. Why we should be shocked by this is unclear, unless we are to believe in a conspiracy so incompetent it tried to frame living, easily tracked-down Muslims for this crime.

"On September 20 and 27, [FBI Director] Mueller admitted on CNN that there is no legal proof to prove the identities of the hijackers."

And I have no doubt that this was an accurate summation of the FBI's knowledge - a week or two after the attacks. However, given the amount of time that has since elapsed, there has been plenty of time to confirm these conclusions, and by November 2001, the FBI pronounced itself satisfied (source). It is dishonest to present this initial quote as if it accurately represented the state of affairs months or years later.

The film next presents a famous video in which Osama bin Laden claims credit for the 9/11 attacks. The filmmakers claim that this video is a fake, and that the person depicted is not really Bin Laden.

"According to the FBI's website, Osama is left-handed, yet in this video, he's writing a note with his right hand."

This is one of the very few genuinely interesting claims made by this film, but there are other ways to explain it besides the extraordinary claim that the video is a fake. As the 9/11 Myths website points out, there is another video of Bin Laden from 2002 that shows him distinctly favoring his right side. It is plausible that he was injured at some point, and is now favoring his right side because his left is handicapped.

"Not to mention he's wearing a gold ring, which is forbidden by Islamic law."

This is like saying that Jesus commanded Christians to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor (Luke 18:22), and therefore videos claimed to be of prominent Christians, such as Jerry Falwell or Oral Roberts, that show them living in opulence must be fakes. In fact, many other photos of Bin Laden, including some presented elsewhere in this same film, also show him wearing a ring, and many Islamic authorities have been known to wear jewelry (see this brief rebuttal video).

Cui Bono?

Finally, the film moves on to the question of who staged 9/11 and why. The filmmakers do not seem entirely clear on this themselves, as they present assertions about how several different parties might have benefited from the attacks.

"First we have Larry Silverstein, the man who purchased the World Trade Center in July 2001. After September 11, Silverstein demanded $7.2 billion from his insurers, claiming that each plane counted as a separate act of terrorism... the courts only reward[ed] him with $2.2 billion."

Yes, and? That is the purpose of insurance: to compensate the property owner for disasters. If I buy fire insurance and my home burns to the ground, following which I attempt to collect the insurance I paid for, does that constitute evidence that I deliberately set my house on fire?

A damaging fact which the filmmakers fail to mention is that Silverstein originally only wanted to purchase $1.5 billion in insurance on the WTC. He only raised that amount to $3.5 billion after his lenders required it to protect their investment (source). If he had known in advance that the Twin Towers were going to collapse, why would he have sought to have them underinsured?

"Next we have the put options that were placed on United Airlines, American Airlines, and Boeing. [NB: Put options are in essence a bet that a stock's price will fall. An unusually large number of them were placed on airline stocks prior to September 11.] According to the San Francisco Chronicle, more than $2.5 million has remained unclaimed."

This assertion is even more bizarre than the last. Apparently, LC claims that September 11 was a grand conspiracy to steal the total sum of - wait for it - two million dollars!

For any organization capable of faking an attack on the scale of 9/11, $2.5 million would be, so to speak, loose change. To assert that this conspiracy would have been carried out to steal such a pittance, probably spending at least a hundred times as much in the process, crosses the bounds of the absurd into the laughable. And having gone to all that effort, why would the conspirators not even collect that sum? This conspiracy claim reminds me of the scene from the movie Austin Powers where the villainous Dr. Evil, recently awoken from decades of cryogenic sleep and unaware of the amount of inflation that has occurred in the interim, threatens to wreak havoc upon the world's leaders unless they pay him the exorbitant sum of "one million dollars!" (9/11 Myths has more on the put options.)

"Reuters reported that Convar, a German computer company, is responsible for helping companies... restore their data from over 400 hard drives that were recovered from the World Trade Center's rubble. Convar recovered information from 32 different computers that suggested that insider trading took place on 9/11."

I have little doubt that insider trading happens on the stock market every day. However, the filmmakers have not shown that this has any conceivable connection to their conspiracy hypothesis.

"Rumor has it that over $160 billion in gold was stored in the World Trade Center." The film later refines this figure to $167 billion.

Now we're finally getting somewhere. The theft of such an enormous sum might indeed justify a conspiracy on the staggeringly large scale of 9/11. It will now be instructive to do some basic math in order to see whether this figure is actually plausible.

In 2001, gold was about $300 per troy ounce (source; see here for more detailed charts). At this price, $160 billion in gold would require 160,000,000,000/300 = 556,666,666 troy ounces, or in other words, approximately 19,085 tons (see math). Needless to say, this is not an amount that can be carried off in one or two flatbed trucks. It would require a convoy of hundreds of heavily loaded vehicles over a period of several days, which would be easily noticed and would render moot any question of subsequently hiding the theft by destroying the Twin Towers. And why would that destruction be expected to hide this loss, anyway? 19,000 tons of gold would not just disappear, not even in the rubble of the entire World Trade Center.

But it gets better than that. Gold has a density of 19.3 grams per cubic centimeter. 556,666,666 troy ounces is equivalent to about 1.73 x 1010 grams (see math). At 19.3 grams to the cubic centimeter, that weight of gold would occupy approximately 897 million cc. At 1 million cc to the cubic meter, we are looking about 897 cubic meters of solid gold that was allegedly stored in the WTC.

By comparison, the total amount of gold ever mined by the human species is estimated at 410 cubic meters (source). Loose Change asks us to believe that the World Trade Center, at the time of 9/11, stored an amount of gold that is more than twice the amount the human race has mined throughout its entire history.

Perhaps conspiracists should not use "rumors" as the basis for their future conspiracy hypotheses. Indeed, the claim that the WTC contained so much gold is probably the least-documented assertion in the entire film. The filmmakers never present any evidence whatsoever for it, other than anonymous "rumors". I would be interested to know where they obtained this figure, if indeed it was not just pulled out of thin air. What banks and holding companies reported such a staggeringly large loss?

"After September 11, President Bush had and continues to have permission to do and say whatever he wants, all under the pretext of 9/11: the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, Afghanistan, Iraq."

This is one point where I agree with the creators of Loose Change. George W. Bush did indeed seize on 9/11 as an excuse for the sweeping rollbacks of constitutional rights and dictatorial assertions of unchecked, limitless presidential power that have been presented to the public since then. But we need not assume that he staged 9/11 in order to benefit from it.

To name just one counterargument, there is a serious problem with the claim that the Bush administration staged 9/11 for political benefit. Out of the 19 hijackers, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, one was from Egypt, one from Lebanon, and two from the United Arab Emirates. None were from Iraq; none were from Afghanistan. This is a severe difficulty for any claims that 9/11 was concocted as an excuse for war. Assuming the evidence of the hijackers' identities was planted as a casus belli, why would the people behind it not concoct hijackers who actually came from the countries that they wanted to attack? Why would they instead embarrass themselves by concocting hijackers from countries that are close allies of the U.S.?

Amusingly, there now seem to be rifts developing within the 9/11-conspiracy-theory community. Various conspiracy groups are now accusing each other of being part of the conspiracy, of being government agents deliberately planting disinformation so as to cast doubt on the entire conspiracy movement. Here are two such conspiracy sites: [1, 2], one of which directly refers to Loose Change and the other of which refers to several claims made by LC. These sites use many of the same arguments made in this post series, although they seem unwilling to similarly apply rational thinking to the entire conspiracy hypothesis.

There is another question, one never touched on by LC, that applies to 9/11 conspiracy buffs of all varieties, as well as to most conspiracy theorists in general. Namely, if what you say is true, why are you still alive? Are we really to suppose that a conspiracy with the resources and the will to mastermind the most spectacularly devastating terrorist attack ever conducted on American soil would have the slightest compunction about killing three amateur filmmakers, or at least blackmailing them into silence? The mere fact that the conspiracy-mongers have been able to promote their claims in peace very strongly suggests that those claims are false.

Some may wonder why I have spent so much time and effort debunking these claims. My answer is that 9/11 conspiracy theories anger me for a very real reason. September 11 was the most horrifying and evil attack ever waged against the United States of America, and instead of focusing our efforts on tracking down the perpetrators and bringing them to justice - something, I note, that the Bush administration has lost interest in doing - the conspiracists would have us waste our time chasing shadows. In a very real sense, the makers of this movie are dishonoring the dead of 9/11 by standing in the way of the quest to capture and punish those who are truly responsible. I as much as anyone desire to see George W. Bush and his cronies held to account for their failure to protect our nation from the terrorist threat, but they have done enough evil without us inventing fictitious crimes to pin on them.

Other posts in this series:

May 20, 2006, 12:35 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink16 comments

Loose Marbles II

The World Trade Center

The second part of this series deals with claims made in Loose Change about the collapse of the World Trade Center. Unlike the Pentagon, there is video evidence explicitly showing the two planes crashing into the Twin Towers, and so LC does not deny this (although other conspiracists have explained this away by appealing to secret Star-Trek-like holographic technology). Instead, the film asserts that the proximate cause of the Twin Towers' collapse was not the plane crashes, but a controlled demolition brought about by explosive charges planted throughout the buildings.

It is interesting to note that an earlier version of this film presented and endorsed the claim that one or both of the hijacked 757s fired a missile into the Twin Towers immediately before impact via a mysterious "pod" mounted on the undercarriage. That claim appears to have been quietly dropped in this edition; neither the film nor its associated website either mentions it or explains why the change was made, other than for a stern demand that visitors not ask about it. An honest researcher would have owned up to the error and published a forthright correction.

"The SEC was using [WTC 7, which collapsed on 9/11] to store three to four thousand files related to numerous Wall Street investigations."

This is another example of the unexplained sinister assertion, unless the film means to imply that the Securities and Exchange Commission staged the most spectacular example of overkill in history as a pretext for destroying evidence that could have been wiped out by a simple hard drive crash.

"Official explanation [for the collapse of WTC 7]: Falling debris from the Twin Towers created an internal fire... If this is true, then it would be the third building in history to collapse because of a fire. The first two would be the Twin Towers."

Again, this is a strawman of the filmmakers' invention. WTC 7 collapsed not only because of fire, but also because it was hit by falling debris from the Twin Towers that caused massive structural damage, gouging a 20-story-tall hole out of the building's south facade. Firefighters present at the scene on 9/11 noticed this damage, and many voiced a belief that the building would collapse because of it (source).

The claim that the Twin Towers collapsed "because of fire" is also a strawman. The filmmakers ignore (and I do not see how this could be anything other than a conscious decision to ignore) the extensive structural damage that was caused to both buildings by the collisions with two large commercial jetliners. In all three cases, it was the combination of extensive structural damage and fires which further weakened the buildings' support structures that caused the collapse. How can LC possibly be taken seriously when it tries to gloss over such obvious facts?

The film discusses a 1945 incident in which a lost B-52 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, causing extensive damage and fire but no collapse.

This claim is in error. The 1945 collision with the Empire State Building was not a B-52, but a B-25 bomber. The difference is significant: a fully loaded B-25 bomber weighs approximately 33,000 pounds, whereas a loaded B-52 weighs 265,000 pounds, which is comparable to the weight of a Boeing 757. In other words, a B-25 is about one-eighth the weight of a jumbo jet, and carries about one-tenth the fuel (source). This substantially lesser weight is no doubt part of the reason why the Empire State Building survived the impact while the Twin Towers did not.

The film discusses numerous other incidents in which skyscrapers burned without collapsing, including a 1975 fire in the north tower of the World Trade Center itself and a 2005 fire in a Madrid tower.

Again, these events are completely irrelevant. The filmmakers are still steadfastly ignoring the fact that none of these buildings sustained the massive structural damage prior to the fire that the Twin Towers did, a major difference that renders these simplistic comparisons worthless. It has been pointed out, for example, that the initial impact in the WTC would have shredded fire-retardant insulation surrounding the steel columns, as well as severing pipes that would have fed the sprinkler system. This initial damage gave the subsequent fire a much greater destructive potency. See this article from Civil Engineering Magazine for a more detailed analysis of the collapse, and more links here.

Interestingly, there is a fact about the Madrid fire that refutes conspiracy explanations. Namely, the Madrid fire did cause the total collapse of steel support columns on the burning floors (source), something which LC and other conspiracy advocates deny is possible. The building only remained standing because it also had a core of reinforced concrete, which the Twin Towers did not. (The film itself acknowledges that the top ten floors of the Madrid tower collapsed. It is not a huge leap from there to believe that an entire building could have collapsed under similar conditions.)

The film points out that the South Tower, despite being hit second, is the first to collapse.

As a post from the IIDB explains, this occurred for the most basic of reasons - the South Tower was hit lower down, meaning that there was more mass above the impact site weighing down on the damaged structural elements.

Using Galileo's Law of Falling Bodies, the film calculates that the towers collapsed at nearly freefall speed.

There is nothing surprising about this fact. As materials engineer Dr. Thomas Eager of MIT told NOVA, once the collapse began, the mass of 10 to 20 falling floors hitting one floor would cause that floor to instantly give way, adding its mass to the cascade. There was no time for the impacted floors to sag before buckling; the instantaneous force of the impact was orders of magnitude greater than anything they were designed to withstand. (Update: It is not necessarily the case that the towers fell at freefall speed. See this post from the blog Uncredible Hallq.)

The film quotes Van Romero, an engineer at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, who initially speculated that explosives within the towers may have caused them to collapse. Ten days later, he changes his mind and states forthrightly that the fire caused the buildings' collapse. The film speculates in sinister tones about why he may have changed his opinion.

In Dr. Romero's defense, he claims that he always said from the beginning that the collapse only resembled a controlled demolition, and was misquoted by conspiracists (source). Of course, as conspiracists would say, that is just what he would claim if government agents "got to him". But note the asymmetry here. Any expert who believes the towers collapsed because of explosives is automatically assumed by conspiracists to be telling the truth; any expert (such as the vast majority of experts) who support the ordinary explanation is assumed to be in on the conspiracy. Conspiracy logic is intentionally designed to be impervious to any imaginable counter-evidence.

The film quotes Hyman Brown, the WTC's construction manager, who claims that although the towers were designed to withstand many types of damage, burning jet fuel weakened the steel until the point of collapse. It then argues, "Kevin Ryan, Underwriters Laboratories, the company that certified the steel that was used in the World Trade Center, in a letter to Frank Gayle of the National Institute of Standards and Technology" said that the steel was certified to withstand 2000-degree heat for several hours, and that "I think we can all agree that even un-fireproofed steel will not melt until reaching red-hot temperatures of nearly 3000F. Why Dr. Brown would imply that 2000F would melt the high-grade steel used in those buildings makes no sense at all." Several days later, Ryan was fired by UL.

There are distortions and innuendo densely packed into this section. Let us unpack them one at a time:

First: A UL company spokesman pointed out that UL does not certify structural steel. The test method Ryan mentions, ASTM E119, tests not the steel but an entire wall assembly; and again, this test exposes the assembly to fire only and does not recreate the massive structural damage that the Twin Towers suffered from two jumbo jet impacts, including the loss of fireproof insulation.

Second: The melting point of steel is irrelevant. No one claims that the steel of the Twin Towers melted on 9/11, nor did it need to. Rather, the explanation for the collapse is that intense fires ignited by jet fuel and feeding on flammable material within the towers softened the steel, causing it to lose a significant portion of its strength until it could no longer support the weight of the floors above (source).

Third: Ryan was fired not as an attempt to silence him, but rather, according to a UL spokesman, because he misrepresented his credentials (the division of UL he worked at has nothing to do with steel or other building materials, but instead tests drinking water) and because he falsely implied that his personal beliefs were company opinions, when in fact he wrote the letter to Gayle without his superiors' knowledge or authorization.

The film now proceeds to present its evidence for the existence of controlled demolition charges within the towers. It is curious that most of the news clips the film shows which suggest the presence of explosives were taped on the morning of 9/11, precisely the time when greatest confusion would be expected to run rampant. A similar tactic is used by creationists who imply that a scientific problem is unsolved by only citing papers that were written before someone solved it (example).

The film quotes a news clip from the morning of 9/11: "There were two or three huge explosions... The building literally shook." Other witnesses reported seeing brief flashes of light and hearing crackling sounds prior to the towers' collapse.

There are many things occurring in a burning, collapsing building that a non-expert could mistake for explosive charges, including electrical fires, fractured gas mains, burning fuel, shearing metal, flashover and backdraft, and most importantly, the second plane hitting the south tower (many people in the north tower did not see this impact and only felt its concussion). See here and here. Especially see this page from 9/11 Myths, in which the collapse of a large industrial crane is preceded by a loud, explosion-like boom, in this case caused by the failure of a crucial large bolt.

"The windows in the lobby of the north tower were blown out, and marble panels were blown off of the walls. This was brushed off as damage from a raging fireball that went barreling down the elevator shafts. However, the World Trade Center's core and elevator shafts were hermetically sealed, a.k.a., airtight."

To once again restate the obvious, the fact that a crashing jumbo jet slicing through the building just might have ruptured the airtight seal of the elevator shafts is a possibility of which the filmmakers seem blissfully ignorant. And if they reject this explanation, they are left with no explanation for the shattered lobby windows, making it another unexplained sinister assertion - unless they mean us to believe that the lobby was planted with a tiny explosive charge only powerful enough to break glass and damage wall panels.

The film shows clips of other buildings being demolished, implying that their collapse looked similar to that of the World Trade Center.

As a poster from the JREF Forum explains, there is a good reason for the similarity: "There's a reason that they look alike. In a controlled demolition, they don't plant so many explosives that building is obliterated by them. They use just enough explosives to make it so that the building supports can't hold its weight, then they let the law of gravity finish the job."

"Mark Loizeaux, the president of Controlled Demolition Inc., told the American Free Press that in the basements of the World Trade Center... hot spots of literally molten steel were discovered more than a month after September 11."

As previously acknowledged, jet fuel does not burn hot enough to melt steel. However, the "evidence" of molten steel appears to be based entirely on hearsay and second-hand accounts. Loizeaux, whom the film quotes, never claims to have seen molten steel personally (though watching LC, one might be forgiven for getting the opposite impression) (source). No evidence is presented to show that any melted metal found on the scene was steel and not, say, aluminum, which has a much lower melting point. These supposed pools of molten metal may not even have existed.

It is interesting to note that Loizeaux is the president of Controlled Demolition, Inc., a firm that LC strongly implies played a part in destroying the Twin Towers. If there was indeed a conspiracy, he would have to be at the heart of it. And yet they rely on him as though they consider him a trustworthy witness and not, say, an agent of the conspiracy planting false information to discredit them. This is another example of how the filmmakers do not hesitate to discard consistency where it serves their immediate purposes.

"In all the videos of the collapses, explosions can be seen bursting from the building 20 to 30 stories below the demolition wave."

The "explosions" the film refers to are actually a direct result of the collapse beginning. As each floor of the WTC buckled and fell, the air filling the floors beneath it was compressed and pushed aside with enormous force, blowing out the windows in clouds of dust. (If LC could show video evidence of explosions erupting from the building before the collapse started - as one would expect from a controlled demolition - then they might be on to something. But there is no such evidence.) See Popular Mechanics' take on 9/11 conspiracies for more.

"Etienne Sauret was filming her documentary, World Trade Center: The First 24 Hours, and caught both collapses on tape... The tripod shakes 12 seconds before the north tower begins collapsing, and something is knocked off the right-hand side of the building."

It is remarkable how conspiracists leap to the least likely explanations. For example, why should we find anything unusual about debris falling from a damaged building that had been hit by a large commercial airplane? And what makes them certain that the quaver in the film was not simply caused by, for example, a passerby brushing against the tripod?

"Ben Fountain, a financial analyst who worked in the World Trade Center, told People magazine that in the weeks before 9/11, there were a number of unannounced and unusual drills where sections of both the Twin Towers and Building 7 were evacuated..."

If the filmmakers mean to imply that these scattered drills gave the opportunity to plant demolition charges, they are horribly misinformed about how much work a controlled demolition takes. The work necessary to prepare even a small building for destruction takes weeks, not hours, and involves thorough architectural surveys to determine the best places to plant explosives, the placing and wiring of thousands of feet of detonating cord and thousands of electric delay devices, test blasts to determine the minimum amount of explosives needed to demolish support elements, and major amounts of manual labor with drills and sledgehammers to weaken the building beforehand. (See pictures of the work it takes to prepare a mere 20-story building for demolition. See also here and here.) It is ludicrous to believe that such work could have been undertaken on the World Trade Center in a total time of at most a few days combined, or that none of the WTC's employees would have noticed anything unusual in the weeks between these drills and September 11.

"If only we could examine the debris from the World Trade Center and figure out what happened. Unfortunately, Mayor Giuliani began shipping the remains off to recycling yards overseas before investigators could even examine it. Not even FEMA was allowed into Ground Zero."

Wrong. (source, and another source). But even if LC had acknowledged this, would it have made a shred of difference? Or would they just have said that FEMA was also in on the coverup? Conspiracy logic is designed to be unfalsifiable, and the absence of any evidence supporting the conspiracy hypothesis is simply taken as further proof of the conspiracy's scope and power.

"On July 15, 2001, Controlled Demolition destroyed two 400-foot-tall fuel reserve tanks from the World War II era. The demolition was conducted for no apparent reason and drew numerous complaints from the neighborhood. The site remains vacant for this day, and a reason for the demolition has never been disclosed."

Yes, and...? Are we to see something suspicious about a demolition company carrying out a demolition? The filmmakers never even attempt to explain what relevance this could possibly have to their elaborate and flimsy web of sinister-sounding speculation.

As with the first part, there is another gaping hole in the conspiracy logic that the film never addresses. Namely, if the Twin Towers were destroyed by explosive charges, why would those charges not all go off at once? That would ensure that the job would be done and would leave the fewest possible number of witnesses. Instead, what we have is a bizarre, seemingly random and sporadic series of minor detonations occurring throughout both towers for over an hour before the actual collapse, providing ample opportunity for people in the tower to discover the alleged explosives before escaping. This sequence of events does not fit at all with conspiratorial speculations, but it does perfectly fit the explanation that we know to be correct: the Twin Towers collapsed because of extensive structural damage and fire throughout both buildings, as a result of two impacts from airliners hijacked by terrorists. Alternative explanations are without merit or supporting evidence.

Next: Part III of this series will examine conspiracy claims surrounding Flight 93's crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as well as the alleged motive for all of this.

Other posts in this series:

May 18, 2006, 2:00 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink11 comments

Loose Marbles I: Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories

It seems to be part of human nature that any event of great scale or significance will inevitably engender conspiracy theories. The Kennedy assassination and the moon landing are two recent events that have spawned some of the most durable and complex examples, but there are many more, swirling around nearly every major world event and ranging from the nearly plausible to the outright ridiculous. (An example of the latter category would be the assertion that Hurricane Katrina was caused by secret weather-control technology.)

But no recent world event has been more iconic or more horrifying than the September 11, 2001 attack on America. As such, it is no surprise that the events of 9/11 have given rise to a slew of conspiracy theories alleging that the attacks were not, as they appeared, the handiwork of radical Islamists working for the terror group al-Qaeda, but rather a plot orchestrated by the U.S. government. This charge is leveled most prominently by a variety of conspiracy documentaries circulating on the Internet, one of which is titled Loose Change. Created by the filmmakers Dylan Avery, Korey Rowe and Jason Bermas, LC alleges that the 9/11 attacks occurred primarily as a cover-up for a plan to steal billions of dollars in gold (hence the title), and secondarily as an excuse to enact elements of a neoconservative political agenda.

Before going any further, I should stress that I fully support efforts to roll back the regressive laws and stop the bellicose and disastrous foreign policy which were both defended by the Bush administration by endless appeals to 9/11. However, I also believe that we on the left should be, as the saying goes, in the reality-based community. Our opposition to these programs should be based on the facts, not on paranoid fantasies, and in this respect LC and other 9/11 conspiracy theories must be met on their own terms and debunked. This documentary in particular was characterized by corruptions of logic, appeals to missing or dubious evidence, wild speculation blended with selectively presented fact, and other hallmarks of the irrationality that pervades most conspiratorial thinking. It will be the purpose of this post series to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt by analyzing its claims and showing that they do not hold up.

I will not be arguing against hypotheses that the Bush administration had advance knowledge of the attacks and deliberately failed to prevent them. Although I believe this idea is also false, it is not the purpose of this series to address it. Rather, I will focus on debunking the idea that the Bush administration, or any other government or entity, carried out a plan whose purpose was to make Americans believe that we had been attacked by Islamic terrorists when we had not been. As I will argue, the conventional explanation for 9/11 - that the attacks were planned and carried out by members of al-Qaeda, smuggling weapons on board four commercial airliners to hijack them and use them as kamikaze missiles - is the only reasonable explanation for the events of that terrible day.

We begin with the section of LC concerning Flight 77 and the attack on the Pentagon. Claims from the documentary will be presented, along with the time indexes of the film at which they are made. (For purposes of comparison, the documentary itself can be viewed at Google Video).

The Pentagon and Flight 77

The documentary begins with historical material intended to establish that 9/11-like ideas were being discussed secretly by the government for decades before 2001. For example, we have this:

"August, 1997. The cover of FEMA's Emergency Response to Terrorism [manual] depicts the World Trade Center in crosshairs."

There is one rather obvious reason for this that the filmmakers overlook: by this point, the World Trade Center had already been the target of a terrorist attack, the 1993 truck bombing, for which Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and four other conspirators were tried and convicted. Terrorist plotter Ramzi Yousef allegedly claimed that his group would try again to destroy the Twin Towers (source). It was only rational for the government to suspect the towers might be targets of a further terrorist attack, given this evidence. Or are we to believe that that attack was part of the conspiracy as well?

The scope of any plausible 9/11 conspiracy would be enormous, spanning hundreds or thousands of people: the government officials who actually conceived of the attack, the military personnel who set it up and carried it out, the pathologists who faked autopsy and genetic data, the intelligence agencies that would have concocted false evidence of al-Qaeda involvement, the disaster-response teams on the scene immediately after the attacks, the airline employees and air-traffic controllers who would have to have cooperated, and more. Are we now to double this scope by postulating a conspiracy that spans two presidential administrations from different political parties?

"October 24, 2000. The Pentagon conducts the first of two training exercises called MASCAL, which simulate a Boeing 757 crashing into the building. Charles Burlingame, an ex-Navy F-4 pilot who worked in the Pentagon, participates in this exercise before retiring to take a job at American Airlines, where, less than a year later, his Boeing 757 allegedly crashes into the building."

This would indeed be a sinister-seeming coincidence, if true, although the filmmakers never quite explain how such a fact would fit into their conspiracy theory. (Are we to believe that a military veteran with 25 years of distinguished service would agree to participate in an attack against his own country?) However, there appears to be evidence that it is untrue: although Burlingame did work at the Pentagon, he left well before 2000 and thus could not have participated in these exercises as the film claims. See this article from the 9/11 Myths website.

"Newsweek reports that a number of top Pentagon brass canceled their flight plans for [September 11]."

Again, this is a sinister-sounding fact whose relevance is not explained. In fact, it is hard to see how this fits into the conspiracy theory. If, as the filmmakers believe, September 11 was planned in advance, then why would any top Pentagon officials cancel their travel plans? They would have known they were in no danger.

LC now moves on to the attack on the Pentagon. The hypothesis put forward by the filmmakers, as well as numerous other conspiracy sites, is that on September 11 the Pentagon was struck not by a hijacked airliner, but by a cruise missile.

The filmmakers quote an October 12, 2001 Parade interview with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in which Rumsfeld says, "Here we're talking about plastic knives, and using an American Airlines flight filled with our citizens, and the missile to damage this building..."

I am not sure what the point is of citing this simple slip of the tongue, unless the filmmakers mean to imply that one of the chief plotters of the most extensive, diabolical and secret conspiracies in the history of the human race accidentally gave the whole thing away in a quote to Parade magazine.

"Hani Hanjour [one of the hijackers of Flight 77] allegedly executes a 330-degree turn at 530 miles per hour, descending 7000 feet in two and a half minutes to crash... into the ground floor of the Pentagon." The documentary cites a pilot named Russ Wittenberg who claims that a Boeing 757 "could not possibly have flown at those speeds... without going into a high speed stall... The airplane won't go that fast when you start pulling those high G maneuvers".

The maneuvers described are well within the capabilities of a Boeing 757, which is rated for much higher G-forces than such a turn would produce (see here; be aware that this site claims the plane was remotely controlled, a conspiracy hypothesis to which I do not subscribe).

The film quotes Danielle O'Brien, an air traffic controller on duty on 9/11, who says of Flight 77, "The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought... that it was a military plane."

Although other factual errors in the film can be explained as simple mistakes or oversights, this is the first one that cannot be. This is an example of the flatly dishonest tactic called "quote-mining", often employed by creationists, in which a person's words are made to seem to be saying something other than they are by removing relevant context. As the full quote shows, the air traffic controllers thought Flight 77 was a military plane not because it displayed any unusual speed or maneuverability, but because it was flying in a fashion that would have been highly dangerous for any commercial airliner. Obviously, the hijackers were not concerned about the safety of the passengers.

The film discusses the damage to light poles near the Pentagon, which were ripped out of the ground by collisions with Flight 77's wings as the hijacked plane made its final approach. "Flight 77 managed to tear five light poles completely out of the ground without damaging either the wings or the light poles themselves."

At first glance, this might seem like an anomaly. But as previously mentioned, the filmmakers' proposed explanation is that the Pentagon was damaged by a cruise missile. The Tomahawk cruise missile, which they mention specifically, has a wingspan that is all of eight feet. How could such a missile possibly have knocked down the light poles? This is a question the filmmakers ignore.

This is yet another example of the conspiracy tactic which I call "the unexplained sinister assertion": some apparently anomalous piece of evidence which the filmmakers state in deeply sinister tones, implying that it is an insurmountable problem for the ordinary explanation. But then they never explain how their conspiracy hypothesis accounts for it any better. In fact, in some cases (such as this one), the ordinary explanation accounts for it much better than the conspiracy hypothesis.

Why assume, in any case, that this impact did not damage the plane's wings? They might well have been disintegrating already by the time the plane impacted the building. Significant amounts of debris were found on the Pentagon's lawn (photos). Additionally, the claim that the knocked-down light poles were undamaged is false. In reality, they were severely bent and even sheared off at the top by the force of the impact. See photos here and here.

"Why is there absolutely no trace of Flight 77? ... The official explanation is that the intense heat from the jet fuel vaporized the entire plane."

I would very much like to know who proposed this "official explanation", because it is plainly ludicrous. I suspect it is a straw man of the filmmakers' invention. To my knowledge, no one has ever suggested that Flight 77 was entirely vaporized by the heat of the explosion; rather, Flight 77 disintegrated because it was crashed at 350 mph into a nine-foot-thick wall of reinforced concrete and steel. (The filmmakers' comparisons to other plane crashes which left significantly more debris are irrelevant, since the cases they cite concern planes that crashed into the ground, a considerably softer medium.) Such a catastrophic impact would not be expected to leave large pieces of the plane intact. However, that fact notwithstanding, a significant amount of recognizable debris was found - including body parts and even bodies of passengers still strapped into their seats (source, and additional photos; see also here). Additionally, Flight 77's black box and cockpit voice recorder were both also found (source).

Among the debris found at the Pentagon was a piece of a single turbojet engine, approximately 3 feet in diameter, which some have claimed was part of the plane's auxiliary power unit (APU). The film quotes spokespeople from Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce, the two companies that manufacture 757 engines, both of which claimed it was not a part from their company's engines.

The claim about this component being part of an APU is apparently untrue, and seems to be a red herring cited by the filmmakers. In reality, experts who have studied the photos have concluded that it was probably part of a compressor or turbine disk from the Rolls-Royce RB211-535 turbofan engine, which American Airlines 757s are equipped with (source).

The Rolls-Royce spokesperson may simply have been mistaken; alternatively, this may be another instance of deliberate quote-mining by the filmmakers. The quote they briefly show says that the spokesperson claimed this was not a part of a Rolls-Royce AE 3007H engine, a different model than that of a 757. The AE 3007H engine is installed on, among other things, the unmanned Global Hawk surveillance craft. Some conspiracy theories, although not LC, claim a Global Hawk struck the Pentagon. This claim therefore refutes, not supports, conspiracy ideas. Confusingly, LC also implies that the part may have come from a U.S. A-3 Skywarrior fighter plane, which would contradict the film's own explanation if it were true. Consistency does not seem to be a great concern of the filmmakers.

"...Employees at the Pentagon were seen carrying away a large box, shrouded in a blue tarp. Why the mystery?"

The filmmakers have debunked their own claim here, as acknowledged in this post from LC's official forum.

"Why is the damage to the Pentagon completely inconsistent with a Boeing 757? ...The only damage to the outer wall is a single hole, no more than 16 feet in diameter." The film claims that a 155-foot-long 757 should have caused more damage, and asks why there is no visible hole from where the wings and engines slammed into the building.

To begin with, the real world is not a Warner Brothers cartoon. A plane crashed at high speed into a solid object will not leave a hole that is an exact silhouette of itself. This is especially true if, as eyewitness reports indicate, the plane crashed and skidded along the ground before striking the Pentagon; in such case, its wings would already have been disintegrating before impacting the building. Nevertheless, there is extensive damage to the Pentagon consistent with the impact of a jumbo jet. See here for a large picture (warning: 2.3 MB image), and here for a gallery of somewhat smaller photos. Clearly, although the plane's wings did not punch cartoon-like holes into the Pentagon, they did inflict extensive damage to its facade. (As multiple sites have pointed out, airplane wings are designed to be as light as possible, and would have shredded upon impact with the building's heavily reinforced load-bearing columns.) See here and here for detailed analyses.

The film asks (00:17:55) what happened to the plane's massive, six-ton main engines, and the answer is that they did indeed punch into the Pentagon. An Army report on the cleanup two weeks after 9/11 (source) says: "On the inside wall of the second ring of the Pentagon, a nearly circular hole, about 12-feet wide, allows light to pour into the building from an internal service alley. An aircraft engine punched the hole out on its last flight after being broken loose from its moorings on the plane."

"...Why did people keep reporting a second explosion at the Pentagon [after the plane had crashed]?" [The film plays several clips of live news reports from 9/11 citing reports of secondary explosions.]

This is another example of the unexplained sinister assertion. Why would we expect secondary explosions from the impact of a cruise missile but not from the crash of a jumbo jet?

"Surveillance cameras from a gas station, Sheraton hotel, and the Virginia Department of Transportation captured the entire thing. [The film shows vantage points from these places overlooking the Pentagon.] However, the FBI was there within minutes to confiscate the tapes... If the government wishes to prove once and for all that Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, all they would have to do is release one of those tapes."

I too would encourage the public release of these tapes, assuming these claims are accurate. However, when evidence does exist contradicting the preferred conspiracy hypothesis - recordings of phone calls made by passengers on the hijacked planes, which will be discussed later - the filmmakers simply appeal, without a shred of embarrassment, to secret government technology that can allegedly be used to imitate people's voices. If these tapes were produced, what would prevent the conspiracists from claiming they too were forgeries?

"...Why do satellite photos taken four days before 9/11 show a white marking on the front lawn [shows satellite photo of an 'H'-shaped mark on the ground outside the building], marking almost the exact trajectory of whatever hit the Pentagon four days later?"

This is yet another example of the unexplained sinister assertion. Why would a cruise missile need a white mark on the ground to guide it to its target?

In fact, the entire Pentagon conspiracy hypothesis is an example of the unexplained sinister assertion on a grand scale. Assuming that the U.S. government wanted to stage an attack on the Pentagon and went to all the trouble of making a commercial jumbo jet and all its passengers disappear to make it seem as if it had been used as the weapon, why would they not just actually crash the plane into the Pentagon? What on earth would be the point of using a cruise missile instead? This is a massive logical gap which this movie never even attempts to answer.

Many conspiracy theories suffer from this defect, which I call the fallacy of unnecessary complexity. Given the sinister nature of the average conspiracy theory, why would the plotters choose a scheme involving a byzantine, sometimes Rube Goldbergian, amount of superfluous complication - vastly increasing both the risk of failure and the risk of discovery - when a much simpler plan would have achieved their goals just as well? To name one example, if the assassination of President Kennedy was a conspiracy, why would the conspirators adopt the insanely risky scheme of shooting him in broad daylight with thousands of people watching, when they could have poisoned him in some surreptitious manner and attributed his death to a stroke or heart attack?

There is one more problem for 9/11 conspiracy theorists - a big one. Unlike the crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the impact on the Pentagon took place in a heavily populated area. As the film itself notes (00:13:25), "[Flight 77's] final approach took it directly across Interstate 395." Given this fact, one would expect there to be a great number of people who witnessed the crash, and indeed this is the case. The problem for the conspiracists is that these people, virtually without exception, reported seeing a Boeing 757 - and not a cruise missile - hit the Pentagon. (Read testimonies of eyewitnesses here, here, here and here.)

LC veers away from this devastating evidence, creating an illusion of equivalence by stating only that "some" people saw a commercial airliner while others saw "a small, 8-to-20-passenger commuter plane" (00:24:25). However, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of witnesses saw a jumbo jet crash into the Pentagon; the scattered accounts of a smaller plane can easily be explained as mistakes, considering the brief time people had to witness such a shocking event. By contrast, no one has reported seeing a missile. Even the filmmakers' star witness, a woman named April Gallop who was injured in the attack and claims she was pressured by mysterious government agents while in the hospital (00:24:55), never claims to have seen a missile. The filmmakers imply that this wild story is sufficient justification to reject the eyewitness accounts. Even if it is true, which seems doubtful, are we to believe that these sinister men in black tracked down every single witness to the impact - all the hundreds of people who were in the Pentagon, in buildings that overlooked the Pentagon, or driving down the road by the Pentagon - before any had a chance to talk to the media, and successfully coerced or blackmailed every single one into lying about what they had seen? This shows clearly what a ludicrously vast scope a putative 9/11 conspiracy would have to have to be successful.

Any scientific theory worth its salt is supported by not just one, but multiple lines of evidence all independently converging on the same conclusion. That is exactly the case here. We have a commercial plane, American Airlines Flight 77, missing along with all of its passengers (and what exactly do conspiracists suppose happened to those people?); we have numerous eyewitness reports of a jumbo jet striking the Pentagon; we have debris consistent with the crash of a Boeing 757, including the black box and cockpit data recorder; we have evidence of phone calls made by passengers on the hijacked flight, including Barbara Olson, the wife of U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson (source); and last but not least, we have forensic data identifying all 64 people aboard the plane through DNA and dental records. (See here for a flight manifest.) There is only one conclusion to be drawn from the weight of this combined evidence, and that is that the hijacked Flight 77, and not a missile, crashed into the Pentagon on September 11. Assertions to the contrary are without grounding in logic or common sense.

Next: Part II of this series will examine conspiracy claims surrounding the airplane impacts with and subsequent collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11.

Other posts in this series:

May 16, 2006, 6:37 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink26 comments

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