Regarding the 911 Truth Movement

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Recently in conversation with a colleague and friend of mine, a thoughtful and very progressive person, passing reference was made to the 9-11 Truth Movement, and I expressed surprise that it was still attracting adherents. He evidently did not share my dismissive attitude, and although we immediately passed on to other matters he sent me, some days later, a DVD he had purchased just for me, of a kind with others I have seen purporting to provide evidence that the attacks of September 11th, 2001, were an “inside job,” that the World Trade Center towers were brought down by pre-planted explosives, and that the subsequent reports by FEMA, NIST, and others are part of a grand conspiracy to hide the truth of what occurred. Below is a slightly abridged and tidied-up version of the letter I sent in response.

Dear ___________,

Thanks for your letter and the DVD. I wish I could give you a positive assessment of the DVD, but I cannot. I will do my best to explain why.

World Trade Center Towers 1 and 2 on Sep. 11, 2001.For several years following the events of September 11th, 2001, I conducted a personal research program into what happened that day, because like many I was shocked and intrigued by it and skeptical of the Bush regime’s innocence. I built and maintained a collection of many dozens of files, including videos of the collapses, news reports, eye-witness testimonies, and many independent analyses. I examined closely the videos and articles produced by David Ray Griffin and Bob Jones. I read a great deal also that was written by Michael Ruppert, and bought several books including Ruppert’s Crossing the Rubicon. Finally, I read with care the investigative reports by FEMA and NIST, and in addition read or watched accounts in Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, and other popular and technical media.

In short, I have come by my opinions about all of this as honestly as one can, through careful examination on all sides of the issue. Indeed, in the beginning I was inclined to think the collapse of those buildings looked suspicious, and I anticipated that I would find the weight of evidence would support some sort of deliberate demolition.

Instead I have come to take a very dim view of the 911 Truth [sic] Movement. I consider their principal spokespeople to be intellectually dishonest at best, and in some cases outright charlatans. I have watched David Ray Griffin in particular hawking misinformation long after it had already been widely and conclusively discredited. The narrator of the video you sent to me, Richard Gage, is little better; I am particularly offended at his pretense of using the “scientific method” to gull the technically unsophisticated while spewing a barrage of non sequiturs, appeals to ignorance, and even ad hominems to sell his conclusions.

For example, I note with disgust that he follows his predecessors in “exposing” startling “facts” that he lets his listeners think have not been addressed in the generally accepted accounts of what happened, when of course they have been. It is possible for a rational critic to find the generally accepted accounts of these facts unpersuasive—but in numerous, indeed in most cases he acts as if those accounts don’t even exist. That’s brazenly dishonest.

I’ll briefly outline a few examples. Much is made of the fact that the buildings collapsed in “free fall,” that is, accelerating towards the ground at the same speed as an object encountering no resistance. It is easy to verify that this is approximately what happened when the buildings fell, and in the early days I thought it very significant. The truthers hammer this point because it seems intuitive that this could only happen if the structural failure of the buildings began at the bottom or was at least simultaneous throughout, for otherwise the undamaged part of the building would surely “slow-down” the falling part. But intuition is wrong in this case, stymied as so often with this event by our inability to comprehend imaginatively the sheer size of things. In the case of the Trade Center buildings the mass of the falling part of the building so dwarfed the resistive force of the structure it was falling on that it looks, to well within the observed margin of error, exactly like free-fall. Doesn’t seem like it should happen like that, but it does: the math is straightforward and easy to verify. The floors below the falling part of the structure could no more slow it down visibly than hitting a dog slows a speeding car. In the car you feel an impact, but to an observer on the street the car does not visibly slow down until the driver hits the brakes. (And, in the case of the building, each newly collapsed storey becomes part of the accelerating mass.)

This is simple physics and math, it fully accounts for the observed speed of the falling buildings, and it is widely understood. Except, that is, by Mr. Gage, who lets his listeners believe there is no other explanation aside from controlled demolition.

To take another example, one of the more dramatic effects as the towers came down was the explosive expulsion of gases through many windows several storeys below the collapsing part of the buildings. This is pointed to by Mssrs. Gage, Griffin, et alia as proof that there were explosions within the building. Here again, the scale of things is hard to wrap our heads around, but nonetheless it is simple to calculate that there had to be explosive decompressions through the windows given the volume of air that was being compressed, and the speed with which it was being compressed, by the collapse occuring above. The observed explosions would have to happen, whether charges had been placed in the building or not. This widely understood fact is somehow always missed by the truthers.

If there’s one thing they all agree on, it’s that it had to be controlled demolition because the buildings fell on their own footprint, they collapsed “all at once” or “from the bottom up”, and “explosively”—in short, they just looked exactly like all those videos of controlled demolition. I’m always flabbergasted at the brass it takes to make this assertion in the case of the Twin Towers. Watch the videos as many times as you like, and you will always see the same thing; the collapse in each case initiates at the point of damage from the impact of the planes (which were at significantly different levels in the two buildings), results in a marked tilting-over of the part of each structure above the point of failure, and then proceeds from the level of the first failure downward, carried by the weight of the falling building itself. No part of either building begins to fall or even looks weakened until impacted from above. Moreover, the bottom several storeys of each tower didn’t collapse at all for some 25 seconds after the rest of each building had fallen. In short, neither one resembles in the least any video of any controlled demolition anywhere—outside of the basic similarity of “building falling down.”

My personal favorite: “No modern steel frame building has ever collapsed because of fire.” Well, no modern 100-storey highrise has ever had an airliner full of fuel crashed into it. The event was unprecedented, which alone is reason enough to be circumspect about any pat explanation.

My other personal favorite: “They [FEMA and NIST] didn’t even investigate the possibility of controlled demolition!” Well, that’s true. They also didn’t investigate the possibility of involvement by space aliens.

Well, one could go on, but one needn’t. Whether it’s the “molten steel” or the sound of explosions or the strange chemical markers, in each case there are straightforward explanations and accounts that put far less strain on one’s supposer than the truther’s theories. One quote in the Wikipedia article sums it up neatly; the truther theories “depend on circumstantial evidence, facts without analysis, quotes taken out of context, and the scattered testimony of traumatized eyewitnesses.” And, I would add, a trove of common logical and rhetorical fallacies, plus a large dose of the carny’s bluster.

Against A&E for 911 Truth’s proclaimed “1,452 verified architectural and engineering professionals” (which encompasses what bona fides, exactly?) need to be juxtaposed the thousands of actual scientists inside and outside of government who have been involved in analyzing what happened to those buildings, and who believe they collapsed as a result of airplanes being crashed into them. I’ve searched carefully, and no factual claim of significance made in truther videos or literature has survived independent peer review. (Or even objective journalism, for that matter.)

Perhaps what irks me most is that we shouldn’t need fantasies about hundreds or thousands of secret government conspirators to awaken us to the threat our government poses to us and the world, just on the basis of things they proudly admit they are doing. Why flirt with the unsubstantiated fantastic when the mundane and uncontroversial facts at hand already give a very complete picture of what’s going on?

So, anyway, those are my thoughts. Count me with Noam Chomsky and Bill Moyers on this one. Truthers need to be gently but firmly told that their emperor has no clothes, and so let’s move on.

Yours in solidarity,