this review also features on offguardian
On Friday, August 31 I had an email from OffGuardian editor Catte:
How do you feel about reviewing a new 9/11 book for the anniversary? I know you’re a sceptic but that is why I’d value your input …
Two years ago, on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, OffGuardian ran my review of Dylan Avery’s Loose Change. Except it wasn’t a review but a pouring of vitriol on the film’s central assertion that the events of September 11, 2001 were an inside job.
Reception below the line was hostile. But among the cat-calls were voices I could not ignore: voices of reason from dudes who’d done their homework and whose tones were sober; friendly even. I promised to re-assess the truther case and return either to concede and apologise or reaffirm my views with better arguments. I gave no date but strongly and at the time sincerely implied it would be a month or two tops. Not two years.
Why the delay? I’m not afraid of saying “I was wrong”. I’ve had practise and should I find it was me, not the 9/11 truthers, who’d been deluded it would not be personally implicating in the way coming out as an active paedophile or closet tory would. As fess-ups go, it would be at the egg-on-face as opposed to long custodial sentence end of the scale. I can do egg on face. Like I said, I’ve had practice.
The delay is due – I’m not offering this as excuse but as reason – to my aversion to what looked a right royal rabbit hole. Investing scores if not hundreds of hours sifting a mire of claim and counter claim did not appeal. Now if you say this was too big a question to be back-burnered on such flimsy grounds, I’d agree, though I’ve not been idle. I’ve had much to go at with the mendacious narratives on Syria, Russia and Corbyn, while trying to convey, mainly to those on the left, that capitalism’s deep unfairness is the least of it; that its innermost laws of motion pose an existential threat.
But a promise is a promise, especially one made from a hole of my own digging. If I resented the diverting of time and energy, I hadn’t far to look for the culprit. Within minutes of reading Catte’s email I’d hit send on this reply:
Could be an opportunity … What kind of turnaround time are you thinking?
But a further apology is in order. Regardless of whether I still thought truthers wrong, I was always going to have to say sorry for the sneering tone of my 2016 piece. So sure had I been of the logic of my case, a logic I’ll return to, I’d seen little or no need to address the empirical underpinnings of theirs.
(At the time, my exposure to truthism had come from armchair conspiracists too idle or brain fogged to put together a decent argument but happy to bang out link-heavy emails with a simple subtext: you’re wrong – read this and this and this … Plus, of course, Avery’s film: so bad that some truthers saw it as part of the cover up; a false flag in its own right to damn by its very shoddiness the case against the official narrative. Indeed, one BTL critic of my 2016 piece picked up on this same point to accuse me of straw-mannery.)
So … apologies, mea culpas and attempts at self analysis duly offered, let me turn to 9/11 Unmasked, by David Ray Griffin and Elizabeth Woodworth. I’ll start with what we can agree is the ‘official narrative’.
September 11, 2001: the official account
This has two threads. One is the popular perception, framed by media coverage at the time, of what happened. The other is the combined wisdom of subsequent government reports, most importantly that of the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) in 2005. Both threads assert that nineteen devout Muslims hijacked four airliners to fly them at high profile targets in separate but coordinated acts of mass murder and suicide.
- New York’s World Trade Centre (WTC) Towers 1 and 2 took devastating hits to, respectively, floors 93-99 and 75-85. On impact the two planes, both from Boston Logan with tanks full for long haul flight, sprayed tons of aviation fuel (kerosene aka paraffin) whose ignition triggered an inferno so intense as to melt the steel skeletons1 of both towers and cause not only their spectacular freefall but, ten hours later, that of WTC 7, which no plane had struck. No plan was in place to stop such an attack because no military scenario had envisaged transcontinental airliners as missiles.
- A third plane was flown so low as to bury itself in the first and second floors of the Pentagon Building, across the Potomac from Washington DC.
- The fourth was brought down in Pennslyvania by passengers – knowing themselves doomed but alerted by phone calls of the New York attacks – bent on thwarting the hijackers and saving other lives.
Before turning to the methodology used by Griffin and Woodworth to interrogate this official narrative, a word about its ‘popular’ and ‘formal’ threads. The authors do a good job of showing that, where the two are in contradiction on matters of fact, we needn’t be 24-carat conspiracy freaks to suppose a tidying up – by revision, withheld evidence and refusal to acknowledge glaring inconsistencies – of contemporaneous accounts. Nor to suppose that such airbrushing on the part of subsequent inquiries goes beyond what we’d expect of officialdom covering up for incompetence. Rather, to suppose airbrushing on this scale to have only one conceivable purpose: removing hostages to fortune, and neutralising threats to overall narrative coherence and credibility.
9/11 Unmasked: the methodology
[we] decided … to form a panel of twenty-some independent researchers well-versed on 9/11 with a broad spectrum of expertise. Dubious claims embedded in the official account of 9/11 would be presented to the panelists separately to see if they, with no consultation among themselves, would reach consensus on whether there was sufficient basis to declare the claim false.
In response to our invitation to potential members, a panel of twenty-three people with varying professional backgrounds came together to apply disciplined analysis to the verifiable evidence about the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 Panel includes people from the fields of physics, chemistry, structural engineering, aeronautical engineering, piloting, airplane crash investigation, medicine, journalism, psychology, and religion. The members are named on the Acknowledgments page.
Introduction, pp vii-viii
I’m not happy with this. People from the fields of … leaves too much scope for cherry picking a-priori truthers who may not represent their disciplines, or even have relevant expertise. As for that in response to our invitation … what would we make of a trial, for black-on-white capital murder in fifties Alabama, whose jurors had responded to a call for home-owning volunteers?
Finally, the authors don’t say what steps they took to safeguard no consultation.
In peer reviewed scientific work2 these would be terminal flaws, while a criminal defence team would have a field day discrediting the prosecution’s expert witnesses. But here? Given the context, are they fatal? That rather depends on whether this ‘methodology’ is crucial to the authors’ case, or gimmick in an otherwise sober presentation of evidence too compelling to need such treatment. I think the latter.
Structure and tone
Here I’m more impressed. The tone is lucid, free of sensationalism and to a high standard of literacy. These are good writers, too confident in the strength of their case to go in for flashy phrasing, cheap shots or intellectual short cuts. As a bonus, proof reading is to a high standard and that’s significant given the intricacy of argument and supporting detail.
But what about structure? Here 9/11 Unmasked manages the conflicting pulls of clarity, and engagement with complex detail whose significance could easily be lost on the most attentive reader. It does so by the tried and tested method of layering content – never less than three tiers; four in labyrinthine arguments – to present sub-claims, micro-points and supporting factoids without their obscuring the bigger picture. I dived in seas of minutiae without fear of drowning.
(Two carps. My PDF version could and should have hot-linked its 875 inline references to footnote text, enabling sceptics to make fast random checks as to whether a footnote really does the job implied in the main text. Given such controversial content, and high standard of presentation elsewhere, it will be a pity if this is not corrected. Similarly, a book so necessarily replete with acronyms really does need a glossary.)
Still on structure, the 320 page book’s main section divides into 51 short chapters, each addressing a discrete issue, or set of interrelated issues, arising from the official account. All chapters have the same structure: introduction .. official account .. best evidence .. conclusion. Where successive official accounts differ – often as not with that same whiff of ‘tidying up’ – the account-best evidence-conclusion cycle iterates until the chapter ends with an overall conclusion. By such tiering, bird’s eye views give way to two or more descending levels of detail in an elegant solution to an old problem: how to evaluate trees without obscuring the forest. Speaking as a retired academic, if this were a textbook I’d be singing its praises to students.
Nature of the evidence
In challenging virtually every aspect of the official narrative, the authors’ evidence falls into these broad and not always orthogonal categories:
- Scientific knowledge, on such as the melting point of steel and whether any fire triggered by exploding aviation fuel could reach it. This impacts on the crown jewel of truther claims: that the towers could not have been brought down, in the manner the world saw on its TV screens, by the forces claimed by NIST as sole cause.3
- Architectural, engineering and other professional knowhow on such as: whether those WTC beams and columns could come apart in the manner claimed by NIST; whether any man with minimal flight training could execute that low altitude turn into the Pentagon; whether in 2001 it was possible to make a cell phone call from a plane at 30,000 feet.
- Forensic evidence, on such as whether nanothermite (classic signature of controlled detonation) was found in the WTC debris; and whether CCTV footage, placing the nineteen men in the places claimed, can be relied on.
- Witnesses on the scene whose statements pose serious problems for the official narrative.
- Inconsistencies within the official narrative on points where, even after ‘tidying up’, it lacks internal coherence else uses circular or other flawed forms of reasoning.
- Lack of fit with known realities, such as that flying an airliner into a skyscraper, far from being an unforeseen event, had in fact been played out in wargame scenarios.
- Suspicious behaviour by key players, in particular Cheney, Rumsfeld and senior military commanders; and abnormal levels of put-option and short-selling in the days before 9/11.
As implied by my recurring use of ‘such as’, the above barely scratches the surface of the evidence assembled in this book. But how good is it?
Quality of evidence
I’m not a physicist, engineer, military expert or lawyer. What I am (by training, disposition and life experience) is good at evaluating, once I take the time to consider them, the strengths and weaknesses of arguments, especially when laid out with such commendable clarity. If the hard facts deployed to support higher level assertions bear up to expert scrutiny (and if they don’t, the authors are fools as well as charlatans since expert scrutiny is inevitable) then this is as strong a prima facie case for throwing out NIST, and its predecessors, as ever confronted an official cover up.
It follows that an inquiry quite unprecedented – a truly independent panel with no-holds access to all materials and witnesses, and immune from intimidation by pretty much the most powerful interests on earth – would be needed in reply to the gauntlet Griffin and Woodworth have thrown down.
I fear that no such inquiry will occur. Instead, eminent psychologists who’ve never – as I’d never – deigned to engage with evidential details will continue to publish acclaimed drivel on the pathology and pitiable delusions of all conspiracy theorists, citing all 9/11 truthers as textbook examples.
What about the logical case?
I promised to revisit this. The problems for me were always the number of conspirators and, related, complexity of so comprehensively elaborate an inside job, and whether the putative gains might justify the risks. I’ll consider each in turn.
Numbers. The only safe number for a conspiracy is one. Since that’s an oxymoron, let’s move to two. At least you’ll know, if you didn’t blab, who did. But when we get to three, boy, that’s when the problems really kick in. But here? Here we’re talking hundreds if not thousands of conspirators, every last one a party to mass murder and yet, seventeen years on, we’ve had not a single breaking of ranks; not one death-bed confession.
Complexity and scale. While America has form on false flag ops, they’ve been simple affairs. It’s one thing to fake or even execute an attack on a US destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. That can be done with a couple of light craft manned by a few Navy SEALs, hand picked men whose omerta culture minimises risk of leak. But if hard core truthers are right – I’ll come to soft core shortly – this would be a false flag op of unprecedented and incredible dimensions. To what end? The question brings us to my final logical objection.
Risk/benefits. The most cited rationale for 9/11 as an inside job is that it legitimated the ‘War on Terror’ – its Guantanamos, Patriot Acts and expansion of the spy-state – and/or wars on the Middle East which, as many know and I’ve argued elsewhere, are not driven by the reasons Western leaders and media would have us believe.
I don’t downplay the value to the US ruling class of such legitimation, but do question whether those prizes needed so elaborate, risky and, yes, evil a deed.4 To evaluate the proposition, its two putative gains need to be disentangled.
On wars in the Middle East, we’ve seen millions slain and nations ruined on the basis of casus belli far simpler: WMDs and nasty dictators. And while ‘going after’ Bin Laden played well in Afghanistan, it was an embarrassment in Saddam’s Iraq: no haven for salafists. It’s true of course that people told they face a terrible threat aren’t the most critical thinkers, but that can be turned on its head. If it’s so easy to fool the worried masses, why bother with so elaborate a ‘reason’ as 9/11, given the logistical problems summarised here?
I have an easier time buying the War on Terror as legitimated by 9/11. At least you don’t have to explain, not even to audiences as credulous as American patriots, how the likes of Saddam wind up in bed with jihadis. But my closing question of the previous paragraph stands. It still doesn’t stack up.
So that’s my logical case (oh, and there is the small matter of why the conspirators left so glaring an audit trail) and Griffin and Woodworth don’t even try to address it. In this they are as one with other truthers I know. Ditto in offering no alternative scenario for what they think happened on 9/11: not even for the softer version that Team Bush didn’t plan an inside job but, forewarned of an attack, let it happen for reasons already sketched out.
But before we damn the authors for such omissions, far less see their case as fatally flawed, let’s ask this question. Does 9/11 Unmasked cross, by its detailed evidence and reasoning for rejecting the official account, the threshold for being taken seriously? I say it does.
Now let’s ask another. Does it fall to those with compelling prima facie evidence of a monstrous crime to say why it happened? It would be dashed sporting of them, for sure, but can we in all fairness demand it? I say we can’t.
In the world of Agatha Christie, Hercules Poirot ends each case by assembling the suspects in the conservatory. Twirling waxed moustache, he eliminates one unpleasant character after another before fixing on the unpleasant character who is also the killer. He then sets out a convincing but unforeseen motive, followed by evidence to apply noose to neck.
In the world of Agatha Christie.
In my world, if you and others, upstanding citizens all, catch me with jam smeared face, crumbs to lips and three jam tarts in my pocket, still warm from cook’s oven; if, moreover, you have six witnesses of equally unblemished character swearing they saw me climb through the vicar’s kitchen window to lift the tarts and leg it, need you then, to secure a conviction for aggravated burglary, disprove my indignant protests, backed by two drinking pals and a dodgy doctor, that I loathe jam, have a lethal allergy to pastry and too low an IQ to have pulled off so audacious a heist? I say you needn’t.
On which note I’ll close – with this recommendation for all who deem, as I had, the 9/11 truther case too daft for serious consideration. Buy this book.
- It’s important to note that claims of melting steel do not feature in the most important of the 9/11 reports.
- Peer review is on balance a good thing, but not the be-all and end-all many assume. In times of paradigm shift within a science it can be a reactionary force, while in the context of accusations of mass conspiracy, demanding it comes close to circular reasoning.
- To be fair, whatever was said prior to NIST 2005, an FAQ page on its site does not make the molten steel claim. Rather, it says ‘… the WTC towers collapsed because: (1) the impact of the planes severed and damaged support columns, dislodged fireproofing insulation coating the steel floor trusses and steel columns, and widely dispersed jet fuel over multiple floors; and (2) the subsequent unusually large number of jet-fuel ignited multi-floor fires (which reached temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Celsius, or 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit) significantly weakened the floors and columns with dislodged fireproofing to the point where floors sagged and pulled inward on the perimeter columns. This led to the inward bowing of the perimeter columns and failure of the south face of WTC 1 and the east face of WTC 2, initiating the collapse of each of the towers. Also to be fair, 9/11 Unmasked avoids a widespread strawman argument. Its Chapter 2 asserts only that: ‘… office fires, even if fed by jet fuel (which is essentially kerosene), could not have weakened the steel structure of these buildings sufficiently to collapse as suddenly as they did.’
- Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that killing three thousand Americans is more evil than slaughtering millions of Arabs by sanctions, bombs and shells of depleted uranium. I’m saying that those who order death from afar will tell themselves, as they lay head to pillow at night, that it was to save greater suffering. Maybe those authorising 9/11 as inside job, if that’s what happened, will do the same but, given the way humans manage cognitive dissonance, they’ll have a tougher time of it.