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 that it
was not American Airlines Flight 77 that slammed into the Pentagon,
but a missile or a small plane.
With rock music as a backdrop, 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 around the world.
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 not over months and weeks but within days and
hours on the Web.
"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 created a Web
site for the video, www.pentagonstrike.co.uk.
Then he e-mailed a copy to Laura Knight-Jadczyk, an American author
living in France whose books include one on alien abduction. Williams,
31, a systems analyst, belongs to an online group hosted by Knight-Jadczyk
that blends discussions of science, politics and the paranormal.
On Aug. 23, Knight-Jadczyk posted a link to the video on the group's
Web site, www.Cassiopaea.org.
Within 36 hours, Williams's 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 young Navy specialist put the video on his personal
Web page, usually visited by a few friends and relatives; suddenly,
the site was inundated by more than 20,000 hits. In Alberta, traffic
to a cabdriver's site shot up more than sixfold after he supplied
a link to the video.
Across thousands of sites, demand for the video was so great that
some webmasters solicited donations to pay for the extra bandwidth.
"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.
Most make their case through the selective use of photographs and
eyewitness accounts reported during the confusion of the first hours
after the attack. They say they don't know what really happened
to American Airlines Flight 77 and don't offer other explanations.
The doubters say they are just asking questions
that have not been answered satisfactorily.
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 9/11 commission.
"We discussed the theories," said Philip D. 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 books on the culture of conspiracies,
said contradictory and inconclusive eyewitness accounts often leave
room for different interpretations of events.
"Conspiracy theories are one way to
make sense of what happened and regain a sense of control,"
Barkun 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
The belief that the government is lying about the Sept. 11 attacks
is coming from both the right and the left. Experts say more than
suspicion of the Bush administration is at work.
"It seems that since the end of the Cold War, the enemy is
the United States government, the enemy is within," said Rick
Ross, whose Ross Institute of New Jersey monitors cults and
other controversial groups, many of which see manipulative forces
working behind the scenes. "Instead of projecting conspiracy
theories out, it's become internalized."
Zelikow, for example, lacks credibility with many
who question the work of the 9/11 commission because he wrote a
book with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. He believes
that it is futile to discuss evidence with people convinced of a
"The hardcore conspiracy theorists are totally
committed," Zelikow said. "They'd have to repudiate much
of their life identity in order not to accept some of that stuff.
That's not our worry. Our worry is when things become infectious,
as happened with the [John F. Kennedy] assassination. Then this
stuff can be deeply corrosive to public understanding. You can get
where the bacteria can sicken the larger body."
David Ray Griffin considers himself an unlikely recruit to what
is called the "9/11 Truth Movement." The retired theologian,
who taught religion for three decades at Claremont School of Theology,
initially dismissed the notion that it was not an airliner that
hit the Pentagon. But after visiting several Internet sites raising
questions about the attack, he ended up writing a book. "The
New Pearl Harbor," published in the spring, argues that a Boeing
757 would have caused far more damage and left more wreckage strewn
around the Pentagon.
"There are reasons why people doubt the official
story," he said. "There are photographs taken, and there
is no Boeing in sight."
Suspicions formed as the Pentagon still smoldered.
For 2 1/2 years, the attack on the Pentagon has been discussed
and researched by members of Knight-Jadczyk's online group, the
Quantum Future School.
The group's talks formed the basis for articles in which Knight-Jadczyk
argues that after the attack on the World Trade Center, eyewitnesses
at the Pentagon were predisposed to see a large airliner. She believes
that the Pentagon was attacked by a smaller plane and that members
of the Bush administration were somehow complicit because it was
beneficial for war-profiteers and Israel.
Interviewed by telephone from what she said is a 17-bedroom castle
outside Toulouse, where she lives with her Polish physicist husband
and five children, Knight-Jadczyk acknowledged that her group is
Knight-Jadczyk, 52, a Florida native, has been a psychic and a
channeler. She is now involved in experiments in what she calls
"superluminal communication," which she described as involving
"time loops" that would enable people to communicate with
their former selves.
Knight-Jadczyk said she never imagined anyone outside her group
would ever view "Pentagon Strike."
"The fact everybody's been sending it to his brother and his
cousin, almost frenetically, reflects the fact that there is a deep
unease," she said. "They don't come out and say it. They
don't want to be accused of being with terrorists, anti-American
or anti-patriotic. But they still feel something's wrong."
Bret Dean of Fort Worth said he considers it "baloney"
to question whether a plane hit the Pentagon. But he also believes
that the government ignored warning of the attacks.
After posting a link to the video on his libertarian site, www.freedomunderground.org,
Dean recorded more than 8 million hits. At least one came from inside
the Defense Department, he said.
"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 9/11 commission,
"The question of whether American 77 hit the Pentagon is indisputable,"
Zelikow 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