Conspiracy theories have long hovered over major news events: Did the FBI play a role in the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Was AIDS created in a New York laboratory in efforts to infect the gay community? Did the U.S. government explode New Orleans' levees during Hurricane Katrina to flood Black neighborhoods? Perhaps inevitably, attention has turned to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
On the eve of the fifth anniversary, a group of professors calling themselves the 9/11 Scholars for Truth has joined the chorus, echoing conspiracists' claims that the attacks were an "inside job"
"September 11 appears to have been orchestrated by U.S. officials," says Dr. Kevin Barrett, an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin. "Mad I'm not saying they let it happen--they made it happen. This is the new Pearl Harbor."
Leading the 9/11 Scholars for Truth, along with Barrett, are Dr. Steven E. Jones, a physics professor at Brigham Young University; Dr. James H. Fetzer, a recently retired philosophy professor at the University of Minnesota; and about 75 other professors at institutions around the country.
The group believes little of the government's official version of events, and says the "smoking gun" is the collapse of World Trade Center 7, the 47-story building next to the twin towers that buckled under at about 5 p.m. on Sept. 11. The group says the collapse is scientifically unexplainable, and they claim to have evidence that the building was imploded intentionally, as were the twin towers. Among other accusations, they also claim that United Flight 93 never crashed into any Pennsylvania field, and that the purpose of the attacks was to create an excuse for the United States to occupy oil-rich Arab nations and expand Israel.
While the group has collected some interesting data, their hypotheses are largely dismissed by the larger academic world.
"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," says Christopher H. Pyle, a professor of constitutional law at Mount Holyoke College who has familiarized himself with their claims. "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 afterward."
Not surprisingly, such conspiracy theories have drawn the ire of conservative talk radio, the U.S. government, and some of the scholars' university administrations. In Wisconsin, 61 state legislators signed a statement demanding Barrett be fired and forbidding him to teach his class on Islam this fall. University Provost Patrick Farrell refused to sever the relationship, calling it a freedom of speech issue, but he did issue a letter instructing Barrett not to teach his views in class. …