As their movement withers, 9/11 conspiracy theorists are holding one last Toronto blowout.
This week, at Ryerson University in Toronto, a group of normal-looking middle-aged men will conduct a conference grandly entitled “The International Hearings on the Events of September 11, 2001.” Casual observers who pass by Ryerson may be somewhat mystified by this spectacle. Didn’t the U.S. 9/11 Commission release its authoritative report years ago? Why would we need new “international hearings” on the subject – and in Canada, of all places?
In fact, if you look beyond the grand title, what you have is a convention for conspiracy theorists. These “9/11 Truth” activists tell us their goal is “to present evidence that the U.S. government’s official investigation into the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as pursued by various government and government-appointed agencies, is seriously flawed and has failed to describe and account for the 9/11 events.” If you interview them at length – as I did for my recently published HarperCollins book, Among the Truthers – you will find that every one of them believes (or at least suspects) that 9/11 was an evil “false flag” operation secretly plotted and executed by Dick Cheney and his minions, as a pretext to launch wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Read about the 9/11 colouring book controversy here.
The 19 Arab hijackers on board the demolished aircraft, they will tell you, were mere patsies. They will also tell you that al-Qaeda is either a figment of our imagination or a pawn controlled by the CIA for the purpose of such fake terrorist attacks. If you attend this week’s convention, you will also get to look at hundreds upon hundreds of eye-glazing PowerPoint slides purporting to show how this or that puff of dust proves there were explosives in the World Trade Center buildings (including little-known Building 7, which has attained quasi-mythical status in conspiracist lore).
Conspiracy theories have been around for centuries, of course: In my book, I trace their history back to the Crusades, the French Revolution, and, more recently, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But the internet has turbo-charged the way conspiracy theories are spread.
Back in the old, pre-web era, the biggest problem that conspiracy theorists faced was getting their message out (since they were typically shunned by the mainstream media). The internet completely destroyed this problem: Suddenly, conspiracy theorists could spread their message to millions of people for free. Moreover, they could spruce up their drab tracts with all sorts of multimedia effects – especially video, which is their most effective form of propaganda. (Many readers, for instance, will have heard of the 9/11 Truth film Loose Change, which has been viewed online by millions of web surfers, despite the fact that it was made on a tiny budget by filmmakers barely out of their teens.)
The 9/11 Truth movement has been a case study in the way that conspiracy theorists use the internet to build up a large, technically complex, socially constructed conspiracy theory. Everywhere you go around the world, you will find 9/11 “Truthers.” In the Muslim world, in particular, the idea that the United States (and Israel) were responsible for executing the 9/11 plot has become part of received wisdom.
Why do people embrace conspiracy theories? This is a complex question that I explore at length in Chapter 5 of Among the Truthers (in which I divide conspiracy theorists into eight distinct psychological categories). But the short answer is that conspiracy theories always flourish in times of great trauma – such as after the French and Russian revolutions, JFK’s assassination, 9/11, and the 2008 recession. Like religions, conspiracy theories supply an explanation for evil (i.e. an answer to the age-old theological question of why bad things happen to good people). Unlike religions, they do not supply a god – but they do supply a demon. And for many people, that is more important.
As a Canadian, I have found it interesting to observe that there are many Canucks who are prominent in the 9/11 Truth movement (which helps explain why this week’s event is in Toronto). These include Toronto resident Barrie Zwicker, who was once a respected Globe and Mail journalist and is now more or less a full-time conspiracy theorist; University of Guelph English professor Michael Keefer; University of Lethbridge globalization-studies professor Anthony J. Hall (who, amazingly, actually helped secure a government-funded scholarship for a graduate student who promotes 9/11 conspiracy theories); and Michel Chossudovsky, who runs a conspiracist website with the superficially important-sounding name “Global Research.” Even the Toronto Star has occasionally given space in its pages for articles by hard-left activists Antonia Zerbisias and Michele Landsberg, who parrot the same set of “questions” posed by 9/11 conspiracy theorists. While these theories have not yet become mainstream in Canadian pundit circles, they do receive indirect support from the streak of anti-Americanism that has long infected the nation’s intellectual and academic circles.
Why are there no Canadian conspiracies? Jonathan Kay explains it here.
All this said, I believe the 9/11 Truth movement has been in decline since 2008. This is the result of a number of factors:
1. The primary motivation for many Truthers was the war in Iraq (which is why the Truth movement did not peak until between 2004 and 2006, several years after the 9/11 attacks). Many anti-war critics saw that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and then asked themselves, “What else was the U.S. government lying about?” Now that the Iraq war is in denouement and out of the headlines, the impulse toward 9/11 conspiracism has been reduced.
2. The great villains of the 9/11 Truth movement were the “neocons” in the Bush administration. Once those neocons left office, 9/11 conspiracy theories were like Hollywood action films without villains. Some Truthers transferred their suspicion to the new president, Barack Obama, and the people around him, claiming that the Democrats were covering up for the crimes committed by the Republicans. But it was a dubious jump – even for conspiracy theorists.
3. For millions of North Americans, the 2008 financial crisis and the resulting recession have now superseded the 9/11 attacks as the defining trauma of our era. Thus, new conspiracy theories tend to focus on financial themes (especially the Federal Reserve) rather than military and geopolitical themes. I have also observed a transfer of conspiracist attention to crank health scares, such as those involving WiFi computer networks.
9/11 conspiracy theories won’t disappear entirely. Rather, they will sink into the subterranean edifice of paranoia on which future conspiracy theories build their new fantasies – much in the way that many 9/11 Truthers based their own attitudes on conspiracy theories from the JFK era and the Cold War. This week’s hearings in Toronto may be thought of as one last paranoid blowout before the movement fades into the history books.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.