[This review was published in the Winter 2008 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 506-512.]



Book Review


Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts—An In-Depth Investigation by PopularMechanics

David Dunbar and Brad Reagan, editors

Hearst Books, 2006


Debunking 9/11 Debunking: An Answer to Popular Mechanics and Other Defenders of the Official Conspiracy Theory

David Ray Griffin

Olive Branch Press, 2007


NIST NCSTAR 1A: Final Report on the Collapse of WTC-Building 7 (Draft for Public Comment, August 2008)

National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Department of Commerce


          There is by now a vast literature about what occurred on September 11, 2001, much of it highly critical of the commonly accepted scenario of what happened and why.  The commonly accepted explanation is contained in The 9/11 Report issued in 2004 by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.  It is defended, with certain emendations, by the PopularMechanics book listed above, which undertook to answer the principal points raised by the critics.  On a more limited issue (the collapse of World Trade Center Building 7), the August 2008 Final Report made by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has offered an innocuous explanation that would deny fodder to the critics.  As we all know, the commonly accepted understanding is that hijackers commissioned by al-Quida wreaked that day’s destruction.

          The critics are often called “conspiracy theorists” because they either suggest or forcefully propound alternative explanations, most prominent among which is that elements high within the United States government brought about the events as a “false flag” operation to justify taking the United States to war.  A leading theorist of the latter sort is David Ray Griffin, author of the second book listed.  (He makes a valid point when he observes that all of the accounts, including the generally accepted one and not just those propounding alternative explanations, ought properly to be called “conspiracy theories.”  He calls the one based on Osama bin Laden “the official conspiracy theory.”  Griffin speaks of the alternative theses as “the other conspiracy theories.”)

          It won’t be our purpose in this review to analyze or resolve the many issues raised.  That would require a vastly more extensive reading (preferably informed by a deep technical knowledge that we don’t possess) than we have attempted.  For readers who can devote themselves to the subject, the books listed here are a good place to start, and voluminous additional material can be had in additional books and on the Internet. 

          Does the subject merit serious attention?  There are those who would say it does not.  John McCain wrote the Foreword to the PopularMechanics book, and he speaks of the critics as “conspiracy theorists [who] peddle their wares.”  This in effect dismisses them as cranks.

          That they are cranks is suggested by the well-nigh insuperable problem the “government conspiracy” theory has in being believed.  An in-house conspiracy to carry out and then successfully mask the events of 9/11 would have required—according to the telling of someone like Griffin, who postulates many widely separated facets where falsification is thought to have occurred—the knowing collaboration of large numbers of people working in a wide variety of positions.  It would seem a superhuman task to get all of these people to participate in a variety of lies and to “maintain silence” over a period of several years about their or their associates’ roles in the collaboration.  And the proposition that that a good many Americans (including the top officials in a government elected by the people) would be willing to play a role in the slaughter of their fellow citizens is presumptively outrageous. 

          To be sure, Griffin anticipates these objections, and undertakes to rebut them rationally.  He points out that “false flag” operations, creating incidents justifying war, have not been uncommon historically; he argues that people are subject to intimidation of all kinds; and he says that “only a few individuals in key planning positions” would have known the details.  But none of that would seem to overcome the virtual impossibilities inherent in his theory.   (The “few key people” argument might conceivably make sense as to the plan as a whole, but certainly does not explain the many others who are said to have falsified such things as tapes, site investigations or DNA analysis.)

          While, however, in this reviewer’s opinion the central thesis should be rejected, this conclusion is necessarily vitiated by the fact that a number of myths (or “hoaxes,” if you will) do indeed prevail in both the official and general public opinion of our time.  There is so much falsehood, myth-making and pretense in the world that one of the “social cements” vital to a civilization—the ability to believe implicitly that what is authoritatively pronounced to be true is in fact true—is undermined to the point that almost any contrarian thesis has some basis for claiming our attention.  The cause for skepticism lies not merely with those who fabricate a given myth, acting out of some ideological, political or self-interested motive of their own; it lies also in the lack of intellectual independence in the opinion-makers, such as in academia and the media, who are so perpetually driven to conform their opinions to what is deemed respectable by their peer groups; and it lies, too, in the mental lethargy that causes the majority of mankind to accept without effort (and even to feel a vested interest in defending) what they are given to believe.  These forces are so strong that what is surprising is that there is so much difference of opinion on many things at the same time that there is such conformity on the notions that become fixed as myths.

          An oddity is that with regard to each of the myths there is usually a serious body of scholarship seeking to unearth the truth about it but that is assiduously ignored by the “respectable” scholars and commentators.  Thus, the serious thought and the conformist thought pass each other like two ships in the night, with the conformist thought never allowing itself to become engaged with the scholarship, much of it reasoned and sincere, on the other side.

          The examples of such hoaxes are many.  Some are major, some small.  Their hold is so entrenched that anyone who points one out is likely to unleash a torrent of abuse.  It is only because the generalizations we have made here need some illustration that we venture to mention, for example, (as this reviewer has before in these pages) a couple of medium-sized ones: the Camelot myth about John F. Kennedy, which continues in the media and the public mind long after a large body of serious writing has revealed his serial adulteries and mob connections; or the iconic status given to Martin Luther King, Jr., including the celebration of his “I Have a Dream” speech, in studied indifference to the revelations about his plagiarism (even of that famous speech).   Readers can no doubt supply a good many other examples on their own.

          Returning to the question of 9/11, we find that some of what we have just mentioned applies there, too.  It is hard to read very deeply into the literature about 9/11 without being impressed by two points:

          First, that the critics point to facts that raise a number of significant questions about what happened, and that they often provide analysis and factual reporting that commands respect intellectually; and

          Second, that the rebuttals by those who defend the generally accepted understanding are far too cursory to deserve much intellectual credence.  When they find a contrarian position so preposterous that they really don’t take the subject seriously, they exhibit the same dismissive insouciance that is so typical of the defense of the myths we have mentioned.  It is ironic that they should put themselves in this position, since it makes them appear as though, in common with the defenders of actual myth, they have something to hide.  The PopularMechanics book gives short responses to several of the critics’ claims, and is of a length that is calculated to make the book easily accessible to the average reader, who wouldn’t want anything much longer; but Griffin’s response to that book shows that there is a great deal more to be examined about most of the claims.  And the NIST report about the collapse of Building 7 is actually insulting in its positing of conclusions without supporting analysis or evidence.

          Much of the American public isn’t aware that it wasn’t just the north and south World Trade Center towers, each struck by an airplane on 9/11, that collapsed.  Little attention has been given by the media to the fact that a third building—the 47-story WTC Building 7—also collapsed several hours after the others fell, straight down into its own footprint and within a matter of seconds, even though it wasn’t hit by an airplane.  The official 9/11 Report doesn’t even mention it.

          The collapse of this building raises many questions, although just what it tells us about anybody’s conspiracy is hard to say.  The significant thing for this review is that the two points just enumerated—that the critics have much that is plausible to say and that the supporters of the generally accepted 9/11 account don’t deign to engage in a truly adequate discussion—are well illustrated in the context of Building 7’s collapse.  That is why we will make it our principal example here.

          The critics point out that because WTC 7 wasn’t hit by an airplane, three arguments that are used to explain the collapse of the north and south towers don’t apply: that the planes’ impacts stripped the fireproofing from the steel; that the impacts and jet fuel started quite large fires; and that each impact severed several columns.  They see problems in the fact that the building came straight down rather than falling over, arguing that for a symmetrical collapse, rather than a falling over, to occur all 81 columns would have had to give way at the same time.  They point out (and the NIST final report agrees with them) that the fires in the building weren’t very hot, and were limited to only a few floors.  The collapse, they say, was one typical of a planned implosion as is common in the removal of old buildings.  In support of this thesis, they cite several witness reports of having heard explosions, refer again to the straight-down collapse, find it remarkable that the building would fall in seven seconds even as each collapsing floor would meet resistance from those below, point out that no tall building has ever collapsed from ordinary building fires before, and find it strange (in light of this latter fact) that the collapse was foretold well in advance by, among others, Mayor Giuliani’s Office of Emergency Management.

          To all of this, the PopularMechanics book’s response is relatively brief.  Writing before the NIST issued its “final report,” it based its defense of the normalcy of the collapse on three arguments that the NIST had made but that were later abandoned by the NIST.  These were (1) that WTC 7 was damaged by debris that had fallen earlier from WTC 1 (the north tower) when it collapsed, producing an effect similar to a plane having struck the building.  In the NIST final report, though, the conclusion is that “the damage from the debris had little effect on initiating the collapse.”  (2) That there were “a number of fuel tanks located throughout the building that may have supplied fuel to the fires for up to seven hours.”  The NIST final report negates this, saying that “fuel oil fires did not play a role in the collapse.”  (3) That a “progressive collapse” occurred because WTC 7 had an unusual design to straddle a Con Edison electrical substation.  The NIST final report winds up giving a wholly different rationale, as we will see.  What we find, then, is that the PopularMechanics book presented what it thought were telling refutations of the critics, but that were not.  It gives the impression that its authors were having recourse to “any port in the storm.”

          This leaves it, in effect, to the NIST final report to present a rationale for a normal collapse.  That report starts with some significant admissions: “This was the first known instance of the total collapse of a tall building primarily due to fires”; “these uncontrolled fires had characteristics similar to those that have occurred previously in tall buildings”; and the temperatures created by the fires were well below what is needed to cause “significant loss of steel strength and stiffness.”  This left it to the NIST to call into play an entirely new theory, which it postulated to be “lateral thermal expansion” of the floor framing, connections, beams and girders, so that when the heat caused the steel to expand, things pulled apart in the northeast part of the building.  Such expansion would not have occurred if the sprinklers had not been rendered inoperable on the relevant floors by the cutting off of the city’s water supply.  Unfortunately, the report contains no technical discussion of “lateral thermal expansion” or citation of experimental evidence or professional opinion about it.  Instead, the report says such “effects need to be evaluated.”  This is a pretty thin reed upon which to base a “final” report.

          The report touches only in the most preemptory fashion on the question of why the building collapse, when it happened some seven hours after the morning’s events, occurred at virtual free-fall.  All it says, without further explication, is that “the actual time for the upper 18 stories to collapse, based on video evidence, was approximately 40 percent longer than the computed free fall time and was consistent with physical principles.”  What principles these are, and how the fall was consistent with them, isn’t discussed.

          The NIST pauses briefly to rebut any suggestion that planned demolition was at work.  The report says it considered six blast scenarios, but focused on one (the one that involved a cutting of column 79 in the northeastern part of the building).  It says that the absence of window breakage and the lack of an ear-splitting explosive sound show that there was no explosion.  They don’t discuss the point made by one critic that “thermite, a steel cutting agent, makes no explosive sound,” or the allegation that there was molten steel, with oxidation and sulfidation, present at the site after the collapse.  To someone trying to sort all of this out, the NIST Final Report is far from definitive.

          Besides the collapse of Building 7, there are a number of other issues raised by those who question the generally accepted explanation of 9/11.  We won’t explore them here, and will merely observe that the same pattern continues with many of them.  Extensive ratiocination and a detailed gathering of facts by the questioners are met, on the whole, with dismissive indifference.

          One point that, if established, would almost certainly prove the existence of a government conspiracy should be easily disposed of, but is not.  Griffin provides evidence at length that phone calls from the airplanes, as reported in detail in the 9/11 Report and elsewhere, were not technically possible in 2001.  The evidence he provides that they were not is sufficient to give us pause, although the possibility that they were faked seems incomprehensible.  The rebuttal by the PopularMechanics book should have been one that would easily dispose of the issue, but again is too cursory to be definitive.  .

          To this reviewer, the thesis of an elaborate in-house plot by elements within the U.S. government continues to appear preposterous, despite the weakness of the responses.  But there is much that remains unexplained, and many if not most of the questioners are serious and often technically qualified people, by no means kooks.  It seems likely that if ever the full truth is uncovered, it will mix elements of today’s conventional wisdom with a scenario that presently escapes us.

          One hopes that the discussion will continue and will be taken more seriously by those who defend the generally accepted account.  It may be a forlorn hope, but it would be best if reasonable people on all sides of the inquiry were able to sit down together to seek the truth.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Dwight D. Murphey