FEATURE WRITER from the Toronto Star
April 17th. 2004
It has been a pleasant but unremarkable dinner party in the Beaches, until suddenly the hostess tosses a bombshell across the table.
A bright, stylish businesswoman, well educated and successful, she abruptly announces that it was not a wide-bodied passenger jet that crashed into the Pentagon in Washington on that unforgettable morning, September 11, 2001.
Instead, she declares, what hit the Pentagon that day was a guided missile.
"A what ...?" you respond. "How do you figure that?"
Well, there were no airplane parts found in the wreckage at the scene, the woman explains. Besides, the hole smashed into the Pentagon's southwestern faηade was far too small to have been caused by a Boeing 757, the aircraft that authorities say collided with the building that morning.
The damage, she concludes, could only have been caused by a missile.
At once, you begin to question the woman's theory.
After all, American Airlines Flight 77 took off from Dulles International Airport at 8:10 that morning, bound for Los Angeles, but it was then hijacked and flown back to Washington. It crashed into the Pentagon at 9:40 a.m. All 58 passengers including the hijackers were killed, as were six crew members. One-hundred-twenty-six people in the building also died.
Meanwhile, hundreds of individuals were on the ground near the Pentagon at the time. They saw the plane hit the building.
But the hostess in the Beaches stands firm.
She is even able to explain why, in her view, U.S. political and military authorities are hiding the "truth" about what happened in Washington that day. She does not utter the telltale buzzword "conspiracy," but she is clearly aiming in that direction.
She is far from alone.
"Political conspiracies are sexy right now," says Robin Ramsay, publisher of a British magazine called Lobster, which devotes itself to the thorny task of separating genuine political conspiracies from the vastly more plentiful bogus ones. "I take the view that conspiracies are normal."
In these post-9/11 days, conspiracies are just about everywhere or, at least, conspiracy theories are.
More even than the death of Princess Diana in a bloody automobile crash in a Paris underpass almost seven years ago, the events of 9/11 have spawned a global industry of doubt, employing skeptics the world over, who hone and polish their private versions of reality at a rate and with a degree of fervour almost unequalled in human history. All of which inevitably raises the question:
Why don't we just believe what we're told?
"We are skeptical because we will never trust governments to tell us the totality of what happened," says Mark Fenster, a professor of law at the University of Florida and author of a book about conspiracy theories. "A certain amount of skepticism is a perfectly logical response."
These days, skepticism abounds. According to one recent U.S. public opinion poll, fully 59 per cent of Americans believe their government is "hiding something" about its handling of intelligence information prior to the aerial attacks that left some 3,000 people dead on Sept. 11, 2001.
An additional 11 per cent go even further, saying that the government is "mostly lying" about the unfolding of events before the attacks.
That's an impressive quantity of doubt and doubt, to conspiracy theorists, is like oxygen to a flame.
"I think it's very rational to have conspiracy theories," says Michael Adams, president of Environics Research Group Ltd., a Canadian public opinion polling firm. "Some conspiracy theories are right."
But most of them are flat-out wrong. The challenge is to tell the two kinds apart.
That isn't always easy in a world that seems to have been bitten by the same possibly extra-terrestrial bug that produced The X-Files, the long-running TV show about two U.S. secret-service agents on the trail of a vast, evil conspiracy.
Meanwhile, the Internet is aglow with paranoid political theories, bizarre urban legends, and diverse hoaxes, often presented in such a way that they seem indistinguishable from the fabric of verifiable truth.
"If you just plug into the Internet," says Ramsay, "you can't tell what's real from what isn't."
It turns out, for example, that Our Lady of the Beaches is not the only person who firmly believes that it was a missile and not an airplane that collided with the Pentagon one bright September morning two and a half years ago.
Get thee to thy computer and go to Web sites such as Physics911.org or freedomfiles.org, where the same tendentious thesis is propounded. And propounded. And propounded.
"The key tactic of a good conspiracy theorist is, you overwhelm the listener with so much detail that it's just got to be `true,'" says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "Eventually, most of us cry uncle."
A lot of conspiracy theorists look back upon the events of 9/11, and what they perceive is not the dark and sinister plot that U.S. authorities would have them see in other words, a ruthless strategy by Islamic extremists to sow terror among Americans but an even darker and more nefarious narrative, one that unfolds in a twilit netherworld where all-powerful beings loom in the shadows, where nothing is as it seems, and where the forces of good and evil clash.
Sound crazy? Maybe. Or maybe not.
"You could say that conspiracy theories are nascent religious impulses," says Christopher Dewdney, a Toronto poet and author. "It's trying to make a higher metaphysical order. It's very Dark Ages."
If you're feeling brave, type the phrase "conspiracy theories" into the Google search engine on your computer, along with the digits "9/11."
Watch out. Almost immediately, you will be inundated with a list of about 39,800 web sites.
By way of comparison, what used to be North America's most fertile source of conspiracy theories the assassination four decades ago of John F. Kennedy or "JFK" yields a list of about 20,800 sites, which is still quite a lot.
"You can't look at American history in the last 40 years and not see all sorts of conspiracies,'' says Lobster's Ramsay. ``That's what American history is a heaving series of political conspiracies."
But don't stop with Americans. Take almost any significant event in human history the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the French Revolution, the outbreak of World War I, the death of Marilyn Monroe and a procession of conspiracy theories is sure to follow, ranging from the lurid through the crackpot to the quite-possibly-true.
After all, who killed Julius Caesar?
Hint: It was a conspiracy.
"It's kind of an instinct to interpret things according to a conspiracy," says Fenster. "The conspiracy story is a powerful and flexible one."
Flexible is right.
Many 9/11 conspiracy theorists maintain that the two aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York were actually guided to their targets, not by Al Qaeda hijackers, but by the U.S. military itself, using remote-control devices.
Still others are convinced that the 9/11 attacks were really the work of Israeli security agents, aiming to discredit the Arab world in America's eyes. There are dozens of other theories about what "really" happened that morning.
"A lot of these conspiracy theorists are totally sincere," says Thompson, "and I don't think they're totally crazy."
But are any of them er, well, you know right?
When it comes to 9/11, Ramsay believes that the answer in most cases seems to be no, nein, non. They're probably wrong.
Like many mainstream observers, he is prepared to believe that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush ignored intelligence warnings prior to the aerial attacks in New York and Washington perhaps that it did so deliberately but he does not credit those who claim the U.S. government secretly staged the disaster itself for its own selfish purposes.
"I have to see evidence," says Ramsay. "I don't believe any of that."
For the record, Ramsay enjoys a good conspiracy theory as much as anyone and certainly does not reject all such notions out of hand. For example, he insists there was a conspiracy behind Kennedy's shooting in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, although he says it was not the work of the Central Intelligence Agency or of Cuban exiles opposed to Fidel Castro, as many theorists propose.
Instead, Ramsay believes that Lyndon B. Johnson the U.S. vice-president who succeeded Kennedy in the Oval Office masterminded the assassination in order to further his own political ambitions.
Of course, that's just Ramsay's view. He might very well be wrong, and so the debate over who really killed JFK like the swirl of rumours around the death of Princess Diana, say, or around the alleged suicide of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain will never truly end.
"It's virtually impossible for a conspiracy theorist to admit that they're incorrect," says Fenster. "It's a commitment that is so absolute that any empirical evidence that contradicts your theory has got to be explained or it has got to be ignored."
Many conspiracy theories are fairly benign for example, the widespread conviction that Elvis Presley is still alive but others are more troubling, such as the panic that swept parts of the United States during the 1980s, when many people became convinced that a network of devoted Satanists was ritually abusing the nation's children and murdering up to 60,000 Americans a year.
During the 1990s, thousands of otherwise sane North Americans came to believe that they had at some point been kidnapped and sexually abused by aliens. It didn't seem to matter if they did not remember experiencing such an episode themselves. That merely provided further evidence of the conspiracy for the aliens would surely have tampered with their victims' memories.
"Lots and lots of people, many of them intelligent and well-educated, nonetheless had this experience," says Ramsay.
Or they thought they had.
Other conspiracy theories are not merely nutty. They are malevolent in the extreme. Many of the most poisonous yet persistent of these have long revolved around religion or race.
In the early years of the last century, for example, a book began circulating in Russia and Europe, called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion supposedly, a master plan by a small cabal of wealthy Jews to achieve world dominion.
The tract was a complete fabrication probably the work of Russian security officials with the backing of Tsar Nicholas II but it served as the justification for waves of pogroms against European Jews and for the loss of countless lives. Translations of the book continue to be widely read, and believed, in the Arab world today.
There is sometimes only a very thin line between conspiracy theories, on the one hand, and racist or paranoid delusions, on the other.
Down through history, wonky belief systems have thrived, based on the conviction that powerful groups or organizations Jews or Freemasons or even the Trilateral Commission, which since 1973 has sought to develop close ties among Europe, North America and Japan are secretly in control of world events, operating as an omnipotent and evil cabal often referred to as the Illuminati, after a small group of Bavarian anti-monarchists that briefly flourished during the late 18th century.
Ramsay says these "mega-conspiracy theories" are losing ground in an increasingly fragmented world, where thousands of competing explanations for important events must vie for credibility in cyber-space or on television.
"There's no Great Conspiracy," he says. "Nobody is controlling everything."
Instead, there are legions of lesser conspiracies or, anyway, conspiracy theories.
Dewdney, for one, looks askance at most such ideas, but the writer is especially critical of theorists who seem to endow governments with a nearly perfect ability to keep the people in a state of complete ignorance about certain deep, dark secrets.
"If governments were as effective as these people give them credit for," he says, "they'd be much more effective than any government I know of. We know that governments are a quagmire."
On the other hand, says Dewdney, "there are successful conspiracies."
In fact, over the long centuries of human existence, there have been no end of sinister plots that have succeeded, many of them resulting in death and suffering and war, and a lot of them carried out by governments, no doubt including but certainly not limited to the Bush administration in Washington.
Realizing this, no one should be surprised that so many members of the human race persist in believing that all is not as it seems or that there really is a conspiracy afoot.
"I'm sure there were people sitting in caves, convinced that the people in the cave next door were conspiring to take over," says Thompson, "and oftentimes they were."