SIX years since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, conspiracy theories about the events of that day continue to abound. One of the better known films is the 2006 "documentary" Loose Change, a "final cut" of which was released recently.
The film claims that a missile, not a plane, crashed into the Pentagon, bombs were used to collapse the World Trade Centre towers and that United 93 landed at Cleveland Airport. If that's not fantastic enough, the filmmakers throw in a subplot about a gold heist from the basement of the World Trade Centre carried out in the fog of the attacks.
The "evidence" presented by the makers of Loose Change is laughable. Almost no credible experts are interviewed, and many of the documentary and news sources are quoted selectively or use inaccurate reports that were later corrected. Many other claims are simply untrue and are easily refuted by both official and unofficial sources.
Nevertheless, the conspiracy theorists are winning converts. A 2006 poll of 1010 Americans conducted by researchers from Ohio University found that just more than a third of respondents suspect that the US Government promoted the attacks or intentionally did nothing to prevent them. Sixteen per cent thought that explosives were used to bring down the World Trade Centre and 12 per cent believed that a cruise missile hit the Pentagon.
The appeal of conspiracy theories isn't limited to a lunatic fringe. An otherwise rational and intelligent liberal-left American academic I met at a conference two years ago, for example, confidently assured me that September 11 was perpetrated by her own government. She didn't really have any evidence, but she was convinced that the whole thing had been a plot. My questions and counter-arguments to her claims were met with the kind of pitying smile reserved for the extremely gullible.
While most of those pushing September 11 conspiracy theories like to style themselves as opposed to President George Bush, their cavalier disregard for evidence and rational explanation places them far closer to the Bush camp than they'd like to think.
The September 11 conspiracy theories are like a left-liberal version of intelligent design. Just as the adherents of intelligent design invoke a great designer whenever they come across some part of the natural world that they personally can't explain, the September 11 conspiracy theorists invoke the White House whenever they can't account for the events of that day.
For example, the makers of Loose Change claim that explosions were used to collapse the twin towers. To support the claim, the filmmakers present footage of windows 20 and 30 floors below the impact site blowing out as the towers begin to collapse. They also play sound footage caught at the scene, in which small explosions can be heard.
More plausible explanations — that the air pressure exerted by the weight of the collapsing towers blew out offices and windows below, causing smaller "explosions", for example — are not considered.
Similarly, the apparently small size of the hole in the Pentagon's wall is used to prop up the claim that a missile hit the building. The filmmakers conveniently ignore the fact that many witnesses reported seeing the plane hit, whereas no one saw a missile.
In the world inhabited by conspiracy theorists, even the absence of evidence is itself turned into evidence of how large and how successful the cover-up has been.
In the same way that supporters of intelligent design lead away from an explanation of the natural world, the September 11 conspiracy theories lead us away from any deeper understanding of the attacks, into a fantasy world in which the US has no enemies — except its own leaders.
In doing so, the conspiracy theorists absolve both the terrorists and those responsible for the misdeeds of US and Western foreign policy. The September 11 conspiracy theorists draw on, and perpetuate, a deeply ingrained view of "orientals" as passive, incapable of acting except as puppets of "our" will. But in denying Middle-Eastern terrorists' agency, the September 11 conspiracy theorists also deny their moral culpability for mass murder.
It also ignores more than 50 years of short-sighted Western foreign policy, replacing it with a few bad apples in the Bush Administration.
In this regard, the conspiracy theorists' logic is close to President Bush who, unable to contemplate that the attacks may have been a response to years of frequently disastrous foreign policy in the Middle East, chooses to believe that "the enemy hates us because of what we love. We love freedom."
There's no doubt that there are things we don't know about the events of September 11, 2001, and that we'll never know.
It's likely that information has been withheld for both good and bad reasons. But an effective response to the events of September 11, 2001, begins with a rejection of the false choice between both the fantasies of conspiracy theorists and the Bush White House.