August 03, 2006

Terrorsploitation

As a listener of shortwave radio, naturally I am generally familiar with the various conspiracy theories that have cropped up following 9/11. This is nothing unusual, as there are a lot of people who think it is impossible that any major event happens by accident and outside the purview of a big, all-controlling, shadow government that pulls the strings behind the scenes. High-profile conspirinauts such as Alex Jones, or Dave vonKleist and Joyce Riley of The Power Hour, have harped on their particular views of 9/11 constantly on their respective programs, and have released a number of documentaries espousing their particular form of moonbattery.

But after reading about Spooked911's ridiculous rabbit-cage WTC "simulation" on MoonBat Central a few weeks ago, I started surfing the Net for more information about 9/11 conspiracy theories. I was unaware that there was such a cottage industry in 9/11 conspiracy theory apart from (and farther out than) what I had heard on the radio. I also learned that many of the more notorious 9/11 conspiracy documentaries are available for on-line viewing, often with the blessing of their producers.

With that in mind, I decided to take in the two arguably most influential documentaries in the 9/11 conspiracy genre. The first one I watched was 911 In Plane Sight by Dave vonKleist. Specifically, I viewed the "Director's Cut" version, which is available on Google Video. (The original cut is also available on the Net if you hunt for it.)

Was like does not mean was

911 In Plane Sight is a regular smorgasbord of sophistry. For example, throughout the documentary are eyewitness reports such as the following:

  • "We heard what sounded like a missile."
  • "I mean it was like a cruise missile with wings went right there and slammed right into the Pentagon."
  • "It almost looks like one of those implosions of buildings that you see."
  • "To me it sounded like an explosion."
  • "The explosion was so terrific it looked like it had dynamite in it."

These people were not saying that those things were factually the case. How would someone standing on the ground know that an airplane was loaded with dynamite? Rather, they are using similes - comparisons with other phenomena. It's a way of making speech more vivid and emphatic. We talk this way all the time; it's perfectly natural.

But vonKleist's unstated assumption is not that Flight 77 was like a missile; rather, there was a missile that slammed into the Pentagon. The WTC collapses weren't like deliberate implosions, they were deliberate implosions. And the airplanes that struck the Twin Towers did have dynamite on them, or at least some kind of incendiary or explosive material. He builds the thesis of this documentary on a figure of speech. (In addition, Mike Walter, the witness who told CNN the plane was "like a cruise missile with wings," specifically identified it as "a plane from American Airlines," proving he was speaking figuratively about the way it slammed directly into the Pentagon as though it were a missile locked on target. VonKleist has dishonestly taken his words out of context. So have many 9/11 conspirinauts.)

As an aside, part of vonKleist's supporting "evidence" that a missile, not a plane, hit the Pentagon, is the supposed size of the hole that the plane would have had to fit through. He asks: "How does a 757 fit into a 16-foot hole and leave no wreckage on the front of the building?"

Hey Dave, it doesn't. It fits into the 90-odd-foot hole on the ground floor that you have thus far ignored, despite it being right there in plain sight, if you'll pardon the pun, in almost every picture you show of the Pentagon damage:

Panic is not proof

Near the beginning of In Plane Sight, vonKleist plays a montage of clips from major newscasts, consisting of reports suggesting that explosives may have been planted in the buildings. For example, Rich Sanchez of NBC news is heard saying that police suspected "one of the explosions . . . may have been caused by a van that was parked in the building that may have had some kind of explosive device in it." Dave vonKleist says, rather ominously: "Some of these reports were televised, but only once" - implying that there has been a cover-up of some inconvenient facts.

There's a reason these stories were only broadcast once: they were unconfirmed reports, borne of the hysteria immediately following the attacks. There were many such rumours on the news on September 11: A truck bomb at the Pentagon. Shots were heard at the White House. Other aircraft were still unaccounted for and thought to be speeding to additional targets. Flight 93 was shot down. This is a pitfall that all live newsgatherers will fall into: in the quest to scoop the competition with a breaking story, sometimes rumour gets reported as fact. Later, when calmer heads prevail, the false reports get winnowed out. That isn't cover-up. It's correction.

Here's another example of the sorts of things that happen in the fog of panic. Before it was known that United Airlines Flight 93 had crashed in Shanksville, Cincinnati television station WCPO posted a story on its Web site that the plane had landed at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Cue the spooky music as vonKleist asks:

If United Airlines Flight 93 crashed at 10 am at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, then how could Flight 93 also have landed at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, been evacuated and searched for a bomb, as was reported at 11:43 Eastern time by Liz Foreman of WCPO TV in Cincinnati?

Answer: Flight 93 crashed at Shanksville. WCPO was wrong. Liz Foreman, the station's Web producer, posts the real story on her own blog: it was an AP wire story which in her haste she posted with an incorrect byline. The AP later retracted the story, and so she removed the link to it, but forgot to remove the file itself from the server. In other words, it was human error, understandable considering the circumstances. (Be sure to read the comments on Foreman's blog: amazingly, in the minds of 9/11 conspiracy moonbats, fixing a mistake on her employer's Web page makes her part of the big conspiracy.)

But speaking of unreliable, later-retracted reporting: The original cut of In Plane Sight contained an assertion that a "huge plume of smoke, approximately 50 to 60 stories high rising from the Trade Center area." This "critical event," he says, is "inconsistent with a simple attack of planes slamming into towers." Why, the tower was demolished by explosives, of course!

It turns out that the smoke plume was the dust cloud from the collapse of the south tower, filmed at an oblique angle so the north tower obscures it. Oops!

Also, vonKleist says, "this footage was shown once live and never repeated." The footage itself puts the lie to his claim, as the clip reads "EARLIER" in the top left corner: it's a repeat broadcast. Whoopsie!

This sequence has been omitted in the director's cut of In Plane Sight, and vonKleist has issued a sort-of retraction: "It may be safe to say that this explosion does take place during the collapse of the South Tower, but newly discovered evidence may suggest another reason for this plume of smoke." Anything to avoid admitting he got taken in by an optical illusion, I guess.

Eyewitnesses are not experts

In support of his assertion that the planes hitting the WTC were not commercial passenger jets, vonKleist plays a Fox News interview with Mark Birnbach, a Fox employee, who witnessed the second collision. Asked if he saw any markings on the plane, Birnbach answered:

There was, um, there was definitely a blue logo with like a circular logo on the front of the plane, uh, towards the uh, yeah, definitely towards the front. Um, it definitely did not look like a commercial plane, I didn't see any windows on the side, and, uh, definitely very low.

Birnbach later adds, "I was probably like a block away from the subway in Brooklyn," he said. How far away is that from the World Trade Center? Two miles? Airliner windows have an area of what, a square foot? Could he really have told the difference at that distance?

In Plane Sight is full of man-on-the-street interviews of this type, where people describe the events of September 11. Some of them saw passenger planes, some saw small commuter jets, some saw cargo planes. Some people think they heard bombs going off. I'm not doubting their credibility; if an explosion sounds like a bomb going off, it's perfectly natural to describe it as "like a bomb went off." But Dave vonKleist practically treats them as experts in explosives or aircraft identification. It's as though he started with a point to prove, then selected the witnesses that support his thesis, and ignored the rest. I suspect this is not far from the truth.

The most egregious example of this, however, is footage of a woman who, with Flight 175 exploding against the south tower in the background, turns and runs toward the camera, yelling, "That was not an American Airlines [sic]! That was not an American Airlines!"

I will note, just for the record, that technically she was right: Flight 175 belonged to United Airlines, not American Airlines. But that's beside the point. I don't know the geography of New York all that well, but by my reckoning, that video was taken a mile or so northwest of the World Trade Center. Moreover, the hijackers of Flight 175 attacked the south tower from the south. How could she have even seen the plane clearly?

But here's the thing I found really odd: Under these circumstances, is "That was not so-and-so's airplane!" the thing you would blurt out? Moreover, she never speaks until she is out of frame, and while she is in frame her hand is over her mouth. This footage strains my credibility beyond the breaking point, and I have to call shenanigans. I simply cannot believe the clip was not doctored.

Explosion does not mean explosives

Another assertion made by vonKleist is that the Twin Towers and WTC 7 did not collapse accidentally, and he makes a big deal of the reports of explosions that witnesses heard: "On September 11, there was a lot of discussion about explosions that went around the building and in the building."

Is this a surprise? When there's a fire, things explode. Two jetliners exploded. Was there nothing else in the building that was potentially explosive? Fuel tanks? Transformers? Generators? Cars in the parking garage?

VonKleist plays a clip from the Naudet 9/11 documentary of some firemen describing the collapse of the WTC towers:

Fireman 1: Floor by floor it started popping out [gestures with hands signifying expulsion of debris on successively lower floors]

Fireman 2: It was like, as if they had detonated . . .

Fireman 1: Yeah . . .

Fireman 2:. . . as if they were planning to take down a building. Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom [gestures].

Fireman 1: All the way down.

Yes, those collapses did look very much like a demolotion. When very large buildings collapse, by design or accident, they fall straight down. Did vonKleist expect them to topple over like a tree being chopped down? That was what the perpetrators of the 1993 WTC bombing hoped to do: topple WTC 1 into WTC 2, like a domino, and destroy both. The plan was doomed to fail; the horizontal forces required to tip such a massive skyscraper over would have been immense. On the other hand, the force of gravity acting vertically on a 110-storey, half-million-ton building is very great indeed . . .

But there is one significant way that the collapses don't look like a controlled demolition: the Twin Towers disintegrated from the top down. In a controlled demolition, the interior structure of the building is destroyed ahead of the exterior in order to pull the exterior structure into the footprint of the building as it collapses, and the supports at the bottom of the building are effectively blown out from underneath it. Then gravity takes over. (By contrast, WTC 7 suffered massive damage to its lower floors from the debris of the Twin Towers, and as a result its later collapse looks more like a controlled demolition.)

Again, I am not questioning the credibility of the two firemen. Compared with video of the collapses, their description is quite accurate. Was like does not mean was, remember?

Paint is not a pod

Probably the most notorious claim vonKleist makes in In Plane Sight is that United Flight 175 had a "pod of some sort" carrying "some sort of incendiary or explosive." VonKleist shows us a photo of the underside of Flight 175, pointing out the "anomaly" where the wing meets the fuselage:

Note a couple of items here: . . . the anomaly that appears to be attached to the belly of this plane could not be caused by a shadow. Also note that the item that appears to be attached to the belly of this plane is on the right side. This plane has something that is not symmetrical on the bottom of the plane. . . . [A] normal 767 has a belly that is smooth. This plane does not.

A montage of military aircraft with various protuberances implies that Flight 175 was no commercial passenger jet: it was a military plane or some other sort of specialized aircraft specifically designed to sabotage the building.

However, all the video vonKleist uses to support his "pod" thesis was taken from basically the same vantage point: to the plane's right and behind it as it struck the south tower. In footage taken from other angles, such as the video of Ronald Pordy, the "pod" does not appear.

It turns out to be a normal part of the airplane's structure. There is a built-up area on the fuselage where the wings are attached, called a "fairing." When the photo was taken, the plane was clearly banking sharply to the right. The right-side fairing, being closer to the camera, naturally appears slightly bigger. The livery of United Airlines jets has a thick white stripe down the belly of the plane, which contributes to the illusion of the outline of a protuberance. Heavily zoomed or out-of-focus images, video compression artifacts, and light and shadow effects complete the illusion.

Loose Change: Mere loud jangling

Here is everything I need to know about Dylan Avery and Korey Rowe's 2006 amateur documentary Loose Change: Second Edition (also available on Google Video): Sixteen minutes in, Avery asks, "Why is there absolutely no trace of Flight 77?" Only five minutes later, he contradicts himself completely, showing this image:

while asking, "[W]hy is it not singed or scratched after a 530-mph impact and a subsequent fireball?"

When someone can say with a straight face that a piece of wreckage hasn't got a scratch on it, when it is clearly crumpled like a beer can, it's safe to guess he doesn't travel with the rest of us on Planet Reality.

Indeed, narration contradicting image is what makes this asinine "documentary" unintentionally humorous. There's no evidence of plane wreckage on the Pentagon lawn, Avery says. So what is that debris in the background of the above image? For that matter, what is that in the foreground of the above image? And what's with the pictures of all those people carrying pieces of wreckage around? Avery also asserts that a jet fuel fire creates a big yellow fireball, but eyewitnesses to the Pentagon attack saw a "silver flash." Image on screen: a big yellow fireball at the Pentagon.

Another typical laughable assertion is intended to connect the destruction of the World Trade Center to the White House: George W. Bush's youngest brother Marvin is a former director of the company that provided security for the complex, and also of one of its insurers. (Is Avery implying that the insurers blew up the building? For what, the insurance money? Don't spin up the spooky music too fast, guys.)

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have occurred to the thousands of gullible True Believers that Loose Change is a hodgepodge of contradictions and ludicrous inferences. They've made it into an Internet viral phenomenon. Critical thinking is in pretty short supply these days.

Thanks to cheap computers and the Internet, it's easy to be an armchair investigator these days: just download video clips from the Internet, do some research on Wikipedia and a couple of blogs, add the obligatory Hunter S. Thompson voiceover, and go to town. What is missing is any sort of serious research, including zero interaction with any sort of subject matter expert. As a result, Loose Change commits the same broad fallacies as 911 In Plane Sight, only with lower production values and a cruddy hip-hop soundtrack (performed by notable nobodies such as "DJ Skooly" and "Nick Tha 1Da").

The writers of the blog Screw Loose Change have done an excellent job debunking this crockumentary point-by-point in its "Viewer's Guide" and other posts. Additionally, Mark Iridian ("Markyx") has produced an annotated version of Loose Change pointing out its many errors. This rebuttal is available on Google Video (part 1, part 2, and part 3).

Wrapping up

I'm sure I've attracted at least a few True Believers with this review. Some of you might be inclined to say, "Sure, you've answered this point or that point, but what about here, here, or here?" I have no intention of playing that game.

First, "Ransom can't answer this argument, so it must be right, and a conspiracy exists" is a non sequitur. My knowledge has limits. Sure there are some issues raised in these documentaries for which I don't have a ready answer. So what? "Ransom can't answer" does not mean "there is no answer." Having evaluated the specific assertions I can answer, I find the conspirinauts to be wanting. Why should I trust their hard arguments when the easy ones are so easy to debunk?

Second, I've seen the pattern repeated over and over. Supposing I were to do a little research and find an answer to another of the hard arguments. All that will happen is the True Believer will say, "Oh, but you haven't considered this one yet." I have no intention of getting into a game of move-the-goalposts with the moonbats. You don't win a debate by boring your opponent to death. All you prove is that you have a higher tolerance for codswallop than me. That doesn't bother me in the slightest.