Austin Bay

Trust that conspiracy theorists will attempt to exploit the fifth anniversary of 9/11 to spread sensational claims and sensational lies.

Moreover, it's a fair bet sensationalist media will collaborate, not because the squawk show host or headline scribbler believes the poisoned foolishness, but because anger, fear and trembling sell. Conspiracy theories are public ghost stories of a sort, campfire horror tales tarted up with government devils, corporate witches and other demons-of-convenience.

However, Popular Mechanics magazine and Hearst Communications have provided a handy antidote to the conspiracy theorists' more noxious rhetorical poisons.

"Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can't Stand Up To The Facts" expands to book-length a collection of articles Popular Mechanics published in March 2005. The book contains new appendices and updated analyses.

"Debunking" begins with an insightful and blunt foreword by Sen. John McCain, who observes, "Conspiracy mongering is no small phenomenon. . . . These theories come in nearly infinite variety, but all reach essentially the same conclusion: that the U.S. government, or some shadowy group that controls it, organized the attacks as part of a master plan for global domination. But the truth is more mundane. The philosopher Hannah Arendt described the banality of Nazi evil; the 9/11 hijackers were also ordinary, uninteresting men with twisted beliefs."

Counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke's blurb for the book describes it as "reliable and rational" and that the government "isn't competent enough to pull off such conspiracies and too leaky to keep them secret."

Book editors David Dunbar and Brad Reagan laud former Sen. Pat Moynihan's classic quip: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion. He is not entitled to his own facts."

With Moynihan as a guide, the book follows a "Claim" and "Fact" format. Here are excerpts from the section entitled "Melted Steel":

"Claim: . . . 'We have been lied to,' announces the Web site AttackOnAmerica.net. 'The first lie was that the load of fuel from the aircraft was the cause of structural failure. No kerosene fire can burn hot enough to melt steel.' The posting is entitled 'Proof Of Controlled Demolition At The WTC.' . . .

"FACT: . . . Jet fuel burns at 1,100 to 1,200 degrees Celsius . . . significantly less than the 1,510 degrees Celsius typically required to melt steel. . . . However, experts agree that for the towers to collapse, their steel frames didn't need to melt, they just had to lose some of their structural strength -- and that required exposure to much less heat . . . "

The "Fact" section includes analysis from structural engineers, a professor of metallurgy and explosives experts.

The 9/11 conspiracy theories have overt and covert promoters. Some are more nuisance than threat. Howard Dean verbally toyed with 9/11 conspiracy theories when he was playing primary election footsie with hard-left constituencies. Others seek nuclear weapons and finance terrorism. "Debunking" notes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rambling May 2006 letter to President George W. Bush included "broad hints" that the U.S. organized the attacks.

"Debunking's" afterword, written by Popular Mechanics editor in chief James Meigs, deserves special plaudits. Journalism and rhetoric professors should make use of it in undergraduate classes. The afterword's first sentence sets the stage: "On February 7, 2005, I became a member of the Bush/Halliburton/Zionist/CIA/New World Order/Illuminati conspiracy for global domination." That's the day his magazine's "debunking" issue appeared in print.

Meigs, however, quickly moves from hate mail to a discussion of "conspiracism" techniques. ("Conspiracism" is a term coined by Chip Berlet of the liberal Political Research Associates think tank.)

Meigs analyzes eight 9/11 conspiracy-spinner techniques. I'll mention two:

(1) Attempts to "marginalize opposing views." Meigs says thousands of eyewitness 9/11 accounts and the analyses of numerous universities and professional organizations (including Underwriters Labs and the American Society of Civil Engineers) are dismissed as "the government version."

(2) Circular reasoning. Meigs writes that " . . . among 9/11 theorists, the presence of evidence supporting the mainstream view is also taken as proof of conspiracy." He concludes: "Like doctrinaire Marxists or certain religious extremists, conspiracists enjoy a world view that is immune to refutation."

Meigs' analyses of "demonization" and the "paranoid style" are particularly crisp and compelling.

I also wrote a book blurb, calling "Debunking" "a victory for common sense . . . ." The world deserves more victories just like it.


Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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