Conspiracy theories flourish on the internet
Sunday, October 10, 2004
By Carol Morello, Washington Post

Experts say they help people psychologically cope with disasters

Smoke and flames rise over the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, after terrorists crashed a commercial airliner into it. A video pushing the theory that a missile caused the damage has been seen by millions via the Internet.

Working from his home office in a small town in England, Darren Williams spent four weeks this summer making a short but startling video that raises novel questions about the 2001 attack on the Pentagon.

The video, "9/11: Pentagon Strike," suggests it was not American Airlines Flight 77 that slammed into the Pentagon, but a missile or a small plane.

With rock as background music, the video offers flashes of photographs taken shortly after impact, interspersed with witness accounts. The pictures seem incompatible with damage caused by a jumbo jet, and no one mentions seeing one. Red arrows point to unbroken windows in the burning building. Firefighters stand outside a perfectly round hole in a Pentagon wall where the Boeing 757 punched through; it is less than 20 feet in diameter.

Propelled by word of mouth, Internet search engines and e-mail, the video has been downloaded by millions of people worldwide.

American history is rife with conspiracy theories. Extremists have fed rumors of secret plots by Masons, bankers, Catholics and Communists. But now urban legends have become cyberlegends, and suspicions speed their way globally on the Web over not months and weeks but days and hours.

"The dissemination is almost immediate," said Doug Thomas, a University of Southern California communications professor who teaches classes on technology and subgroups. "It's not just one Web site saying, 'Hey, look at this.' It's 10,000 people sending e-mails to 10 friends, and then they send it on."

The Pentagon video could be a case study. Williams, 31, a systems analyst, belongs to an online group that blends discussions of science, politics and the paranormal hosted by American author Laura Knight-Jadczyk, whose books include one on alien abduction. Williams created a Web site for his video, www.pentagonstrike.co.uk, and e-mailed a copy to Knight-Jadczyk. On Aug. 23, Knight-Jadczyk posted a link to the video on the group's Web site, www.Cassiopaea.org. Within 36 hours, Williams' site collapsed under the crush of tens of thousands of visitors.

But there were others to fill the void. In Texas, a former casino worker who downloaded the video began drawing almost 700,000 visitors a day to his libertarian site. In Louisiana, a Navy specialist put the video on his personal Web page; suddenly, the site was inundated by more than 20,000 hits. In Alberta, Canada, traffic to a cab driver's site shot up more than sixfold after he supplied a link to the video.

"Pentagon Strike" is just the latest and flashiest example of a growing number of Web sites, books and videos contending that something other than a commercial airliner hit the Pentagon.

The ready and growing audience for conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has been particularly galling to those who worked on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the bipartisan panel known as the September 11 commission.

"We discussed the theories," said Philip Zelikow, the commission's executive director. "When we wrote the report, we were also careful not to answer all the theories. It's like playing whack-a-mole. You're never going to whack them all. They satisfy a deep need in the people who create them. What we tried to do instead was to affirmatively tell what was true and tell it adding a lot of critical details that we knew would help dispel concerns."

Conspiracy theories are common after traumatic events. Michael Barkun, a political scientist at Syracuse University who has written on the culture of conspiracies, said contradictory and inconclusive witness accounts allow for different interpretations of events.

"Conspiracy theories are one way to make sense of what happened and regain a sense of control," he said. "Of course, they're usually wrong, but they're psychologically reassuring. Because what they say is that everything is connected, nothing happens by accident, and that there is some kind of order in the world, even if it's produced by evil forces. I think psychologically, it's in a way consoling to a lot of people."

Bret Dean of Fort Worth, Texas, said he considers it "baloney" to question whether a plane hit the Pentagon. But he also believes the government ignored warning of the attacks.

"I don't think the video is an instigator," said Dean, 45, a former casino worker. "It's a symptom. A lot of people don't trust the government's explanation because the government's classified all the information."

Asked if there were unreleased photographs of the attack that would convince the doubters, Zelikow, of the September 11 commission, said no.

"The question of whether American 77 hit the Pentagon is indisputable," he said. "One reason you tend to doubt conspiracy theories when you've worked in government is because you know government is not nearly competent enough to carry off elaborate theories. It's a banal explanation, but imagine how efficient it would need to be."