Why I Am Not A Conspiracy Theorist

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In response to my article about the sordid history of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, I received a number of e-mails. Here’s one of them:

You ignorant ****, don’t you know that the govt plotted the attacks to look like it was Saudis, media people like you just repeat govt lies, why are you doing their bidding, they can’t even run a school lunch program without screwing it up.

Of course, I won’t reveal the writer’s identity. (For all I know, he or she may’ve given me a pseudonym.) You know who you are, but because I’m a lady, I won’t humiliate and embarrass you.

The reason I’m sharing that e-mail is to show why I have no truck with conspiracy theorists, whether they’re pontificating about 9/11, the Kennedy Assassination or how the AIDS epidemic began.

First of all, the message reveals a glaring problem that nearly all conspiracy theorists (at least the ones of whom I’m aware) share: Self-contradiction. For me, it’s a bit of a stretch, to say the least, to believe that a group of people that can’t run a school lunch program is capable of orchestrating events that required precise timing and coordination among competing individuals or groups of people. By the same token, I wonder how a government that blew it in the Bay of Pigs could actually pull off a successful covert operation to kill President Kennedy.

Whatever else one might say about the events of 9/11, they were synchronized and executed almost perfectly. And, the results were almost exactly what one imagines the masterminds and executors of the day’s events would have wanted: the aforementioned loss of life and property and millions of survivors numb with shock and grief.

Can you imagine any government program or activity — save, perhaps, for a war — working so well?

Second of all, conspiracy theories rest almost entirely on speculation. They rely on notions that are nearly impossible to prove. Often any sort of empirical evidence is lacking. Even when it’s available, different people come to different conclusions from looking at it, as anyone who’s been at a trial knows.

In the case of 9/11, conspiracy theorists cite the passenger lists of Flights 11, 93 and 175. None of them contained “Arab" names. (As we all know, the names would be "Arabic," not "Arab," but that is the locution that most of the conspiracy theorists use.) While that may be true, it proves nothing more than the fact that no one on those flights was traveling under an "Arab" name. There could have been legitimate reasons for this, of course: People change their names because of marriage or any number of valid reasons. But, to me, it seems most likely that a hijacker would simply avoid using his or her real name.

There are probably many other explanations for the lack of Arab names on the passenger lists. Which is the most plausible? It all depends on whom you ask.

Some of the e-mails also mentioned the way the steel beams of the Towers buckled, and that there is no other record of similar structures buckling from impact or heat. I won’t dispute that, but another important point is often missed: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which built and owned the buildings, was notorious for substandard construction at inflated prices. The Authority was not bound by any of the building safety codes that ruled builders in New York and New Jersey, and it is known that contractors routinely misrepresented their work to the Authority. Some of the steel beams weren’t of the necessary thickness of the strength, and in much of the building, they weren’t insulated. At least one engineer has said that the planes struck the "weak links" of the Towers.

And how did the adjacent World Trade Center 7 fall? I don’t pretend to have an answer to that one. But using speculation that leads to contradiction of actual events (i.e., that planes struck the North and South Towers) does nothing to lead us to the truth.

Another reason why I don’t spend much time around conspiracy theories and theorists is that, in my experience, conspiracy theorists tend to be very passive people. They complain and accuse, but they rarely, if ever, take any kind of substantial action. One of the best characterizations of the passivity of conspiracy theorists can be seen in the film Slacker.

I think the inherent nature of ruminating about actual or imagined conspiracies leads people to inaction because, in essence, such theories say that the conspirators are "out there," beyond reach.

I first came to understand this during my days as an AIDS activist. While doing that work, I spoke to a number of people who believed that government scientists concocted the HIV virus (which, despite evidence to the contrary, is still cited as the cause of AIDS) to destroy gays and African-Americans.

Their frustration was understandable: Their friends, family members, lovers and spouses were dying from something that seemed, at the time, to come out of nowhere. While I sympathized with them (I myself have lost fourteen friends and others who were important in my life to AIDS-related illnesses), I couldn’t go along with them in their claim.

For one thing, as I mentioned, none of them had ever met a government scientist, or anyone who represented any organization for whom those scientists worked. Not that meeting one would lead to getting at the truth; I understand as well as anyone that representatives of government routinely misrepresent themselves and their motives. But imputing evil deeds to people whom one has never met simply gives the people and deeds more power than they deserve to have, and precludes any hope of freeing oneself.

The reasons why I don’t align myself with conspiracy theorists are, in essence, the same ones that prevent me from believing at least some parts of official accounts of events. Perhaps some of what I said about the way the Towers went down will be disproved. And there are certainly reasons to suspect governmental complicity in a cover-up, not the least among them the Bush family’s cozy relationship with the Saudi royal family. That could explain, in part, why an ostensible hunt for Osama Bin Laden turned into an invasion of Iraq.

However, by the same token, I don’t think that adopting theories based on speculation does much to counter the lies and disinformation, whether from the government or any other group of people. Only thorough research based on empirical evidence is effective in countering the untruths.

Finally, I must say one more thing: I find it ironic that I’m writing an article in response to people (like the one who wrote the e-mail I reproduced at the beginning of this article) who were reacting to 137 words of a 2113-word article I wrote! And the point of that article wasn’t the events of 9/11 itself or who was responsible for them: It was to the Twin Towers were not the icons of capitalism, as many people (including the ones who seem to have plotted and caused their destruction) believed they were.

Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.

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