How Conspiracy Theories Work

world trade center
AP Photo/Chao Soi Cheong
Smoke billows from one of the towers of the World Trade Center and flames and debris explode from the other tower, September 11, 2001. 

Are you the kind of person who likes to hear to a good conspiracy theory?

Some people simply do not like the discomfort that a conspiracy theory creates. But for others, conspiracy theories are intriguing. They like to explore all of the possibilities that a conspiracy theory presents, in the same way that they like to explore puzzles or mystery novels. Sometimes a conspiracy theory is ridiculous and learning about it is a form of entertainment. Or you may find that the theory is credible and it makes you think. It's interesting to consider the theory, weigh the evidence and come up with a conclusion.

In the 21st century, one event reigns supreme in the catalog of conspiracy theories: the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States. This event is seared into the nation's consciousness and significantly affected the entire planet. It seems inevitable that people would cry "conspiracy" about any event with this much impact. However, the conspiracy theories around 9/11 have been strong and consistent.

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­The whole controversy surrounding 9/11 boils down to one simple question:

Did 19 terrorists cause all of the destruction witnessed on 9/11/2001, or did a group of people in the U.S. government conspire to create that destruction for political gain?

The U.S. government has offered the terrorist explanation, and that is the story that many people believe. A large number of people, however, refuse to believe this "official story." They believe conspiracy theorists when they say that the U.S. government actually masterminded and executed the attack.

We could spend a great deal of time arguing one side or the other. Instead, we'll focus on the process. Isn't it fascinating that there can be two credible explanations for such a complex event, and that both explanations can be so diametrically opposed to one another?

How does a conspiracy theory like this get started? What is required to fuel it into a full-fledged public debate? Can the theory ever be proven? What does the possibility of the theory say about our society? In this article we will explore these questions and many others as we look at the events of September 11.

Conspiracy Theory Basics

JFK film cover
Image courtesy Amazon
Oliver Stone's 1991 film "JFK" addresses a controversial version of the events surrounding John F. Kennedy's assassination.
The dictionary defines a conspiracy theory in this way:

    A theory seeking to explain a disputed case or matter as a plot by a secret group or alliance rather than an individual or isolated act. [ref]
A conspiracy theorist, therefore, is a person who formulates such a theory.

There is a certain negative undertone to the term "conspiracy theory" in today's society. Detractors will point out that many conspiracy theories contain certain features that undermine their credibility. In this article, however, we will use the term "conspiracy theory" in its neutral sense. We are using it to mean an alternative explanation for an event, as it is defined in the dictionary.

In modern times there have been a number of "conspiracy theories." One example is the assassination of John F. Kennedy. After the assassination, the government offered its explanation of the events. A large number of people (at one point, more than half of the adult population in the United States) simply do not believe the government's explanation. This particular conspiracy theory rose to such a high level in the public consciousness that an entire Hollywood movie was made about it: "JFK", directed by Oliver Stone and released in 1991.

More on the Kennedy Assassination

The Kennedy assassination really started the modern "conspiracy theory" movement. This is an event where the "official" government explanation of the crime was openly ridiculed by a large number of "normal citizens." Many people believe that the Kennedy assassination was carried out as part of a larger government-centered conspiracy, rather than as a random event arranged by a single gunman.

In the same way, a very large number of people do not believe that "terrorists" carried out the events seen on 9/11. Instead, they believe that the government caused those events.

Next, we'll look at how conspiracy theories get started.


How Conspiracy Theories Get Started

conspiracy theory
AP Photo/Carmen Taylor
A jet airliner lined up on one of the World Trade Center Towers on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

The events of 9/11/2001 are five years in the past, yet they are still a part of everyday life. Zacarias Moussaoui just began serving a life sentence after being convicted of taking part in the planning of the attack. At his trial, a large number of people recounted the horror of 9/11. The government also publicly played the tape from the cockpit voice recorder of Flight 93 for the first time. In addition, the movie "Flight 93" opened recently, with a huge amount of surrounding publicity. All of these events support the "official story" -- that terrorists hijacked four airplanes and crashed three of them into different targets, with passengers on the fourth flight forcing the jet down before it could do any damage.

Given the strength of the official story, the amount of evidence to support it and the fact that it has survived for five years without any significant public challenge, how can a conspiracy theory around 9/11 get started?

To understand how a conspiracy theory begins, let's look at the major events of 9/11. Most of us are familiar with this story because it has been repeated in the major media literally thousands of times and many of us lived through it as it happened. Here's a timeline of the events:

  • On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 Islamic terrorists board four domestic flights in the United States.
  • 7:59 a.m. - American Airlines Flight 11 leaves Logan Airport in Boston.
  • 8:14 a.m. - United Airlines Flight 175 also leaves Logan Airport.
  • 8:20 a.m. - American Airlines Flight 77 leaves Dulles Airport in Washington.
  • 8:41 a.m. - United Airlines flight 93 leaves Newark Airport in New Jersey.
  • 8:45 a.m. - Flight 11 hits the WTC North Tower.
  • 9:03 a.m. - Flight 175 hits the WTC South Tower.
  • 9:25 a.m. - The FAA orders a "national ground stop" for all airplanes in the United States. No plane can take off, and all planes in the air must land.
  • 9:30 a.m. - President Bush first addresses the nation and describes the events as an "apparent terrorist attack."
  • 9:43 a.m. - Flight 77 hits the Pentagon.
  • 10:05 a.m. - The South Tower falls.
  • 10:10 a.m. - Flight 93 crashes in Pennsylvania.
  • 10:10 a.m. - The wall at the Pentagon falls.
  • 10:28 a.m. - The North Tower falls.
  • 5:20 p.m. - WTC Building 7 falls.
  • 8:30 p.m. - President Bush addresses the nation, laying the blame for the attack on terrorists.

Everything in this timeline is publicly visible. There is no conjecture -- everything on this list happened, and much of it was broadcast live.

The "official story" offers one explanation for these events, and it all makes sense to some degree. For example, by 9:30 a.m. on 9/11, video of the second jet flying into the South Tower had already been widely circulated. On that day, every major news outlet already had their cameras trained on the North Tower and were covering the problem there, so the crash at the South Tower was filmed from many different angles and broadcast immediately. So when the President called it an apparent terrorist attack at 9:30 a.m., that made sense -- terrorists are people who hijack airplanes. By 8:30 p.m., lots of apparent evidence had been released to bolster the terrorist story. Flight attendants and passengers had used air phones and cell phones to call from several of the planes. Pilots on the planes had also triggered alarms and keyed cockpit microphones so people on the ground could hear what was happening.

As more and more evidence was released over the next several days, it became clear what happened: 19 terrorists hijacked four airplanes and caused massive destruction.

This is a pretty straightforward story. Hundreds of planes have been hijacked by terrorists in the past, so it is easy to imagine a coordinated attack on four airplanes at once. The idea of using planes as giant flying bombs was new and ingenious, but within the realm of possibility. It is very easy to believe the official story.

Image courtesy Department of Defense/Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force
The Pentagon prior to the attack

So for a conspiracy theory to get started, there has to be something that a conspiracy theorist can use, something that doesn't make sense. In some conspiracy theories, it's something very small. But in the case of 9/11, there are four big things that do not make much sense in the official story. These things include:

  • Three skyscrapers collapsed. Never has a skyscraper ever collapsed because of fire. When the North and South Towers collapsed, that might have seemed believable because of the giant airplanes that crashed into them. But when WTC 7 collapsed, that was completely unprecedented.
  • The way the President and his handlers acted when the second plane crashed into the South Tower. The reaction was strange. When the first plane crashed into the North Tower, it might be possible to excuse the behavior of the President's team because maybe nobody really knew what happened. However, by the time the second jet hit, everyone knew what was happening, so the fact that the President and his handlers did not respond immediately is certainly odd.
  • The Pentagon could be hit by a big, lumbering passenger jet. On the face of it, that seems completely impossible. The Pentagon, after all, is the nerve center for the largest and most sophisticated military organization that the world has ever known. So it is reasonable to assume that there would be a defensive system in place, making the building invulnerable. Surely buildings like the Pentagon would be protected by surface-to-air missiles, wouldn't they? The attack on the Pentagon happened 58 minutes after the first plane crashed into the North Tower, which was plenty of time to scramble jets and protect Washington, D.C. even if there were no missiles on the ground.
  • Not one of the four hijacked planes was shot down by fighters, even though fighter interception is fairly standard. This is also strange, especially in the case of the Pentagon. For example, when Payne Steward's Lear jet went off course in 1999, more than 10 planes intercepted it over the course of its flight, with the first interception happening within 20 minutes of flight controllers noticing a problem [ref]. So why was there an apparent lack of response to these four hijacked jets?

These are not subtle -- these are big things that anyone can see. A conspiracy theorist (especially one with an axe to grind) might notice dozens of other anomalies. So the conspiracy theorist notices one or more things that do not "make sense" in the official story. Any one of these discrepancies might be enough to get a person's attention.

Next we'll look at how conspiracy theorists gather evidence and build a case for another explanation.


Building a Case

Here is the interesting thing about a conspiracy theory. The theory does have to start with some sort of discrepancy, but from that point the theorist has to explain everything that happened in a believable way. If the theorist cannot do that, then the theory is not going to hold up and no one will believe it. So he has to do a lot of work gathering evidence and looking for alternative explanations.

Let's look at an example of how this might work. Assume that the conspiracy theorist looks at the fall of WTC 7. The theorist notes that the building did not partially collapse or crumple -- it fell exactly like a building would if the building were being demolished. So the theorist hypothesizes that the fall of WTC 7 was a pre-planned demolition rather than an actual, natural collapse of the building. The first thing that the theorist must do is to show that WTC 7 could credibly be conceived as a demolition. How might he make that determination? He might consider facts like these:

  1. No skyscraper has ever fallen because of a fire. WTC 7 was not hit by an airplane, and while it did have a fire burning when it collapsed, the fire was not "out of control," or widespread. Therefore, to have the building collapse is highly unusual.

  2. When looking at videos of the collapse, the building falls in a completely uniform way, just like a demolition. See videos on this page for three examples. If the fall of WTC 7 had been a natural collapse, it seems highly unusual for the collapse to be so uniform.

    WTC 7
    AP Photo/Ryan Remiorz, Pool
    Firefighters hose down the smoldering remains of 7 World Trade Center on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001.

  3. It would be impossible, on the day of September 11, given all the turmoil, destruction and difficulty of that day, for New York City to recognize that WTC 7 is having a problem, contact and contract with a demolition team, obtain all of the explosives, transport the team and the explosives to the site, and then plant a whole building full of explosives so that an unplanned demolition could take place.

In other words, the theorist concludes, by looking at the evidence, that it is impossible that WTC 7 fell down naturally, and that it is impossible that it fell as part of a demolition arranged within a few hours on September 11. Having done that, it is reasonable to conclude that the fall of WTC 7 must have been a pre-planned demolition. Weeks before September 11, people had to get into WTC 7 to plant the demolition explosives.

By concluding that, however, the theorist has to explain everything else that happened on September 11. If WTC 7's demolition was pre-planned, then all of September 11 was pre-planned. The repercussions of that realization impact every part of the "official story." For example:

  • There were no terrorists. Or if there were, their actions were coordinated by the government rather than Al Queda.
  • Terrorists did not spontaneously fly the planes into the buildings -- the government did.
  • The North and South Towers were also rigged with explosives ahead of time, like WTC 7, and their collapses were staged events that killed thousands of innocent people.
  • The crash at the Pentagon was staged as well. Or, possibly, no passenger jet was involved at all. A missile may have struck the Pentagon instead of a jetliner.
  • Flight 93 may have never actually happened as described in the official story. It might have been completely staged as well, or it may have been shot by a missile.
This conspiracy story is radically different from the official story. But is it believable?

If you are willing to move past the revulsion that this story elicits, this new story is not too difficult to believe. Secretly rigging three buildings for demolition is not hard to imagine. The government has known teams of people trained to do things like this (such as Navy SEALS), and it is logical to assume that there are secret teams as well. It is easy to imagine the government taking over, or even substituting, the jets that crashed into the North and South Towers. It is easy to imagine a cruise missile being fired at the Pentagon and hitting it in exactly the way that the building was hit.

Now, the conspiracy theorist has to build a "conspiracy story" to explain everything that happened on September 11, and show evidence that the conspiracy story might actually have happened. Also, it would be helpful if the conspiracy story were more believable than the official story.

Creating the Theory
In order to create a complete conspiracy theory, the conspiracy theorist has to create a set of story elements that explain everything that happened in the event. He must then find evidence to support the story elements. Here is an example of how this process might work. We will use the collapse of the Twin Towers as a demonstration.

According to the official story, both the North and South Towers spontaneously collapsed because of the heat of the fires spawned by thousands of gallons of jet fuel. The fires weakened the structural steel in the buildings, which then sagged and collapsed. The buildings then pancaked floor-by-floor all the way to the ground.

A conspiracy theorist must show evidence for an alternative story. In this case, the theorist must demonstrate explicit evidence for a controlled demolition. So the theorist might point to evidence like the following:

  • Jet fuel does not burn hot enough to actually liquefy steel (nor do any of the other materials found in the towers) . You need a special chemical like thermite to do that. But there is video evidence of molten metal escaping from the buildings just prior to the collapse.

    Thermite reaction
    Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License
    This thermite reaction melted a cast iron skillet.

  • There is audible evidence of demolition explosions
  • There is visible evidence showing evenly-spaced explosions occurring in the towers as they collapsed
  • There is also direct evidence that demolition was planned on the site:
    I remember getting a call from the, er, fire department commander, telling me that they were not sure they were gonna be able to contain the fire, and I said, "We've had such terrible loss of life, maybe the smartest thing to do is pull it." And they made that decision to pull and we watched the building collapse.
    -- Larry Silverstein, the controller of Building 7, in an interview reproduced in the PBS documentary "America Rebuilds"
Theorists then start to assemble this evidence into a theory for that part of the story. In this case, the theory is that the WTC towers and WTC 7 collapsed because of demolition rather than structural failure. The theorist may broadcast this small part of the full "conspiracy story" in the hope of receiving more information, and certainly to get feedback. Here are some examples: The same process must occur on every part of the 9/11 story, creating a complete alternative explanation for what caused the events of 9/11:
  • Where did the airplanes that hit the towers come from? Were they the actual passenger jets, or something else?
  • If it wasn't terrorists flying those jets, then who or what flew them?
  • What happened to the passengers? did they actually exist, or did the government murder them, or some hybrid?
  • Who planted the demolition charges? When? How?
For all of these questions, the theorist needs to find evidence and weave it together. We'll look at how theorists test and promote their theories next.


Testing the Theory

The Pentagon, post-attack
Image courtesy Department of Defense/Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill
FBI agents, firefighters, rescue workers and engineers work at the Pentagon crash site on Sept. 14, 2001.

After researching, the conspiracy theorist comes up with his complete theory of what happened on the day of September 11. Now it is time to look at it as a whole. Does it make sense? Is it plausible? Is there a means, motive and opportunity available at every stage? Is there enough evidence to support the theory?

Most importantly, does the conspiracy theory actually explain what happened? Are there more gaps, or fewer gaps, when compared to the official story? In the case of 9/11, this conspiracy theory explains the following anomalies:

  • The fact that the North and South Towers collapsed at all and in identical ways.
  • The fact that the South Tower fell before the North Tower, even though the North tower was hit first, and the South Tower was hit obliquely rather than directly.
  • That WTC 7 fell at all (given that no airplane hit it), and the way that it fell.
    Larry Silverstein's quote about demolition.
  • Why the government was so intent in cleaning up and shipping scrap steel to recyclers instead of letting independent panels investigate the collapse.
  • Why the Pentagon was hit in the part of the building being renovated.
  • The fact that the path of destruction outside the Pentagon, in the outer wall of the Pentagon and in the inner structure of the Pentagon, does not really match the signature of a jumbo jet.
  • All of the secrecy and strangeness around the site of the Pentagon crash, instead of opening the site to a normal crash evaluation.
  • That the Pentagon, which should be the most highly defended building in the best-defended city in the world, was attacked at all.
  • Other strange incidents: the Pentagon war games running on 9/11, the lack of fighter intercepts, Bush's behavior on the morning of the attack, the location of Warren Buffett and other high-profile financiers on September 11, and more.

In other words, the conspiracy theory explains a large number of things that remain mysteries in the official story.

What is missing, of course, is a smoking gun. That is what makes it a conspiracy theory rather than reality. In the absence of a smoking gun -- a leaked internal memo, a whistleblower who actually participated in the event, direct evidence from one of the crash sites, et cetera -- it is difficult to prove a conspiracy theory. The fact that much of the evidence was quickly destroyed makes proof much harder, which in itself is a piece of circumstantial evidence in the conspiracy theory.


9/11 Conspiracy Theory Documentaries

Loose Change, 2nd edition

The next step is to get the word out. This process has been greatly simplified by the Internet, but it is still difficult because conspiracy theorists are swimming against the tide. There are four ways to spread the word:

  • Books are the traditional way, and dozens of books have been written.
  • Web sites are perhaps the easiest way. There are hundreds of Web sites with discussions about the 9/11 conspiracy.
  • Documentary films and videos.
  • Interviews on the radio and TV, and in newspapers and magazines, help promote books, Web sites and films.

Recently one of the splashiest efforts has been a documentary film called "Loose Change" that has been released on Google Video and YouTube. The interesting thing about this documentary is that it is one of the first to reach millions of people through free video channels. These open channels on the Internet make it much easier to spread conspiracy theories.

It also makes it easier for conspiracy theorists if they unite their efforts. An entire "9/11 Truth Movement" coalesced, giving individual theorists a stronger voice.

Then, as soon as conspiracy theories gain traction, a new phenomenon appears. People who believe the official story want to debunk the theorists. The debunkers have the same evidence-gathering and promotional tools at their disposal, and they put up resistance to conspiracy theories. One of the most prominent examples of the debunking phenomenon is an article in Popular Mechanics magazine: "9/11: Debunking The Myths". Then the conspiracy theorists react to the reactions (as in Popular Mechanics' "Assault on 9/11 Truth"), and a very large argument can ensue. These arguments can actually be helpful to the conspiracy theorists. The feedback requires them to refine their theories and the noise that the argument creates can attract attention.

Will these 9/11 conspiracy theories ever become more than theories? For example, would Congress ever re-open the 9/11 inquiry because of public pressure? At this point, it is impossible to tell. But it should be very interesting to see what happens.

For lots more information on conspiracy theories and related subjects, check out the links on the next page.