When Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden in a nighttime raid on May 2, many in the media wondered whether a new conspiracy group of “deathers” would rise up to replace the recently deflated bubble of “birthers.” The number of potential “deathers”—those who doubt Bin Laden is dead—ranged between 12 percent and 15 percent, according to a pair of May polls from Fox News and Zogby. Among 9/11 conspiracy theorists, though, it is practically a given that the May raid was a hoax. Many believe that Bin Laden died long ago, probably in 2001, and that the video and audio recordings of him broadcast over the years were government-manufactured fakes.
The May 2 raid “was Barack Obama saying we’re getting our ass kicked in Afghanistan, the empire is collapsing, let’s do a phony show to kill Osama, declare victory, and go home,” said early 9/11 conspiracy theorist Michael Ruppert. Ruppert believes that Obama needed Bin Laden killed in order to be able to justify his Afghanistan troop withdrawal plan. The new plan, according to Ruppert, is to send those troops to Iraq, “or to get them back home for civil unrest here. Which is going to happen, like real soon.” Meanwhile, David Ray Griffin, another leading conspiracist, says the raid story “sounds fishy” because Bin Laden’s body was buried at sea before it could be positively identified to Griffin’s satisfaction.
And so it goes. The decade since 9/11 has given rise to a panoply of conspiracy theories accusing the government of complicity in the attacks. These theories remained on the fringes of political life in the first few years after 9/11, grew in popularity with the unpopularity of Bush and the war in Iraq in the middle of the decade, and faded with the end of the Bush administration. But they have not died completely. As long as there is public distrust of government—and with the financial crisis, the collapse of the economy, and the recent debt ceiling debate, public opinion of Washington is at a record low—there will be conspiracy theories.
More specifically, there will probably always be 9/11 conspiracy theories. “I think that it was inevitable that a conspiracy, maybe many conspiracy theories, would arise, because inordinate tragedy is almost always accompanied by such conspiracies,” says Lawrence Wright, whose Pulitzer Prize winning Looming Tower is the definitive account of the rise of al-Qaida. “People have a view of the world and they want to make the facts conform to that view.”
Professional conspiracists like radio host Alex Jones and Ruppert preached conspiracy theories for years before 2001. But for many “truthers,” as they would call themselves, the 9/11 conspiracy was a kind of gateway drug. Most of the leading activists I spoke with became involved in the movement because of the Iraq war, but their anger at the Bush administration soon spread to all major institutions of government and media. “In order to maintain the bubble of the conspiracy, it needs to get more demonic, and it needs to include more people,” explains 9/11 conspiracy apostate Charlie Veitch. “You need more and more evil until you hit the wall of absurdity.”
The theory that Veitch gave the most credence to was that there was an ancient order of freemasons, or illuminati, or an extremely rich central banking family that had been in control of all world events since the time of Babylon. According to this theory, 9/11 was a propaganda spectacle orchestrated to make the common man fearful. “There’s something about it which appeals to the ego in people,” Veitch said. “You suddenly feel empowered by having secret knowledge.”
A more typical theory about who is behind world events like 9/11, espoused by Alex Jones, is that a hodgepodge of disparate banking, corporate, globalization, and military interests are working together to bring about a New World Order of centralized “globalist” government. Jones’ “world government” bogeyman has been around for decades. In his quintessential essay on the psychology of paranoia in American political life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter describes an episode from 1964:
Shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, a great deal of publicity was given to a bill, sponsored chiefly by Senator Thomas E. Dodd of Connecticut, to tighten federal controls over the sale of firearms through the mail. When hearings were being held on the measure, three men drove 2,500 miles to Washington from Bagdad, Arizona, to testify against it. Now there are arguments against the Dodd bill which, however unpersuasive one may find them, have the color of conventional political reasoning. But one of the Arizonans opposed it with what might be considered representative paranoid arguments, insisting that it was “a further attempt by a subversive power to make us part of one world socialistic government” and that it threatened to “create chaos” that would help “our enemies” to seize power.
In the case of 9/11, Bush’s policies in Iraq and the administration’s guardedness with the 9/11 Commission helped create conditions that allowed the conspiracy theory to get a hearing. But the conspiracy theory was always going to exist.
“Like in the case of the Kennedy assassination, [when] you have a horrible tragedy that seems absurd and it’s hard to account for the fact that a single individual could inflict so much grief on the nation, there’s a natural tendency to believe that there must be more at work,” says Lawrence Wright. “In the case of 9/11 there was a sense of disbelief that a man in a cave in Afghanistan could reach out and humiliate the most powerful nation in the history of the world. How could that happen? It must be that something else was at work and because we are so powerful, we must have done it to ourselves.”
When Wright was touring the country with his book, he would regularly be confronted by conspiracy theorists who hadn’t read the book but thought that, through clever questioning, they could demolish a case he had arrived at by five years of research and interviews with 600 sources. “I spent a lot of time trying to reason with various people who had these kinds of perspectives. And it was very frustrating,” he said. “There was absolutely no way to argue with them because they rejected any kind of factual evidence.”
After his book came out, Wright had occasion to discuss the alternative view of 9/11 with Alex Jones. Both men live in Austin, and both are friends with director Richard Linklater, who featured Jones as a street prophet in two of his films, A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. During a party at Linklater’s home near the Lost Pines of East Central Texas, the Slacker director put these two avatars of opposing 9/11 thought together. The conversation was similar to others Wright had had with other conspiracy theorists. “What they call facts aren’t typically facts,” Wright said. “They sound like facts. They’re asserted. But basically, at the root of the conspiracies are these unproven theories.”
While the 9/11 conspiracy theory is based on conjecture, it has a stubbornness. The overall number of conspiracy believers has dipped since Bush left office, but the numbers believing the most radical version of the theory have been fairly steady. In 2006, 16 percent of respondents in a Scripps-Howard poll said it was either somewhat or very likely that the collapse of the Twin Towers was aided by explosives secretly planted in the buildings. That number was virtually unchanged in an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll this month. This was despite a 12 percent drop between 2007 and 2009 in the number of respondents who agreed with the statement that the Bush administration let the attacks take place in order to go to war in the Middle East. And although overall faith in the theories has subsided, general doubts about some kind of government cover-up have not. In the most recent Angus Reid survey, 66 percent of respondents said they believed the official version of events as presented by the 9/11 Commission, while only 12 percent did not. But 22 percent were undecided.
Veitch compared being a believer in the theory to being in a cult. “There’s so many people with so much of a vested political and psychological interest in maintaining, what I call the ‘Conspiranoia,’ view of the world—that there are these demons just behind the scenes where we can’t see, running everything,” Veitch told conspiracy theorist Max Igan. Veitch is one of the rare cases of a conspiracy theorist going back on his views. Sites like 911myths.com, debunking911.com, and Screw Loose Change provide a valuable service in offering answers to rebut conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories are “a little like sexually transmitted diseases,” says Wright. “You have to take precautions and know that it’s always going to be out there, but you should never succumb to the theories without actually thinking them through. I’m really dismayed to see very intelligent people often times taken in by what are really very absurd propositions.”
Which brings me back to the college friend who introduced me to a 9/11 conspiracy theory just one day after 9/11. I caught up with him last month, finding him the same bright, politically minded person I remembered. When we spoke on the phone, he remembered our conversation from 10 years ago as clearly as I did. And he was still convinced that he had been right to argue the point, even while acknowledging that the facts had proved him wrong. To him, there are always good reasons to be skeptical of any government version of events.
This lack of faith in the government epitomized by the conspiratorial worldview has only become more widespread in the last 10 years. While the theories that Bush let 9/11 happen intentionally were slowly dissipating in popularity on the left, they were replaced by the growth of “birther” theories on the right holding that President Obama was not a natural born American citizen, nor a legal president. The birther theory peaked in April when one in four Americans and 45 percent of Republicans told pollsters that they believed Obama was not born in the United States.
Unlike the “truther” theories, the birther theory actually declined precipitously in the face of refutation. Still, it shows that a large portion of the American public, on both ends of the political spectrum, is capable of telling pollsters it agrees with irrational conspiracy theories.
One likely explanation for this trend may be the record numbers of Democrats and Republicans who say they distrust the government. According to a Fox poll in July, the number of people who said they generally did not trust the government was at an all-time high of 62 percent, double what it was in June 2002. The number was highest among Republicans, with 76 percent saying they did not trust the government, but a plurality of Democrats also said they distrusted the government, as did 68 percent of independents.
Nobody understands this distrust better than the conspiracy theorists themselves. That distrust is what has allowed these theories to gain credence on such a wide scale. Their viability has more to do with pessimism, anger, distrust, or some other psychological or emotional need than with evidence or even paranoia.
These desires are universal, as evidenced by the popularity of 9/11 conspiracy theories in the Middle East. “One of the things I find particularly sad is that the conspiracy theorists in the U.S. have augmented this tendency in the Middle East to deny any cultural responsibility,” Wright says. Jamal Khalifa, a source in The Looming Tower who Wright became friends with during the book’s writing, was Osama Bin Laden’s brother-in-law and his closest friend before Bin Laden founded al-Qaida. In the wake of 9/11, Wright says, Khalifa had a hard time accepting any kind of cultural blame as a Saudi for the attacks. And then he did. But toward the end of his life—Khalifa was assassinated in Madagascar in 2007—he began to doubt again. “He’d been watching things like Loose Change and so-on,” Wright said. “He thought, ‘well, why should I accept any responsibility. Americans are saying they did it themselves.’ ”
“I remember being incredibly dismayed that he had changed his mind and especially why he had changed his mind,” Wright recalls. “Middle Easterners are so susceptible to conspiracy theories, but it seems that Americans aren’t much better.”
Jeremy Stahl is the Social Media Editor for Slate Magazine