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How Conspiracy Theories Work

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.