Tags: Five | Years | After | 9/11 | Urban | Legends | Flourish

Five Years After 9/11, Urban Legends Flourish

Tuesday, 05 September 2006 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The power of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists is not diminishing with time.

According to a recent Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll, more than a third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East.

Instructively, the same national survey of 1,010 adults also found that anger against the federal government stands at record levels — with 54 percent indicating they "personally are more angry" at the government than they used to be.

Widespread resentment and alienation toward the national government appears to be fueling a growing acceptance of conspiracy theories about the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the pollsters concluded.

Indeed, five years after that infamous day at the World Trade Center in New York City, at the Pentagon, and over a field in Pennsylvania, a simple Google search of "World Trade Center conspiracy" will still bring forward links to over half a million Web sites.

Beyond the resentment and alienation angle, experts have further opined that the dogged doubters of the 9/11 Commission report are cut from the same mental cloth as the doubters of the Warren Commission report into the assassination of President Kennedy — epic events must be rooted in epic circumstances.

It's part and parcel of the coping mechanism.

For the coolly rational among us, some of the theories and the theorists who invented them are easily enough dismissed.

In L'Effroyable Imposture (The Big Lie) and Le Pentegate (Pentagongate), French left-winger and author Thierry Meyssan fired up the notion that American Airlines Flight 77 never struck the Pentagon.

Relying on the apparent vanishing of the airplane after it rammed into the building, Meyssan gave birth to the outlandish legend that the U.S. government used a truck bomb, a smaller airplane, or a cruise missile to hit the Pentagon.

Well, what happened to the 64 passengers who died aboard Flight 77? Case closed.

Despite the absurd nature of the Flight 77 myth, the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs found it troublesome enough to lead off its discussion of, and debunking of 9/11 misinformation — generally noting that "conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11 attacks continue to circulate — especially on the Internet."

Some of the persistent urban legends, however, have been more problematic than the government's alleged self-inflicted wound.

Case in point: Pre-knowledge of the attacks was indicated by a pattern of profitable trading in the options of United and American Airlines — the carriers owning the hijacked planes.

According to the 9/11 Commission, however, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI eyeballed each trade and concluded that the pattern was totally innocent — traceable to a prosaic U.S. institutional investor who purchased 95 percent of the United Airlines "puts" on Sept. 6 as part of a trading strategy, which also included buying up 115,000 shares of American on Sept. 10.

Perhaps most troubling to the families of the heroes that wrested United Airlines Flight 93 from the control of the terrorists, causing it to fly into the ground near Shanksville, Pa., is the legend that an F-16 shot it out of the sky with a missile.

This unrelenting urban legend was bolstered in 2004 when a retired Army colonel pronounced on a radio talk show that Flight 93 was "taken out by the North Dakota Air Guard. I know the pilot who fired those two missiles to take down 93."

But in a Popular Mechanics inquiry into what really happened that day, that publication found an Air National Guard witness who substantiated that the pilot in question — although in the air that morning — never flew anywhere near Shanksville.

A clear example of the power of the Internet in starting and nurturing misinformation, this legend reportedly had its genesis with, predictably enough, Al-Manar, the TV arm of Hezbollah.

Quickly making the transition into English and on to the Internet, the repeated claim was "they [the Jewish employees] remarkably did not show up in their jobs the day the incident took place. No one talked about any Israeli being killed or wounded in the attacks."

Enter again the misinformation police of the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs, which noted that in its opinion the 4,000 figure apparently got a further head of steam from an article headlined "Hundreds of Israelis Missing in WTC Attack," which appeared in the Sept. 12 Internet edition of the Jerusalem Post.

The article stated, "The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem has so far received the names of 4,000 Israelis believed to have been in the areas of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon at the time of the attacks." Unknown conspiracy theorists apparently seized upon the 4,000 figure, transforming it into the false claim that 4,000 Jews did not report for work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, concluded the State Department.

The State Department noted that it was comfortable — based on the list of names, biographical information compiled by the New York Times, and information from records at New York City's medical examiner's office — there were at least 400 actual victims either confirmed or strongly believed to be Jewish.

Also prominently on the list of the most persistent urban legends is that the World Trade Center's twin towers were actually felled by a timed series of controlled demolitions.

Feeding this Internet-fueled rumor were theorists who could not fathom how planes hitting the giants at such heights could have caused such nearly simultaneous damage so many stories below the impacts — including the lobbies.

But the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce, concluded that plane debris cut through the utility shafts at the north tower's heart, creating a ready route for fiercely burning jet fuel to travel downward - clear to the lobby.

Similarly, in the case of the south tower, that agency concluded that burning fuel traveling down the elevator shafts disrupted the elevator systems and caused extensive damage to the lobbies.

The 9/11 Commission took special pains to debunk the urban legend that famously claimed the U.S. Air Force was ordered to stand down on 9/11, clearing the way for unencumbered terror attacks on the targets. The commission, among other things, concluded that F-15 fighters were scrambled at 8:46 a.m. from Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts — a distance of 153 miles from the World Trade Center.

But the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) did not know where to vector the alert fighter aircraft. Airliner transponders had been disabled by the terrorists.

NEADS personnel spent precious minutes searching their radar scopes. American Airlines Flight 11 struck the north tower at 8:46 a.m. Shortly after 8:50 a.m., while NEADS personnel were still trying to locate the flight, word reached them that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

Radar data show the Otis fighters were airborne at 8:53 a.m. Lacking a target, they were vectored toward military-controlled airspace off the Long Island coast. To avoid New York-area air traffic and uncertain about what to do, the fighters were directed into a holding pattern. From 9:09 to 9:13 a.m., the Otis fighters stayed in this holding pattern.

Bottom line: NEADS received notice of the hijacking nine minutes before it struck the north tower. That nine-minutes notice before impact, concluded the commission, was the most the military would receive of any of the four hijackings.

Although there are many, many more examples of the Internet-fueled 9/11 theories, a final one to be mentioned here are the legends engendered by the question: Why did President Bush calmly read a children's story about a pet goat and stay in the classroom for the time he did?

Conspiracy aficionados have taken the conduct as evidence that Bush knew about the attacks ahead of time.

The 9/11 Commission was unimpressed with the "mystery" that has so intrigued the theorists.

It was reported that then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told the investigative body he was standing with the president outside the classroom when senior adviser Karl Rove first informed them that a small, twin-engine plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. The president's initial reaction was that the incident must have been caused by pilot error.

At 8:55 a.m., before entering the classroom, the president spoke to then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who was at the White House.

She recalled first telling the president it was a twin-engine aircraft — and then a commercial aircraft — that had struck the World Trade Center, adding "that's all we know right now, Mr. President." The 9/11 Commission further concluded from the evidence and testimony that the president was seated in a classroom when, at 9:05 a.m., Card whispered to him: "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack."

The president instructed the committee that his instinct while on camera was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis. Members of the press were standing behind the children; he saw their phones and pagers start to ring. The president felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening.

In further findings, the commission noted that the president remained in the classroom for another five to seven minutes, while the children continued reading.

He then returned to a holding room shortly before 9:15 a.m., where he was briefed by staff and saw television coverage.

He next spoke to Vice President Dick Cheney, Rice, New York Gov. George Pataki, and then-FBI Director Robert Mueller. He decided to make a brief statement from the school before leaving for the airport. Secret Service officials told the commission they were anxious to move the president to a safer location, but did not think it imperative for him to run out the door.

The relatively exhaustive nature of this final debunking illustrates that cold and complete facts have a way of taking the wind from the sails of those who conjecture the worst scenarios based only upon a small snapshot.

Conspiracy theorists, however, never seem to let the facts cloud emotive judgments.


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WASHINGTON -- The power of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists is not diminishing with time. According to a recent Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll, more than a third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no...
Tuesday, 05 September 2006 12:00 AM
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