Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news about the World Trade Center and the Pentagon attacks?
The footage of the iconic towers crumbling to the ground was possibly more unbelievable than anything Hollywood’s best special effects artists could ever have produced. Shortly after, President Bush launched the ‘war on terror’ and the US and other countries went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Many questions were raised soon after the attack: Who were responsible? Why did the Twin Towers seem to collapse so easily? Who stood to benefit from this attack that killed almost 3000 people?
Today, 12 years later, conspiracy theorists are still not content with the official version of the events. So, they keep asking questions.
News as it happens?
The facts, government officials say, are that nine Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes. In a synchronized suicide attack, two of the planes were flown into the World Trade Center’s North and South towers; one crashed into the Pentagon; and the fourth, targeted at Washington D.C., crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after the passengers overpowered the hijackers.
However, the official account is continuously being questioned by conspiracy theorists. This comes as no surprise to psychology professor Chris French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London.
“9/11 was a very large and complicated event. And when events like these are unfold, people initially don’t know what is happening. There are unverified news reports that later actually turns out not to be true. The media is just trying to gather the information and report events as they happen. But it inevitably means that when people then look back (at the reports), they will find what appear to be anomalies, things that don’t quite seem to match the official explanation given by the authorities.”
Conspiracy theory similar to religion
Professor French who researches the psychology behind different paranormal beliefs – from ghosts to psychic abilities to alien abductions – has lately focused on conspiracy theories as one of his primary research topics. He sees many similarities between conspiracy theorists and people who subscribe to ideas of the supernatural.
“Some of the underlying factors that are associated with belief in conspiracy theories are quite similar to those regarding belief in the paranormal and with religion. By and large, it is about people trying to make sense of events and their place in the world,” he explains.
As for the psychology behind not believing official explanations of extraordinary occurrences, such as 9/1, one factor could be the so-called proportionality bias. “The idea is that when there is some kind of major event that takes place, then the cause of that event also has to be something big and major,” French says.
“That Princess Di died in a car crash simply because she had a drunken chauffeur who was being chased by the paparazzi doesn’t seem to be enough of an explanation. People prefer the idea that there was some big, huge conspiracy behind it.”
There are of course many other psychological factors behind the penchant to conspiracy theories, and anomalistic psychologists are doing a lot of research in this field, French add
Today, the attacks that hit the US on September 11, still inspire alternative theories of what actually happened and why.
The web is booming with 9/11 conspiracy theories. On websites like 911truth.org and 911truthnews.com and in documentary movies such as Loose Change “truthers” question, for example, how planes made out of aluminum could cause a steel and concrete building to collapse. Or why the collapse of the Twin Towers looked like a controlled explosion? And even why President George W. Bush didn’t seem more shocked by the news of a terrorist attack on the US. The list is long and the questions seem to continue almost into infinity.
Psychologist Chris French points out that the persons questioning 9/11 often don’t have a comprehensive counter theory to the official one. They just raise a lot of questions.
“If you’ve ever tried to argue with conspiracy theorists, whether it be about if we really landed on the moon, 9/11, or the JFK assassination, any of the major conspiracies, it’s a bit like trying to nail jelly to the wall,” he says.
“You’ll answer one point but they’ll immediately say ‘ah yes, but what about blah-blah-blah?’ and they’ll come up with another point. And because 9/11 was so complex, there is lots of room (for this kind of speculation).”
“What they are really saying is that ‘I don’t know what happened; I just don’t trust the official account.’ And that means that they can kind of move about from one point to another without ever feeling that their general distrust of the official account has been disproved,” Chris French says, adding that websites debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories point by point do exist.