This is the third (and final) re-uploaded post from my old website. It consists of yet another interview, this time with the fine chaps behind Screw Loose Change, conducted in the halcyon days of September 2008.
Now, as was the case when I first published this piece, hate mail is welcomed, albeit not actively sought; however, please be advised that I reserve the right to publish any such correspondence for all to see, so do think twice before you click “Send.”
Hot on the heels of last month’s spiel about 9/11 conspiracy gibberish, I’m pleased to be able to bring you an interview with two of the most prominent debunkers out there. James Bennett and Pat Curley started the Screw Loose Change blog back in May 2006, since when it has developed into a veritable hotbed of rational analysis and kook-baiting commentary, and they very kindly agreed to answer some questions pertaining to the events of September 11, 2001, conspiracy theories in general and the future of their site.
Let’s clear up this old chestnut right away: do you have any links to the Bush administration which would serve to classify you as “disinfo agents”, “COINTELPRO”, “stooges”, “shills”, etc.?
JB: Unfortunately not, I could use the money. The closest I could come is I am actually a member of the Army National Guard, although as I stress that has absolutely no connection to my blogging activities. The few people that I have mentioned my blogging to actually think the conspiracy subjects are too silly a subject to discuss.
PC: No. I am a Republican, but not a particularly conservative Republican, and I don’t get money from the government; the checks go the other way.
Mark Roberts was very clear about the catalyst which turned him from an interested skeptic into a full-blown debunker, courtesy of a crass and insensitive post made on the Loose Change forum. Was there a similar moment of epiphany which spurred you to open the SLC blog and devote a portion of your spare time to undermining the cranks’ claims?
JB: I had been following conspiracy theories for a little while, and was interested in how they could believe the things that they believed. Loose Change came up in an e-mail thread at the university I was studying at, and even in the local paper, then Pat did a post on his blog on the Truthers and the film United 93. I suggested that this would be an interesting topic for a blog, and suggested we do something joint. I originally thought it would be a minor sideline, never thought it would grow well beyond any personal blogging I have ever done.
PC: As a person and a blogger I have long felt that one of the problems with society at large is that we have ceased to celebrate our heroes. So most of my blogs are, in some way or another, dedicated to promoting heroes. My moment of epiphany was when I saw Loose Change’s treatment of the passengers on Flight 93, denying that they were heroes. Like many people I had a tough time in the aftermath of 9-11 and it was largely through focusing on the heroic efforts of Beamer, Bingham, Glick, etc., that I managed to get through it, so I was pissed that these kids were mocking their last phone calls and saying they were done through voice-morphing.
From what you’ve seen and learned during your time as debunkers, what percentage of the “Truth” Movement’s figureheads – Dylan Avery, Alex Jones, Jim Fetzer, Judy Wood, etc. – do you believe to be sincere in their beliefs, as opposed to those who are knowingly attempting to hawk snake-oil to anyone who will buy it?
JB: I don’t know if any of them is consciously being deceptive, rather they are being self-deceptive. They believe things so fervently that they will ignore any beliefs which do not support their view. It is an interesting psychological phenomenon.
PC: They all believe/believed it at some level. Avery’s pretty much out of the movement from what I can see; he wants to make movies and only occasionally pops up in a video from the San Diego branch of We Are Change.
Many of your blog postings are politically-conservative in nature, but (to your eternal credit) you frequently acknowledge that 9/11 kookery isn’t limited solely to anti-Bush liberals. How do you account for the propensity of these theories to cross political boundaries in such fashion, creating a situation in which right-wing pundits such as Alex Jones and Mark Dice are aggressively pro-conspiracy while left-wing onlookers, including Bill Maher and Noam Chomsky, have excoriated the Truthers and, in that sense, defended George W. Bush from the kooks’ attacks? Is there any real pattern to the madness that you’ve been able to discern?
JB: I have long maintained that the far-left and far-right ideologies circle around to meet each other. My undergraduate degree is in Russian and East European studies, and I was perplexed how Communism was regarded as left of center, while Nazism was right of center, when they really represented the same essential thing. Paranoia and fear really know no political boundaries.
PC: Yes. They’re all mad. More than anything else, you have to look at the underlying issues. Many of the left-wing Truthers are using 9-11 “Truth” as a way to deny the need even for the Afghanistan war, while the libertarian/survivalists like Jones are mostly upset about the Patriot Act. It’s a way of waving away the arguments pro and con on both those issues, by saying they’re irrelevant because 9-11 was an inside job.
Several of the recent posts on your blog have been devoted to the declining traffic at 9/11-related websites, both on the conspiracy and debunking sides of the fence. Do you think that the “Truth” Movement is finally dying a death as practical entity?
JB: That depends what you mean by “practical.” I think they will always live, as there are still large numbers of JFK theorists, or even the Da Vinci Code types regarding the early history of the Catholic Church. After the election, though, it will probably continue to drop off, especially if Obama wins.
PC: At least in terms of having significant growth, yes. In 2006 when we started our site I don’t think all that many people had been exposed to the “Truthers” and because they had a line of BS down, their case could seem compelling. Just about everybody’s heard of them by now and their BS has largely been exposed.
Given that so many of the “Truth” Movement’s theories seem to be predicated upon their proponents’ personal dislike of Bush and his administration, what do you think will happen to it following the impending presidential election?
JB: Well, as I said previously, it will probably drop off, although not die out entirely.
PC: The election process has already killed them. A lot of their activists are general political activists to begin with, so their loyalties and time have been divided. The idea of Truthers as a movement is already over. They’ll still exist like the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists exist, but the idea that they are going to have any broad-based support is a fantasy.
The closest the Kool-Aid Contingent came to fielding a mainstream candidate in the election was Ron Paul, whose affiliation with Alex Jones made him something of a cause celebré in the eyes of the conspiracists in spite of his frequent public denunciations of their beliefs. Do you believe that Paul is a secret Truther, despite his denials, or was he just too reliant upon their support to sever that link once and for all?
JB: I don’t believe so. Paul knows he needs the support of the fringe, and has been all too happy to enjoy the support of the tax resistance and anti-Semitic crowd for years. Truthers are just another flavor.
PC: He’s popular with that particular sect of the Truthers because they like his politics even if they don’t agree with him on 9-11 “Truth.” I don’t think he’s a closet Truther; he’s being frank and when he says they agree with him, he doesn’t agree with them.
What sort of impact do you think documentaries such as the BBC’s recent WTC7 special have upon neutral viewers? Is there an inherent tension between exposing the ludicrous nature of the Truthers’ claims on one hand and giving them a mainstream platform from which to air their views on the other?
JB: I think they have a major impact on neutral viewers, although not the conspiracy theorists themselves. The CTs merely expand the conspiracy to include the news organization covering them, ironic in this case considering the BBC is hardly the most pro-Bush network out there. There is a debate even within the debunker community (for lack of a better term) as to how much of a debate and conversation there is on this. I don’t believe it is harmful though to expose their illogic in a setting such as this. Arguing with them in their environment (radio shows, forums etc.) is pretty pointless though, and serves little than giving them prestige, which is what they want.
PC: It is certainly arguable that the focus on the Truthers has been extreme, perhaps driven by a few polls that seemed to show widespread support for their nutty theories. But the BBC show was really quite good, and I would not knock it for giving the kooks a platform.
Has any piece of conspiracist “evidence”, adduced at any point over the past seven years, made you stop and wonder whether the nutjobs were onto something?
JB: I don’t know if I would go that far, but I think there are actually two legitimate questions that they have raised. The first is the NORAD timeline, which changed several times, the second is the actual technical reason WTC7 collapsed. Where they go wrong though is thinking that the fact that something is complicated or unexplained gives them the right to make up anything they want to explain it. In terms of the creation-evolution debate, this is the “God of the Gaps”, where you inject faith into an unexplained area.
PC: Barry Jennings’ testimony was very interesting before I started comparing it with other accounts and realized he was just wrong on the times that things happened. Initially I was intimidated that somebody with Steven Jones’ credentials believed in the conspiracy theories, perhaps because I started out as a physics major in college and couldn’t cut the higher level classes.
Your new logo reflects the expanded scope of the site, which for some time has analyzed the “Truth” Movement as a whole instead of focusing solely upon Loose Change and its creators. At what stage did you realize that you’d drifted away from the page’s initial purpose, i.e. debunking the claims of Dylan Avery, Jason Bermas and Korey Rowe, toward a broader theme of dissecting all 9/11-related conspiracy theories?
JB: We actually realized this long before we changed the logo. Mostly because even with the eventual release of Loose Change: Final Cut, the movies died out as a subject, and it is hard to discuss them independent of anything else. One phenomenon which we have noted lately is the scope creep of the Truthers, as they expand well beyond 9/11, even on 9/11 specific sites, to other subjects such as the NWO theories, the banking crisis, anthrax, JFK etc.
PC: After they missed their first deadline of 9-11-06 for Final Cut we pretty much had to focus on something else, which was a good thing since they didn’t release LC: FC until 14 months later.
Why do you think the evident connection between believing in 9/11 conspiracy theories and believing in other forms of tinfoil-hat kookery (the JFK assassination, chemtrails, the Apollo moon landings, etc.) exists?
JB: Well, it is part of their worldview. It is tied into the view that there is some secret powerful entity behind everything, as well as a distrust of the economic and political system, technology, communication etc. 9/11 is just another subject for this cultural subset. It reflects their anxieties about a complicated world that they don’t really understand, but that they create these connections in an attempt to help it all make sense. Also there is a bit of an ego connection, it that they think they are one of the chosen few who is smart enough to figure it all out, unlike the “sheeple” who follow mainstream beliefs.
PC: Same reason there are so many LaRouche people in the movement; if you’re stupid enough to fall for one intellectually-presented scam, you’re probably stupid enough to fall for another.
Speaking of such correlations, there is also a well-established link between 9/11 Trutherism and Holocaust Denial; that’s not to say that all Truthers are anti-Semites, of course, but there are certainly enough Holocaust Deniers on the conspiracy side for the association to be made. How do you account for this?
JB: The same as the last question. They need there to be some secret power pulling all the strings, “the Jews” are the ultimate historical example of that. They think that they alone are smart enough to see through the secrets of history.
PC: Many of the early Truthers were anti-Semites for obvious reasons; they wanted to blame it on the Jews and anybody but the Arabs who were involved. Over time more reasons came to deny 9-11 (Iraq War, Patriot Act) and so others were drawn to the cause.
It has often been pointed out that conspiracy theorists cling to their beliefs with a blind faith akin to that of religious fundamentalists. Richard Dawkins’ website features a section entitled “Converts’ Corner”, containing testimonies from former believers who have since changed their minds; amid all the correspondence you’ve received since the blog was created, have you received any words of recantation or contrition from one-time conspiracy devotees?
JB: Yes, although it is not exceedingly common, the most famous being Mikey Metz. We get blog posts and e-mails from people who have given up on their conspiracies. Some of the debunkers actually have been people who have bought into other conspiracies in the past.
PC: We have gotten quite a few thank-yous over the last few years, although admittedly only a few from real converts to the cause; we’re more likely to get it from family members and friends who say “My son/brother/buddy said to watch Loose Change and check out the facts for myself, and I found your site…”. But we do have one spectacular success story: Mikey Metz, who started the Truth Movement at the University of Albany, recanted after seeing Screw Loose Change (not done by James or me) and Screw 9-11 Mysteries, and then reading our blog and other websites, realized that he’d been fooled.
As a result of this pseudo-religious outlook, which is hardly conducive to an open and reasonable exchange of views at the best of times, have you ever been tempted to throw your hands in the air, exclaim “The hell with this!” and shut down the blog, despairing of being able to make your average Truther critically examine his beliefs for even a nanosecond?
JB: I haven’t considered shutting it down, although I have considered spending less time on it. I don’t focus my efforts on the Truthers, having realized long ago that it was pointless to try and argue with them directly. I have become more interested in this as a social phenomenon, rather than trying to debate the minutiae of the events.
PC: There are some arguments I know I will be hearing on my deathbed – eight or seven or nine or all the hijackers are still alive, for example. But I don’t lose much sleep over it.
It seems as though Mark has received more than a small amount of vicious hate mail as a result of his efforts in the debunking community. Is this something to which you’ve also been subjected, given the high-profile nature of your site within the skeptics’ corner of the Internet?
JB: Well Pat handles the e-mail, so he gets most of this. This happens though. I have had conspiracy theorists threaten me, as well as try and find out my “secret identity” even going so far as to post my phone number and address on forums. Rather humorously they found a paper I co-wrote in business school on the use of RFID technology in retail and posted that as an example of my NWO credentials. Oh, well, I got a 3.9 on that paper if I remember right. They also posted a picture of a high school teacher in Washougal who shares my name, claiming that they found me.
PC: I got one or two death threats and a fair number of hostile e-mails, and of course we get tons of abuse in the comments. But I’ve got a pretty thick skin where it comes to Internet jerks. I have never had a seriously negative experience in person with Truthers even though I have ventured into their midst a few times.
Back in 2006, around the fifth anniversary of the attacks, it seemed as though the “Truth” Movement was gaining some genuine momentum: South Park produced an episode which lampooned the conspiracy believers, thereby giving them their highest-ever level of exposure; Loose Change: Final Cut was rumored to be on its way, with a mooted appearance in movie theaters across the globe; celebrity Truthers like Charlie Sheen were touting their views on national talk-shows; and so on, and so forth. How do you explain the precipitous decline of the kooks’ cause within a mere two years?
JB: Actually I think South Park had a huge part in this. It is one thing when the news and scientific reports criticize you, it is another thing when you become a punch-line in popular culture, alongside Scientology and George Michael. Other than that the thing that has hurt them the worst is all the splintering into various factions, and an inability to come up with any coherent argument.
PC: They did not have a case that stood even ten seconds’ examination on Google. In the pre-Internet age somebody could publish a book like New Pearl Harbor and even if somebody debunked it, who would hear about it?
Although I don’t believe in them myself, some of the JFK-related conspiracy theories don’t seem all that far-fetched at first glance: After all, only one more shooter would need to be identified in order to prove that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. On the other hand, 9/11 conspiracy theories seem to rely upon the involvement (and continued silence) of dozens, hundreds or possibly thousands of plotters in order to be in any way viable. Has any Truther, to the best of your knowledge, managed to explain away this remarkable improbability?
JB: They usually try to avoid this subject. The closest they come to it is comparing it to the Manhattan Project. Which is false in that the project was involved in attacking our enemies during war time, not our own citizens, and in fact it was not kept secret after the fact, and even leaked to the Soviet Union while it was still going on.
PC: They claim compartmentalization, that everybody followed orders from above without seeing how their cooperation allowed the plot to proceed. It’s not like there was a stand-down per se, just that planes were diverted so they couldn’t intercept. Others have said well, the whole thing happened by Arab terrorists but the highest levels of the government knew about it and let it happen.
I took a break from reading about the Truthers during 2007. When I returned to the subject at the start of this year I was struck by two facts: a) I hadn’t come across anything “Truth”-related in that entire 12-month period, much less met a Truther in real life, and I’d hardly been living in a cave the whole time; and b) not a single “theory” being put forward by the combative cranks at JREF (or debunked by SLC) was in any way new. Firstly, do you think the “Truth” Movement is, to quote Mikey Metz, solely “relegated to a discussion on the Internet”, and a pretty localized one at that, or have you actually met Truthers in your day-to-day lives outside your work on SLC?
JB: I was commenting on this the other day, in that the only time I have ever met a Truther in real life was when I went to a Michael Shermer book signing, and I primarily went because I knew they would be there (I made a YouTube video of the thing). They are largely an Internet phenomenon. It is no coincidence that they took off about the same time as YouTube, Google Video etc.
PC: I was in my office one day (which I shared with several other real estate people) and heard two of the guys talking about Loose Change, and the size of the hole in the Pentagon. I gave them the link to 9-11 Myths and the next day one of the guys who had been interested in the theories admitted they were bunk.
Secondly, can you remember the last time a genuinely new theory was advanced by the loons, rather than a lazy rehash of the same old crap?
JB: Hmm, good question. Really the only new stuff, as in newer than the last couple of years, is the crazy stuff like space beams or explosives built into the World Trade Center. Everything else is really just a variation of the whole remote-control planes/hijackers are still alive/thermite theories.
PC: I think the last major new theory was the thermite/thermate one advanced by Steven Jones, but even that’s gotta be three years old now.
To what extent do you think that Willie Rodriguez’s relentless self-aggrandizing, encapsulated within his infamous “I am 9/11!” remark, has undermined the courage he showed in helping people to escape from the Towers amid the chaos of that day? Does he have any credibility left?
JB: I have not really paid much attention to him, as I consider him to be a tragic character. He never really added much to the argument anyway, as his bombs-in-the-basement argument is pointless. OK, please explain to me why they were blowing random items up in the basement, ten seconds before the planes hit?
PC: I don’t worry much about Willie. He gets a bit of a pass because of what he did on 9-11 but his conspiracy theory claims have been well-debunked by Mark Roberts.
As alluded above, many Deniers show a lack of interest in, if not outright disdain for, the victims of 9/11. Which of their “mainstream” theories – “No plane hit the Pentagon”, “Flight 93 was shot down”, “The WTC towers were destroyed via controlled demolitions”, “The phone-calls were faked”, etc. – do you find to be the most egregiously offensive, and why?
JB: Probably the phone calls, as this was the last time the family members heard from their loved ones, and they are claiming it was fake. Of course no family members, the people who would actually know, claim this. You can go to the Web and listen to some of the calls. Not surprisingly no conspiracy theorist has ever played the recording of flight attendant CeeCee Lyles and then tried to argue it was fake.
PC: The phone calls, easily, for the reason outlined in response to the first question. It’s a way of completely denying the event.
Assuming that the absolute death of the “Truth” Movement is simply too much for which to hope, for how much longer do you intend to maintain SLC?
JB: Good question, as I mentioned I have considered cutting back. And in all practical terms I haven’t been posting nearly as much. Even Pat, who posts significantly more than I do, has been posting less. As I mentioned earlier, I have been focusing on this more as a cultural phenomenon, than discussing the minutiae of the events. Although, with the recent release of books and reports on the subject, there is still some of that left.
PC: I’ll keep posting there for the foreseeable future, as I’m sure James will, although it may be more haphazard than in the past.
Lastly, to borrow from the JREF’s monthly “Stundie” competition, what’s the most downright stupid thing you’ve heard, seen or read from a Truther?
JB: That is a tough one. Sofia’s “clunkity-clunk” is pretty much an all time favorite, in fact I think it won quote of the year. Richard Gage’s box demo is up there for laughs. Also he has said some pretty bizarre, albeit more subtle things about disappearing mass and such. Judy Wood has said some weird things, although she almost seems mentally ill, so they are so bizarre as to not really seem funny. A personal favorite of mine is just Alex Jones’ inability to pronounce “Uzbeakistan” properly.
PC: So many possibilities there. I still love Richard Gage’s box demonstration. It’s not the dumbest thing a Truther’s done, but it’s high on the list especially considering his position in the Movement. Truth Burn was a fiasco, where they were supposed to demonstrate how you can cut a vertical beam with thermite and instead burned a little thermite in a pot. The guy who used the stackable office trays to demonstrate how the towers should have fallen, or Sofia with the “clunkity-clunk” analogy.
Many thanks to James and Pat for taking the time to participate in this interview, and to Pat for providing the SLC logo you see above.