Even as the smoke was still rising from the ruins of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, conspiracy theories sprang up blaming the attacks on anyone but al-Qaeda. The specific claims varied. The 9/11 attacks were an inside job. Carefully placed explosives rather than commercial passenger jets brought down the Twin Towers. The U.S. military fired missiles that struck the Pentagon. The Bush administration knew of the impending attacks but did nothing. Israel orchestrated the attacks as a false-flag operation. The list goes on.
None of these conspiracy theories is true. Many are preposterous on their face. And more than a few recycle long-standing anti-Semitic tropes. But that hasn’t stopped people from embracing them. And it’s not just the delusional who reject the idea that nineteen al-Qaeda operatives orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. Well-known people like former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura and Hollywood director Spike Lee have helped give credence to the idea that what we have been told isn’t what happened.
Lots of writers have sought to explain the popularity of conspiracy theories, even when they are obviously absurd. A classic of the genre is Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 Harper’s article, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which later became a book of the same title. More recent contributions include Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, Jonathan Kay’s Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground, and Joseph E. Uscinski’s Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them.
Some conspiracy theories are harmless. It doesn’t really matter if people believe that the Apollo moon landings were shot on a Hollywood backlot. But the conspiracy theories that circulate about the 9/11 attacks are anything but harmless. They help to delegitimize democratic government. They demonize innocent groups that are falsely blamed. And they shift attention away from the real causes and perpetrators.
Left unrebutted, conspiracy theory can extend their reach. So, if you doubt the official story of 9/11, or know someone who does, check out one or more of these seven resources.
9/11 Commission Final Report. Any attempt to understand what we know about the 9/11 attacks has to begin with the report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission. Established by Congress and President George W. Bush, it was tasked with assessing how the attacks happened and recommending steps to prevent future ones. Its final report, released in July 2004, paints an unsettling picture of how unprepared the U.S. government was for the attacks despite mounting warnings during the summer of 2001 that something was afoot. In doing so, it shows that there is little need to believe in a conspiracy. The truth is alarming enough.
“Conspiracy Theories and the Sept. 11 Terrorist Attacks," On Point: WBUR (2011). A decade ago, On Point, a radio show produced by Boston’s public radio station WBUR, devoted an episode to 9/11 conspiracy theories. The episode explores some of the best known theories, assesses why they have such appeal, and discusses why they persist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In just forty-six engaging minutes the show exposes the gaping holes in leading conspiracy theories, holes that their proponents gloss over.
“Debunking 9/11 Bomb Theories," NOVA: PBS (2006). One persistent 9/11 conspiracy theory insists that the planes that flew into the Twin Towers could not have brought them down. Therefore, their destruction must have been the result of explosives spread strategically around both buildings. So fifteen years ago, NOVA, the PBS documentary series, decided to see whether that claim could withstand scrutiny. The show interviewed Shyam Sunder, the top investigator for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the government agency that investigated the collapse of the Twin Towers. Sunder clearly and painstakingly dismantles the case that 9/11 was an inside job that used explosives to trigger a controlled demolition.
Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can't Stand Up to the Facts, Popular Mechanics, (2006). In 2005, the editors of Popular Mechanics ran an article debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories. The article was so popular that Popular Mechanics expanded it into a book. It addresses twenty of the most popular claims from 9/11 truthers. The article and the book discredit these claims using interviews with witnesses, military officials, engineers, and other experts. Publishers Weekly called Debunking 9/11 Myths “one of the most original—and potentially controversial—titles on the topic.”
“The Biggest 9/11 Conspiracy Theories Debunked," Sky History UK. If you don’t want to devote hours to parsing the counter-evidence to various 9/11 conspiracy theories, Sky History UK has created what could be called the CliffsNotes version. It examines eight of the most common 9/11 conspiracy claims, including that two planes could not have brought down the World Trade Center, that debris was missing at Pentagon, and that United Flight 93 was shot down by another plane. In a few short sentences, Sky History UK exposes the fallacies in each claim.
“Reports of the Federal Building and Fire Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster,” National Institute of Standards and Technology. If you are technically minded, you can plow through multiple scientific reports issued by NIST, the government agency tasked with investigating how the Twin Towers collapsed. Spoiler alert: The reports conclude that the impact of commercial jet planes could and did cause both towers to collapse.
“This Computer Simulation Explains How the Twin Towers Fell," Smithsonian Channel (2015). If reading technical reports isn’t your thing, the Smithsonian Channel created a short video that explains why two passenger planes could indeed cause the Twin Towers to fall at the alarmingly fast rate they did. The video is an excerpt from an episode titled “9/11: Secret Explosions in the Towers” that was part of the Smithsonian Channel series “The Missing Evidence.”
Next week we will recommend online exhibits and pieces about 9/11.
Here are the other entries in this series:
- More Resources Worth Exploring About 9/11
- Seven Reflections Worth Reading About 9/11
- Seven Documentaries Worth Watching About 9/11
- Seven Movies Worth Watching About 9/11
- 9/11 Online Exhibits and Resources Worth Viewing
- Seven Podcasts Worth Listening to About 9/11
- Seven More Books Worth Reading About 9/11 and Its Aftermath
Leila Marhamati assisted in the preparation of this post.