EDUCATION

Hijacking the truth on 9/11

Once found only on fringe websites and in Arab marketplaces, conspiracy theories about that day are popping up among serious academics

JONATHON GATEHOUSE May 15 2006
EDUCATION

Hijacking the truth on 9/11

Once found only on fringe websites and in Arab marketplaces, conspiracy theories about that day are popping up among serious academics

JONATHON GATEHOUSE May 15 2006

Hijacking the truth on 9/11

EDUCATION

Once found only on fringe websites and in Arab marketplaces, conspiracy theories about that day are popping up among serious academics

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

But there have always been doubters, those who found the official explanation too tidy— or unpalatable. In the marketplaces of the Arab world, the popularly held belief is that Mossad, the Israeli secret service, brought down the Twin Towers. In the West, Michael Moore scored box-office success by pointing out the discrepancy between the identity of the hijackers—15 of the 19 were Saudi Arabian—and the U.S. policy that flowed from their actions: war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Books alleging more elaborate commercial conspiracies involving oil companies and members of the Bush administration have been big sellers in France and Germany. And the Internet is rife with websites explaining why the events of 9/11 couldn’t possibly have happened the way hundreds of millions witnessed them unfold on live television.

Now a newly formed group of university and college academics is trying to bring those debates about Sept, ll and its underpinnings to the mainstream. “Scholars for 9/11 Truth,” a looseknit society of skeptics, calls the attacks “one of the great hoaxes of history,” orchestrated by the Bush administration to further an agenda of domestic and foreign domination. Formed this past winter, the Web-based group claims a membership of close to 300, many of them tenured faculty at post-secondary institutions in the U.S. and Canada. “The government’s own account of 9/11—19

hijackers taking control of four airplanes under the guidance of a guy in a cave in Afghanistan—is a conspiracy theory,” says James Fetzer, one of the co-founders and a professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota in Duluth. “The whole idea is to instill fear into the American people.” Fetzer, who calls himself a conspiracy expert and has written extensively about the John F. Kennedy assassination, sees 9/11 as part of a historical continuum where shadowy forces have shaped American opinion and policy through “manufactured” crises like Pearl Harbor or the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania.

BY JONATHON GATEHOUSE • Prior to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the notion that someone would hijack a passenger plane and fly it into the side of a building was unthinkable to all but a few lonely voices in the wilderness of Afghanistan and the world’s intelligence communities. The searing images from New York and Washington changed that, making terrified believers out of most. Subsequent bomb attacks in Bali, Madrid and London have convinced politicians and public alike that Islamic terrorism is a global scourge, and the greatest threat of our age.

His organization, which will hold its first meetings at a 9/11 doubters’ conference in Chicago next month, is calling on the world press to investigate what it says are serious omissions and scientific flaws in the official record of the attacks. Among its claims: at least five of the hijackers are alive and well in Saudi Arabia; a missile, rather than a plane, hit the Pentagon; and the World Trade Center towers could only have been brought down by “a controlled demolition” because neither the impact of the jets nor the heat of the fires were sufficient to fatally weaken their steel skeletons.

Steven Jones, a professor of physics at

Utah’s Brigham Young University, and another co-founder of the group, has published a controversial paper theorizing that explosives and “cutter charges” were placed throughout the Twin Towers to trigger their collapse. The melting point of steel is about 1,480° C, he notes, while the maximum temperature of a jet-fuel fire is around 980° C. Jones hypothesizes that thermite—a fine powder used in welding and incendiary bombs—was placed throughout the structures to make the fires burn hotter. “It would take about a ton per

building. At 40 pounds a load, that would be 50 backpacks full,” he says. “So that’s workable as a number.”

Jones has appeared on MSNBC and Fox News to discuss his findings, and his 9/11 lectures are starting to receive wider press coverage. Some of his departmental colleagues were less than enthusiastic about his research, however, and successfully lobbied the university to issue a statement disassociating itself from the work. Jones has since submitted the paper for additional peer reviews and a truce has been called in the academic

infighting. But the criticism of his work has continued. “I get a lot of emails from people calling me just crazy,” he says. “But most of them haven’t bothered to read my paper.” A.K. Dewdney, an adjunct professor of biology at the University of Western Ontario and professor emeritus of computer science at Western and Waterloo, says the questions raised by the group should not be so easily dismissed: “We’re not a bunch of yahoos, we’re professional people.” Dewdney traces his 9/11 doubts to the fact that suicide is a

sin according to Islam, something he believes undercuts the very notion of the kamikaze hijackers, or even bombers who have staged attacks in Israel and Iraq. He concludes that 9/H was carried out by elements within the U.S. government. “This was a very, very cold-blooded and frightening operation,” he says. “I’d much prefer that it was Islamic terrorists—if only they existed.”

The right to hold unpopular views is, of course, a pillar of academic freedom. But the group’s rapid growth— and the relative silence of the institutions that employ its members— suggest a broader change in perceptions of 9/11 and its aftermath. Whether

THE TOWERS CAME DOWN IN A ‘CONTROLLED DEMOLITION/ THEY SAY NEITHER THE HEAT OF THE FIRE NOR THE IMPACT WAS ENOUGH.

it’s a matter of distance, Bush’s unpopularity, or both, there seems to be more media and public tolerance for criticism or even radical dissent. Charlie Sheen has expressed doubts about the “official version” of 9/H without tanking his sitcom’s ratings. Reviewers have found Flight 93, the new film about the fourth hijacked plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field, “dignified” enough to qualify as mass entertainment. Oliver Stone, Hollywood’s king of conspiracy, will release his own 9/11 film, starring Nicholas Cage, later this year.

Richard Ben-Veniste, a Washington lawyer who served as a member of the government’s 9/11 commission, says the transition from tragedy to entertainment is appropriate, provided the stories are truthfully and sensitively told. The mainstreaming of conspir-

acy theories is another matter. Ben-Veniste says he’s reluctant to “engage in a dialogue with fringe elements,” but staunchly defends the work of the commission. “We on the 9/H commission attempted to make our inquiry as transparent as possible,” he says. “We fought diligently to make information available to the American people and the world. We had numerous open hearings where high officials were questioned closely, and sometimes pointedly.” Ben-Veniste, who worked for the Watergate special prosecutor’s office, says the 9/11 commission was determined not to repeat the errors of the Warren commission, whose closed-door probe of the Kennedy assassination breathed life into the granddaddy of conspiracy theories. Americans have the right to free speech, he says, but also the obligation to think critically about “what’s plausible and not plausible.” That is perhaps the one point on which members of the 9/11 commission and the Scholars for 9/11 Truth agree. John McMurtry, a University professor emeritus at Guelph and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, says he has had doubts about the official explanation since he watched the Twin Towers collapse into their own footprints, “violating the laws of physics.” McMurtry, a philosopher who has a long history as a social critic, publicly expressed his views and found himself vilified as “Osama” in the U.S. and Canadian press. “It’s just like living in the Third Reich and the Reichstag has burned down and everybody is going after the Communists.” McMurtry contends that there are more than enough holes in the official explanation of 9/11 for reasonable people to harbour doubts. The fact that people like his brother Roy, an Ontario Court of Appeal judge and the former provincial attorney general, find it difficult to believe that the U.S. government would murder its own citizens, shouldn’t preclude all consideration of that possibility, he argues. “People get into the thrall of the group mind and attack anything that doesn’t go along with their assumptions,” says McMurtry. “That’s the problem. You just can’t believe because you already believe something else.” M

jonathon.gatehouse@ madeans. rogers. com