Wednesday, July 25, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Debunking flights of fancy that hover over 9/11

Special to The Times

It was inevitable: As the events of Sept. 11, 2001, fade into history, a disturbing number of conspiracy theories are gaining a toehold in our collective consciousness.

As people who lived through that day and who now must make sense of what it means to live in a post-9/11 universe, we owe a commitment to the truth, both to those who perished and to ourselves.

The terrorists who perpetrated the horrors of that day claim their actions were justified to serve a higher truth of jihad. The people behind conspiracy theories spin a version of "truth" to blame targets of their choice.

While 9/11 theories began in the Arab media and incubated on the Internet, they now have begun to creep into traditional media via "documentaries," claiming that either elements of the American government, or "Wall Street," or shadowy international coalitions were behind the multiplane hijackings that led to more than 3,000 deaths in New York City, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania.

In today's media environment, fueled by user-generated content that is easily accessed on the Internet, conspiracy theories won't simply fade away if we ignore them or dismiss them as "fringe" history. In fact, if you do a Google search on "Flight 77," you will find that the conspiracy Web sites in the first 100 search returns heavily outweigh official news and government accounts. Lies perpetuate lies and gain a life of their own — a principle observed by Joseph Goebbels' propaganda machine for the Third Reich.

Cleverly, the new conspiracy theorists prey on areas of highly specialized knowledge that most of us don't viscerally understand. The rapid collapse of the World Trade Center towers involved the melting point of structural steel pillars, the impact of the 767 jets on the structure of the building columns and the weight load caused by floors that collapsed upon each other. Few of us learn about structural engineering, so we are vulnerable to the suggestion that evildoers secretly planted timed charges to collapse the WTC after the planes hit each building. (For a comprehensive rebuttal of the "timed charges" theory, visit the National Institute of Standards and Technology Web site regarding the WTC collapse.)

Were Jews secretly alerted by Israeli intelligence to flee the trade center on 9/11? Well, how many of us pored over the 2,823 published obituaries to tally the Jewish names? (Approximately 400 — or 14 percent — of the victims were Jewish.)

It's easy to dismiss these theories as cultural fallout or fringe entertainment. Most theories, after all, will collapse on their own spindly legs when enough reasonable people examine them and begin to ask basic questions.

For example, a popular conspiracy theory holds that a cruise missile, not American Airlines Flight 77, with 64 passengers aboard, hit the Pentagon complex on 9/11. The "evidence" cited to support the cruise missile is the size of holes inside the Pentagon walls that "could not have been punched" by an aircraft with a 124-foot wingspan.

The claims, promulgated in the film "Loose Change," are a classic example of straw-man rhetoric: Build up a statement of fact that no one has made (that the jet's body made a 16-foot-diameter hole); then tear it down. In fact, the "initial impact" pictures shown in that film are pictures of damage within the interior walls of the Pentagon caused by the landing gear.

And even if one tore down each conspiratorial straw man limb by limb, as some experts have done, why doesn't anyone pose the basic question of why the truth-seeking "documentary" makers don't cover the families of those who perished in the crash of Flight 77? Or, are we expected to believe that these "missing persons" are being held indefinitely in a remote government compound for the rest of their lives?

In their flight of fancy, the ideology of conspiracy-mongers is in sync with the ideology of terrorist groups, for both point to omnipotent villains controlling world events. When we see falsehoods masquerading as facts, it is our duty as free citizens to chime in: "Wait a minute — how do you know that to be true?" That would be the best way to honor the victims of the worst terror attack ever to occur on American soil.

Alex Alben, a high-tech executive based in Seattle, writes regularly on technology, media and politics for The Seattle Times. E-mail him at:

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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