Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Conspiracy Theories

I happened to catch the interview with Mohammad Al Fayed on the Today Show (video link) this morning, in which he discusses the soon-to-be-released British government inquiry into the deaths of Princess Diana and his son, Dodi, along with driver Henry Paul.

Al Fayed, if you didn't know, is convinced the British royal family had Diana killed in order to cover up the fact she was pregnant with Dodi's child and was planning to marry him.

If you understood anything about British history, this claim is pretty unusual on its face. Bastard children are no big deal when it comes to royals, but I digress.

Admittedly, Al Fayed seemed sincere in his claim, and yet, I couldn't help but be struck by the fact that part of him seemed to cling to what appears to be the truth: a car accident, precipitated by the uncertain physical state of the driver and the excessive speed at which he was piloting the vehicle to avoid the paparazzi.

Certainly, there are plenty of details that don't appear to correspond to this conclusion. For example, the missing white car that paint stripped off of (and witnesses saw) just prior to the accident looms large in the inquiry.

And yet, isn't this true of any event? We all know, for instance, that OJ did it, but he was acquitted, primarily because the gloves didn't fit (and there's a perfectly good explanation for that: when wetted, leather can shrink and warp). No one's about to seriously claim that there was a conspiracy to frame OJ, however.

I have a very simple rule I use when considering conspiracy theories: do they answer more questions than they raise? If not, I discard the theory immediately. Let's see how this applies to some of the great controversies of my lifetime:
1) The JFK Assassination -- I firmly believe the Warren Commission got the lion's share of this one right: Lee Harvey Oswald fired the weapon that killed JFK and wounded John Connally in Dallas in 1963. There is no detail raised by the vast number of conspirarists that cannot be demonstrated in that context. Period.

As an example, let's take the highly touted so-called "magic bullet" theory: that one bullet contorted, stopped and twisted in the air to cause seven injuries was impossible.

Nonsense. The Zapruder film shows that Connally and Kennedy were not sitting facing the same direction, nor in the same plane perpendicular to the direction of the car. Connally was facing over his shoulder, in a jump seat lower than Kennedy's, so the direction of a shot fired from behind and over their left shoulders could not have been any other way, and would have made precisely the wounds they suffered.

There are hundreds of other salient details that I'm not going to bog down my blog with, but suffice it to say that a lot of them rest, in part, in the confusion over what one bullet could do in mid-air. If you eliminate the "impossibility" of a single gunman, suddenly all those details fall into line.

2) The Moon landing was a hoax -- I had to laugh when I first heard this one, just prior to the release of Capricorn One (starring, curiously enough, O J Simpson). We'd been sending astronauts to space for almost a decade in 1969, getting progressively closer to the moon with each mission. Hundreds of people, more likely hundreds of thousands of people, witnessed these spacecraft taking off, live and in person over dozens of launches. To think that suddenly the one flight that first landed us on the Moon was faked was, well, silly.

This nonsense at least has the charm of being a fringe belief, with only 6% of Americans believing it, but it generates enough media heat that occasionally, you'll see a show about it.

Most of the claim of this hoax rests on missing data from the landings. Most of those claims have since been debunked, most recently when, in Australia, an old box full of telemetry tapes from Apollo 11 was found, which confirm that the landing did, indeed take place.

3) Vince Foster was killed -- Ken Starr debunked this one. Nuff said.

4) September 11th was a U. S. government plot -- OK, this has some of the wilder theories I've ever heard, but I chalk this up to the fact that the events are so recent that people haven't had the chance to get together and straighten out their claims (talk about conspiracies!).

I believe that Al Qaeda operatives hijacked four planes and flew three of them into major structures in the United States cities of New York and Washington.

Being an earwitness to the first flight, I can confirm that a plane buzzed Manhattan that day at high speed, flying very low to the ground. Moments later, there was an impact and a large gash in the north-facing side of the north tower.

There are really two conspiracy theories involved here, and I'm going to shock you: this level-headed fellow, who has read a lot and thought a lot about these attacks, agrees with one theory. I believe there was an amount of complicity by the Bush administration in the attacks.

By "complicity," however, I do not mean that Osama and Dubya sat down over beers and hashed it out. I mean that the Bush administration clearly had foreknowledge of the attacks, and that some in the administration urged inaction. This debate, I believe, raged right up to September 11, which is why few steps, if any, were taken to prevent it. It fit an agenda, and enough in the administration subscribed to that agenda to muck up any preventative measures.

The theories, however, that three buildings were somehow pulled down by internal explosives set to detonate to implode the three main structures that came down that day (the other four were deemed unsalvageable and dismantled separately) is ludicrous on its face, and asinine on further reflection. No credible witness reported any explosions (one janitor deep in the basement claims he heard explosions, but a) he was in the basement where sounds could expect to be distorted and b) he has never been tested to see if he would have mistaken a floor-by-floor collapse, with the concurrent concusive forces involved, with a series of explosions), and in fact, credible witnesses describe what sounded like a series of metal-on-metal impacts, consistent with the collapse of a building made primarily of metal. Too, scientists have shown that the jet fuel created temperatures sufficiently hot enough, when combined with the added fuel of furniture, paper, and other combustibles, that could have caused the collapse, as the outer walls, the structural support for the towers, would buckle outwards, leaving floor after floor floating in mid-air. Where else would they go?

The implosion theory, whose results would be similar to the scenario suggested above, have one fatal flaw: who set the explosives in offices that were occupied at the time of the attacks? How did they get access to over two hundred floors housing tens of thousands of tenants and thousands of corporations, without being noticed? Explosives are not light. They are not easily stored, nor are they easily set in place. Also, the risk of a premature explosion before all the charges was set, which would have exposed the plot before the crucial moment, would have been too great for anyone to contemplate unmasking.
See? Asks more questions than it answers.

Conspiracy theories have a place. They force us to ask questions, and examine the answers carefully. They allow us to confront those who hold this information, to make them more carefully examine the data, as was the case in thedeath of Princess Diana, where a senior Scotland Yard investigator was assigned to do an in-depth inquiry.

Ultimately, though, life is like this: dumb things happen, for no reason. Evil exists. People are clever enough to accomplish some pretty amazing and infamous things. Sometimes, there are conspiracies, like Watergate, like stolen votes, like fraudulent sweepstakes, that are exposed and dealt with.

But take a closer look at that last point: those conspiracies certainly have high stakes, and used as few people as possible, and yet holes opened, facts didn't coincide, and the official explanation not only fell on its face, but was replaced by a better one (Harris certifying Florida for Bush when Gore actually won).

Which simply isn't true in most cases, which means we ought to be very careful in espousing such theories, and once proven to a reasonable extent, accept the official explanation.

I think conspiracy theories give us a curious comfort, as if knowing there's a bunch of old men (the Trilateral Commission, or the Bilderberg family) who sit around and determine the fate of nearly each and every person.

Sort of like religion.

My heart goes out to Mr. Al Fayed. No one should outlive their child, and by all means, clinging to them is understandable. But this isn't going to bring him back sir, and I'm afraid it's over now.