Shards of glass and dust from the World Trade Centre towers sit on Professor Steven Jones's desk at Brigham Young University in Utah. Evidence, he says, of the biggest cover-up in history - one too evil for most to believe, but one he has staked his academic career on exposing.
The attacks of September 11, Jones asserts, were an "inside job", puppeteered by the neoconservatives in the White House to justify the occupation of oil-rich Arab countries, inflate military spending and expand Israel.
"We don't believe that 19 hijackers and a few others in a cave in Afghanistan pulled this off acting alone," says Jones. "We challenge this official conspiracy theory and, by God, we're going to get to the bottom of this."
While this sinister spin strikes most American academics as absurd, Jones, a physics professor, is not alone. He is a member of 9/11 Scholars for Truth, a recently formed group of around 75 US professors determined to prove 9/11 was a hoax. In essays and journals, they are using their association with prominent universities to give a scholarly stamp to conspiracy theories long believed in parts of Europe and the Arab world, and gaining ground among Americans due to frustration with the Iraq war and opposition to President Bush's heavily hyped "war on terror".
Their iconoclastic positions have drawn wrath from rightwing radio shows and caused upheaval on campuses, triggering letters to newspapers, phone calls from parents and TV cameras in lecture halls.
In the Midwest, 61 legislators signed a petition calling for the dismissal of a University of Wisconsin assistant professor, Kevin Barrett, after he joined the 9/11 Scholars for Truth. Citing academic freedom, the university provost defended Barrett, albeit reluctantly.
A Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll taken during the summer indicates that Americans are increasingly suspicious of the government's explanation of the events of 9/11: 36% said it was "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, or took no action to stop them, "because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East".
For most of the world, the story of 9/11 begins at 8.45am on September 11 2001, when American Airlines flight 11 smashed into the North tower of the World Trade Centre. But, tumble down the rabbit hole with Jones, and the plotline begins a year earlier, in September 2000. A neoconservative group called Project for a New American Century, which included the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and the vice-president, Dick Cheney, brought out a report arguing for a global expansion of American military and economic supremacy, and for the US to transform itself into a "one-world superpower". The report warned that "the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalysing event - like a new Pearl Harbor".
Excuse for aggression
The group, in concert with about 20 others, orchestrated the attacks of 9/11 as an excuse for pre-emptive global aggression against Afghanistan, then Iraq and soon Iran, the academics say. And they insist that they have amassed a wealth of scientific data to prove it.
It is impossible, says Jones, for the towers to have collapsed from the collision of two aeroplanes, as jet fuel doesn't burn at temperatures hot enough to melt steel beams. The horizontal puffs of smoke - squibs - emitted during the collapse of the towers are indicative of controlled implosions on lower floors. The scholars have collected eyewitness accounts of flashes and loud explosions immediately before the fall.
The twin towers must, they say, have been brought down by explosives - hence the container of dust on Jones's desk, sent to him unsolicited by a woman living in lower Manhattan. He is using X-ray fluorescents to test it for explosive materials.
What's more, the nearby World Trade Centre 7 also collapsed later that afternoon. The building had not been hit by a plane, only damaged by fire. WTC 7 housed a clandestine CIA station, which the scholars believe was the command centre for the planning of 9/11.
"The planes were just a distraction," says Professor James Fetzer, 65, a recently retired philosopher of science at the University of Minnesota. "The evidence is so overwhelming, but most Americans don't have time to take a look at this."
But Jonathan Barnett, professor of fire protection engineering at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, calls such claims "bad science". Barnett was a member of the World Trade Centre Building Performance Study, one of the government groups that investigated the towers' collapse.
Reluctantly, he has familiarised himself with the scholars' claims - many of them have emailed him. Yes, it is unusual for a steel structure to collapse from fire, Barnett agrees. However, his group and others argue that the planes' impact weakened the structures and stripped off the fireproofing materials. That caused the top floors of both towers to collapse on to the floors below. "A big chunk of building falling down made the next floor fall down, and then they all came down like a deck of cards," Barnett says.
The collapse of WTC 7 was also unusual, he admits. However, firefighters do not usually let a fire rage unabated for seven hours as they did on the morning of September 11, because they had prioritised the rescue of victims. "The fact that you don't have evidence to support your theory doesn't mean that the other theory is true," Barnett says. "They just made it up out of the blue."
Since the attacks, the US government has issued three reports into the events of the day, all of which involved hundreds of professors, scientists and government officials. The 9/11 Commission, a bipartisan group, issued a 500-page, moment-by-moment investigation into the hijackers' movements, concluding that they were connected to Osama bin Laden. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a government agency, filed 10,000 pages of reports examining the towers' collapse. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency weighed in, examining the response to the attacks.
"To plant bombs in three buildings with enough bomb materials and wiring? It's too huge a project and would require far too many people to keep it a secret afterwards," says Christopher Pyle, professor of constitutional law at Mt Holyoke College. "After every major crisis, like the assassinations of JFK or Martin Luther King, we've had conspiracy theorists who come up with plausible scenarios for gullible people. It's a waste of time."
But Barrett says the experts have been fooled by an "act of psychological conversion" not unlike the tactics CIA interrogators use on their victims. "People will disregard evidence if it causes their faith to be shattered," he says. "I think we were all shocked. And then, when the voice of authority told us what happened, we just believed it."
Misleading the public
History has revealed that governments have a tradition of misleading the public into going to war, says Barrett, and the next generation of Americans will realise the truth. "Europe and Canada are way ahead of us on this."
The 9/11 scholars go to great lengths to portray themselves as rational thinkers, who have been slowly won over by a careful, academic analysis of the facts of the day.
However, a study of the full extent of their claims is a journey into the increasingly absurd: Flight 93 did not crash in Pennsylvania but landed safely in Cleveland; desperate phone calls received by relatives on the ground from passengers were actually computer-generated voices from a laboratory in California. The Pentagon was not hit by American Airlines Flight 77, but by a smaller, remote-controlled A-3 Sky Warrior, which shot a missile into the building before crashing into it.
Many of the 9/11 scholars have a history of defending conspiracy theories, including that the CIA plotted both the Lockerbie bombing and the plane crash of John F Kennedy Jr and his wife, and that "global secret societies" control the world.
Professor Robert Goldberg, of the University of Utah, wrote a book on conspiracy theories, Enemies Within: the Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America. He recounts a history of religious and political leaders using conspiracy theories for personal and political gain. The common enemy is usually Jews, big government or corporations. The public laps it up, either because these theories are more exciting than the truth, or out of emotional need.
"What the conspiracy theorists do is present their case with facts and figures: they have dates, meeting places and always name names," he says. "The case is always presented in a prosecutorial way, or the way an adventure writer presents a novel. It's a breathless account. They are willing to say hearsay is a fact, and rumour is true, and accidents are never what they seem.
"One of the stories is that a missile hit the Pentagon, and all the data is there. But what is missing is: what actually happened to the plane and the people on it? Conspiracy theorists avoid discussion of those facts that don't fit."
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the public's willingness to believe conspiracy theories parallels their dissatisfaction with the Bush administration. In recent years, the American public has felt misled over false claims that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9/11.
Many fear infringements on their civil liberties now the National Security Agency has gained access to phone billing records from telecommunications companies, the Bush administration has engaged in wiretapping without court warrants and there are thousands of cases of indefinite detentions of American and foreign citizens without trial. Those who criticise the Bush administration's "war on terror" are accused of being unpatriotic.
By taking their criticisms to such extremes, though, the scholars risk caricaturing the opposition. None the less, they are pushing on, and imploring Congress to reopen the investigation.
"We're academics and we're rational, and we really believe Congress or someone should investigate this," says David Gabbard, an East Carolina education professor and 9/11 scholar. "But there are a lot of crazies out there who purport that UFOs were involved. We don't want to be lumped in with those folks."
It’s the conspiracy theory to dwarf all conspiracy theories. A smorgasbord of every other intrigue under the sun, the Illuminati are the supposed overlords controlling the world’s affairs, operating secretly as they seek to establish a New World Order.
But this far-fetched paranoia all started with a playful work of fiction in the 1960s. What does this tell us about our readiness to believe what we read and hear – and what can the Illuminati myth reveal about the fake news and stories we continue to be influenced by today?
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When most people try to look into the secret society’s history, they find themselves in Germany with the Enlightenment-era Order of the Illuminati. It was a Bavarian secret society, founded in 1776, for intellectuals to privately group together and oppose the religious and elitist influence over daily life. It included several well-known progressives at the time but, along with the Freemasons, they found themselves gradually outlawed by conservative and Christian critics and the group faded out of existence.
View image of Still from Angels and Demons film (Credit: Alamy)
That is, until the 1960s. The Illuminati that we’ve come to hear about today is hardly influenced by the Bavarians at all, as I learned from author and broadcaster David Bramwell, a man who has dedicated himself to documenting the origins of the myth. Instead, an era of counter-culture mania, LSD and interest in Eastern philosophy is largely responsible for the group’s (totally unsubstantiated) modern incarnation. It all began somewhere amid the Summer of Love and the hippie phenomenon, when a small, printed text emerged: Principia Discordia.
The book was, in a nutshell, a parody text for a parody faith – Discordianism – conjured up by enthusiastic anarchists and thinkers to bid its readers to worship Eris, goddess of chaos. The Discordian movement was ultimately a collective that wished to cause civil disobedience, practical jokes and hoaxes.
The text itself never amounted to anything more than a counter-culture curiosity, but one of the tenets of the faith – that such miscreant activities could bring about social change and force individuals to question the parameters of reality – was immortalised by one writer, Robert Anton Wilson.
It’s an idealistic means of getting people to wake up to the suggested realities that they inhabit – David Bramwell, author
According to Bramwell, Wilson and one of the authors of the Principia Discordia, Kerry Thornley, “decided that the world was becoming too authoritarian, too tight, too closed, too controlled”. They wanted to bring chaos back into society to shake things up, and “the way to do that was to spread disinformation. To disseminate misinformation through all portals – through counter culture, through the mainstream media, through whatever means. And they decided they would do that initially by telling stories about the Illuminati.”
At the time, Wilson worked for the men’s magazine Playboy. He and Thornley started sending in fake letters from readers talking about this secret, elite organisation called the Illuminati. Then they would send in more letters – to contradict the letters they had just written.
View image of Jay-Z (Credit: Alamy)
“So, the concept behind this was that if you give enough contrary points of view on a story, in theory – idealistically – the population at large start looking at these things and think, ‘hang on a minute’,” says Bramwell. “They ask themselves, ‘Can I trust how the information is presented to me?’ It’s an idealistic means of getting people to wake up to the suggested realities that they inhabit – which of course didn’t happen quite in the way they were hoping.”
The chaos of the Illuminati myth did indeed travel far and wide – Wilson and another Playboy writer wrote The Illuminatus! Trilogy which attributed the ‘cover-ups’ of our times – such as who shot John F Kennedy – to the Illuminati. The books became such a surprise cult success that they were made into a stage play in Liverpool, launching the careers of British actors Bill Nighy and Jim Broadbent.
Today, it’s one of the world’s most widely punted conspiracy theories
British electronic band The KLF also called themselves The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, named after the band of Discordians that infiltrate the Illuminati in Wilson’s trilogy as they were inspired by the religion’s anarchic ideology. Then, an Illuminati role-playing card game appeared in 1975 which imprinted its mystical world of secret societies onto a whole generation.
Today, it’s one of the world’s most widely punted conspiracy theories; even celebrities like Jay-Z and Beyoncé have taken on the symbolism of the group themselves, raising their hands into the Illuminati triangle at concerts. It’s hardly instigated the mind-blowing epiphany – the realisation that it’s all fake – which the proponents of Discordianism had originally intended.
The 60s culture of mini-publishers and zines seems terrifically distant now from today’s globalised, hyper-connected internet, and it has undeniably been the internet’s propensity to share and propagate Illuminati rumours on websites like 4chan and Reddit that has brought the idea the fame it has today.
But we live in a world that is full of conspiracy theories and, more importantly, conspiracy theory believers; in 2015, political scientists discovered that about half of the general public in the USA endorse at least one conspiracy theory. These include anything from the Illuminati to the Obama ‘birther’ conspiracy, or the widely held belief that 9/11 was an inside job carried out by US intelligence services.
View image of US dollar bill (Credit: Alamy)
“There’s no one profile of a conspiracy theorist,” says Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University. “There are different perspectives of why people believe in these theories, and they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive – so the simplest form of explanation is that people who believe in conspiracy theories are suffering from some sort of psychopathology.”
Another conclusion researchers have drawn to is that these theories could provide rational ways of understanding events that are confusing or threatening to self esteem. “They give you a very simple explanation,” adds Swami, who published research in 2016 that found believers in conspiracy theories are more likely to be suffering from stressful experiences than non-believers. Other psychologists also discovered last year that people with higher levels of education are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
The big change now is that politicians, particularly Donald Trump, are starting to use conspiracies to mobilise support – Viren Swami, Anglia Ruskin University
The picture that this paints of modern America is a dark one, especially for Swami who has seen a change in who normally promotes conspiracy material. “Particularly in South Asia, conspiracy theories have been a mechanism for the government to control the people. In the West, it’s typically been the opposite; they’ve been the subject of people who lack agency, who lack power, and it’s their lacking of power that gives rise to conspiracy theories to challenge the government. Like with 9/11. If people lack power, conspiracy theories can sow the seeds of social protest and allow people to ask questions.
“The big change now is that politicians, particularly Donald Trump, are starting to use conspiracies to mobilise support.”
The 45th President of the United States was a notorious “birther”, regularly speaking to the media about how President Obama wasn’t really born in Hawaii. He also accused various US states of voter fraud after the 2016 election and his campaign team were responsible for propagating now debunked fabricated stories such as Pizzagate and the Bowling Green Massacre.
I asked Swami if he thought that this shift in conspiracy theory usage could affect politics long term. “People could become disengaged with mainstream politics if they believe in conspiracy theories,” said Swami. “They’re much more likely to engage with fringe politics. They’re also much more likely to engage with racist, xenophobic and extremist views.”
View image of US President Donald Trump (Credit: Alamy)
The idea of an untouchable, secretive elite must resonate with people that feel left behind and powerless; Trump said he wanted to represent these people, especially the once-powerful industrial landscape of America’s Rust Belt. Yet instead of feeling better represented in the halls of power by a non-politician like themselves – and theoretically being less likely to feel powerless and vulnerable to conspiracies – it seems like some in America are more likely to believe in stories like the Illuminati more than ever before.
“If Wilson was alive today, he’d be part delighted, part shocked”, says David Bramwell. “As far as they thought in the 60s, culture was a little too tight. At present, it feels like things are loose. They’re unravelling.
“Perhaps more stability will come as people fight against ‘fake news’ and propaganda. We’re starting to understand how social media is feeding us ideas we want to believe. Echo chambers.”
Between internet forums, nods in popular culture and humankind’s generally uninhibited capacity for imagination, today’s truth-finders and fact checkers might debunk the Illuminati myth for good.
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