Except for passing references when writing about conspiracy theories in general, I have never written about Sept. 11 truthers. For starters, it is one of the more hackneyed skeptic topics and so much has been written about it already.
Second, I’ve never understood what point the theorists were supposed to be making. Let’s allow that explosives brought down the twin towers. Where’s one piece of evidence that the devices were planted by Bush minions (or Israelis or Russians or Saddam henchmen, if favoring those alternatives to the alternative)? Perhaps bin Laden had his agents infiltrate the towers and hide explosives there as a backup in case the hijackings failed.
Third, I lack the technical knowledge to add anything to claims and counterclaims regarding building strengths, cut beams, how fires spread, and so on.
But after one of my passing references to truthers, I was challenged by a couple of them on what happened at the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Of course, it’s up to them to prove their claim; it’s not on me to disprove it. But in the spirit of generosity, I’ll examine some of what they say.
Islamic terrorists overpowered those aboard American Airlines Flight 77 and flew the hijacked plane into the Pentagon, killing 59 crew members and passengers, 125 military personnel, and the five perpetrators. Evidence for this includes communication between the airliner and air traffic control, phone calls from victims to those on the ground, and eyewitness accounts.
However, theorists dismiss what they call the “official story,” a term that carries no meaning and which is intended to disparage and cast doubt. There is no official story, merely a mainstream one. When the term is used, it is meant to suggest cover-up, tainted authorities, and a lie that enterprising conspiracy theorists must courageously break through and expose.
But such investigations are almost invariably threadbare in terms of actual, provable evidence. When theorists allegedly examine whether a particular mass shooting was fabricated, they fail to take even the rudimentary step of checking with the county clerk’s office where the tragedy took place to see if victims’ death certificates are on file. Another major problem with how they operate is that if such documentation is presented, it is considered to be part of the conspiracy. That also goes for any grieving family member, hospital worker, or reporter who corroborates the “official story.”
Standards of evidence are so loose that one conspiracy website found it unusual that there would be a dozen reporters at the World Trade Center and Pentagon within minutes, even though that could be said of persons in most professions in cities that size. Additionally, most major news agencies have police scanners running 24-7 and reporters go to work each day ready to speed to the scene of breaking news.
There is overwhelming evidence that the Pentagon was hit by a hijacked airliner, but in an event that momentous, there are going to be a few anomalies and conspiracy theorists seize on these half dozen or so while ignoring the hundreds of pieces of proof that deviates from their narrative.
This is not an attempt to wade through the muck of the multiple five-hour YouTube videos on the topic, but rather we will be hitting some of the lowlights.
Perhaps the most frequently-raised point is that security video showed a missile (or at least something that is not a 757) slamming into the Pentagon. There is only one frame showing a slender white streak approaching the building and then an explosion. Theorists assert the object is too small to be an airplane. Again, I’m unsure what this is meant to prove. Be it an airplane, missile, rocket, or unknown secret weapon, that still says nothing about who sent it barreling into the Pentagon.
But beyond that, there are reasons to reject the missile claim. Its apparent size was due not to object itself but what was capturing it. The security camera has an ultra-wide angle lens, which allows it to capture a wider area but which also distorts objects. It makes the Pentagon looked curved and this distortion is why the airplane appeared sleeker and narrower that what it was.
Onto the second point. The modus operandi of most theorists is to take two disparate facts and tie them together without seeing if there is a connection. One of the few times that I engaged a 9/11 truther, I raised my usual objection that even if explosives were smuggled into the World Trade Center, there was no evidence that the government did it. The totality of her response was that Marvin Bush was in charge of security for the Center on Sept. 11. This is where conspiracy theorists make their biggest error. They presume that any fact that might be consistent with their narrative constitutes evidence for it. Yes, if George W. Bush wanted to fly airplanes into the twin towers, having his brother in charge of security could conceivably aid in this, but that’s a long ways from meaning that this happened. She was content to throw out a fact, tie it to a wholly unsupported notion, then declare victory. She presented no conspirators coming forward, no video tape of the planning meeting, no unclassified documents, no purloined FBI or CIA letters, no forensic evidence of Bush DNA on explosives residue, and no criminal convictions from the deadliest crime in U.S. history.
Similarly, theorists make a big deal about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office being at the opposite end of the building from where the Pentagon was struck. Yes, if Rumsfeld plotted the attack, he may have taken steps to ensure his security. But by this logic, any military bigwig that wasn’t in the Pentagon that day could be tagged as a perpetrator. Or one could blame any Congressman or Senator since the Capitol was spared that day. Hell, just pin this one on Monsanto as well; after all, the company was completely unaffected.
Another frequent objection of theorists is that a 757 has a 125-foot wingspan, yet the hole it put in the Pentagon was barely half that size. Popular Mechanics tackled this issue and reported, “A crashing jet doesn’t punch a cartoon-like outline of itself into a reinforced concrete building. In this case, one wing hit the ground and the other was sheared off by the force of the impact with the Pentagon’s load-bearing columns.” This is consistent with what was seen by eyewitnesses, including USA Today eyewitness Mike Walter. There are dozens of such witnesses, compared to zero who report having seen a missile.
The three points we’ve examined so far were at least based, very tenuously, on things that were true: The image looked too narrow to be a plane, the hole it left was 75 feet wide, and it plowed into the part of the building that was away from where Rumsfeld worked. But now we look at claims that are 100 percent false, beginning with the insistence that there were no airplane parts on the ground.
Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning examined this claim and he found that even a rudimentary search showed this to be wholly in error. He wrote, “Debris from the plane was everywhere, including easily identified mechanical parts from the landing gear and engines and lots of twisted aluminum painted in Boeing BAC452 Green Epoxy Primer.” Further, wreckage was reported by Pentagon employees, rescue personnel, and reporters, and was even seen on live reports of the event.
Beyond this, there are transcripts of conversations between air traffic controllers and those onboard, in addition to graphs from the flight data recorder which show the plane’s descending altitude. Another falsehood is the claim that this descent would be impossible for a full-sized passenger plane. But this requires ignoring the graph data, calls from passengers to family members, eyewitnesses, and fight transcripts. Refuting all this, at least in the theorists’ bug-eyes, is one seeming anomaly, that of a Dulles air traffic controller saying, “You don’t fly a 757 in that manner.” Conspiracy theorists often cite this comment as evidence that the controllers knew it was not a 757.
But this misrepresents what the controller, Danielle O’Brien, said in totality. The full quote was, “All of us experienced air traffic controllers thought that it was a military plane. You don’t fly a 757 in that manner. It’s unsafe.” She wasn’t asserting that a 757 was incapable of flying in the manner she was observing. Rather, she was saying it would be dangerous to do so. And obviously, flying the aircraft in a dangerous manner is what the hijackers intended.
Another fabrication is that Pentagon missiles would have shot down any approaching kamikaze aircraft. But this missile defense system exists only in the mind of author Thierry Meyssan, who referenced it in his book 9/11: The Big Lie. Dunning wrote, “If such a defense system existed but was not used and not a single Pentagon employee complained about it. Even the friends of the 125 employees killed raised no objection. None of the hundreds of thousands of photographs and videos of the Pentagon show a missile defense system, nor do the blueprints nor construction photographs. No one has ever worked there has reported knowledge of such a thing.”
There are also logistical considerations. The Pentagon is situated very close to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Planes landing at the airport fly over the Pentagon at low altitude and two of its runways are barely half a mile from the Pentagon. Any missile defense system would have no time to react if a rouge airliner came its way. And again, even if there was a missile defense system, theorists have given us no evidence as to who it should have been aimed at.
Seems like a lot of strawman arguments constructed in a way to make conspiracists look silly. That’s fun, of course, but it kind of avoids one important discussion which is: Is it possible to knock 3 buildings down in less than 12 hours using only two passenger planes and the fuel available on the planes and in the buildings? And not just knock them down, but have the three buildings fall into their own footprint in the manner that is considered best practice result in building demolition? Is that possible?
An open mind is an important part of scientific mindset.