- Nov 22, 2003
By JAMES B. MEIGS
September 12, 2006 -- ON Feb. 7, 2005, I became a member of the Bush/Halliburton/Zionist/CIA/New World Order/Illuminati conspiracy for world domination. That day, Popular Mechanics, the magazine I edit, hit newsstands with a story debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories. Within hours, the online community of 9/11 conspiracy buffs - which calls itself the "9/11 Truth Movement" - was aflame with wild fantasies about me, my staff and the article we had published. Conspiracy Web sites labeled Popular Mechanics a "CIA front organization" and compared us to Nazis and war criminals.
For a 104-year-old magazine about science, technology, home improvement and car maintenance, this was pretty extreme stuff. What had we done to provoke such outrage?
Conspiracy theories alleging that 9/11 was a U.S. government operation are rapidly infiltrating the mainstream. These notions are advanced by hundreds of books, over a million Web pages and even in some college classrooms. The movie "Loose Change," a slick roundup of popular conspiracy claims, has become an Internet sensation.
Worse, these fantasies are gaining influence on the international stage. French author Thierry Meyssan's "The Big Lie," which argues that the U.S. military orchestrated the attacks, was a bestseller in France, and his claims have been widely repeated in European and Middle Eastern media. And recent surveys reveal that, even in moderate Muslim countries such as Turkey and Jordan, majorities of the public believe that no Arab terrorists were involved in the attacks.
"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion," Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying. "He is not entitled to his own facts." Yet conspiracy theorists want to pick and choose which facts to believe.
Rather than grapple with the huge preponderance of evidence in support of the mainstream view of 9/11, they tend to focus on a handful of small anomalies that they believe cast doubt on the conventional account. These anomalies include the claim that the hole in the Pentagon was too small to have been made by a commercial jet (but just right for a cruise missile); that the Twin Towers were too robustly built to have been destroyed by the jet impacts and fires (so they must have been felled by explosives), and more. If true, these and similar assertions would cast serious doubt on the mainstream account of 9/11.
But they're not true. Popular Mechanics has been fact-checking such claims since late 2004, and recently published a book on the topic. We've pored over transcripts, flight logs and blueprints, and interviewed more than 300 sources - including engineers, aviation experts, military officials, eyewitnesses and members of investigative teams.
In every single case, we found that the very facts used by conspiracy theorists to support their fantasies are mistaken, misunderstood or deliberately falsified.
Here's one example: Meyssan and hundreds of Web sites cite an eyewitness who said the craft that hit the Pentagon looked "like a cruise missile with wings." Here's what that witness, a Washington, D.C., broadcaster named Mike Walter, actually told CNN: "I looked out my window and I saw this plane, this jet, an American Airlines jet, coming. And I thought, 'This doesn't add up. It's really low.' And I saw it. I mean, it was like a cruise missile with wings. It went right there and slammed right into the Pentagon."
We talked to Walter and, like so many of the experts and witnesses widely quoted by conspiracy theorists, he told us he is heartsick to see the way his words have been twisted: "I struggle with the fact that my comments will forever be taken out of context."
Here's another: An article in the American Free Press claims that a seismograph at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory picked up signals indicating that large bombs were detonated in the towers. The article quotes Columbia geologist Won-Young Kim and certainly looks authoritative. Yet the truth on this issue is not hard to find. A published Lamont-Doherty report on the seismic record of 9/11 says no such thing. Kim told Popular Mechanics that the publication's interpretation of his research was "categorically incorrect." Yet the claim is repeated verbatim on more than 50 Web sites as well as in the film "Loose Change."
Every 9/11 conspiracy theory we investigated was based on similarly shoddy evidence. Most of these falsehoods are easy to refute simply by checking the original source material or talking to experts in the relevant fields. And yet even the flimsiest claims are repeated constantly in conspiracy circles, passed from Web site to book to Web site in an endless daisy chain. And any witness, expert - or publication - that tries to set the record straight is immediately vilified as being part of the conspiracy.
The American public has every right to ask hard questions about 9/11. And informed skepticism about government and media can be healthy. But skepticism needs to be based on facts, not fallacies. Unfortunately, for all too many, conspiratorial fantasies offer a seductive alternative to grappling with the hard realities of a post-9/11 world.
James B. Meigs is editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics. The magazine's new book, "Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can't Stand up to the Facts," is just out.