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Conspiracy Theories Find a Home on the Internet


Oliver Stone's newest movie opens today and we'll have a review coming up. "World Trade Center," set on 9/11, turns out to be free of the conspiracy theories Oliver Stone is famous for. Another movie about September 11 is rife with conspiracy theories.

"Loose Change" is a video produced on a laptop and yet it's ranked among the most-watched independent videos since it was put online last year.


DYLAN AVERY: America has been hijacked. Not by al-Qaida, not by Osama bin Laden, but by a group of tyrants ready and willing to do whatever it takes to keep their stranglehold on this country.

MONTAGNE: The voice making these controversial claims is that of Dylan Avery. He's the 22-year-old director and narrator of "Loose Change." At its heart is the proposition that while planes may have crashed into the World Trade Center, the buildings were actually brought down by explosives. The video contains a complex brew of facts, conjecture, documents and bits of political history.

AVERY: I'm not claiming to have any answers. Well, I mean, I obviously have alternate explanations for what happened. And the American people themselves know that they have not been given the whole truth. And whether or not the whole truth is what I'm saying in my documentary or it's a lighter shade of it or, you know, I'm completely wrong, the American government is hiding things.

MONTAGNE: Who do you think people are who accept your version of events, or are fascinated with your version of events, rather than the mainstream version of events?

AVERY: That is what is so unbelievable about our film is that it doesn't just cater to the - and I hate to use this phrase, but I'm going to use it - conspiracy theory crowd. We have conservatives. We have Republicans. I mean, it has this viral effect on people, and I think that its popularity is a testament that there is a ring of truth to it.

MONTAGNE: Have you worked out a motive on the part of the government?

AVERY: Absolutely, and you don't even really have to work out a motive. All you have to do is read the history books and realize governments have always been ready and willing to sacrifice their own people if the benefit outweighs the cost. And in the case of September 11th, there were numerous agendas that were on the shelf for a number of different people involved. And September 11th was the perfect way to take care of all that at once.

MONTAGNE: Dylan Avery's film is part of a larger undercurrent of 9/11 conspiracies fueled by the Web and undeterred by a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

This summer, for instance, has brought the controversy over University of Wisconsin professor who quite publicly proclaims that 9/11 was the work of Western military intelligence.

To find out why pages and pages of official reports haven't quelled the conspiracies, we turn to Timothy Naftali. He wrote "Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism." He also was a consultant to the September 11th Commission.

TIMOTHY NAFTALI: I think you can track the popularity of conspiracy theories against how we feel about our government's credibility.

In periods when there's this wide credibility gap between our government and us, that's a time when conspiracy theories flourish.

MONTAGNE: Timothy Naftali says the phenomenon of 9/11 conspiracies may be explainable but not credible.

NAFTALI: Healthy skepticism of government is necessary. I mean, I think that's part of citizenship. But to go from that, to assume this maniacal, secret conspiracy - an Illuminati of Washington, D.C., if you will - that can pull all the strings; that's ahistorical.

One of the things historians realize is that bad things happen and incompetence is everywhere. And all of these theories rest on an assumption that the bad guys are extraordinarily efficient, and we are incapable of penetrating that black box.

MONTAGNE: You were a consultant to the 9/11 Commission. The very fact that you're connected to the commission would say to somebody who had embraced these theories that you're not to be believed.

NAFTALI: You know, I'm an historian and an empiricist, and there's always, in history, one or two data points that are not as explainable as the rest. I mean, to take the one or two data points that might be difficult to explain and to use them to weave a massive narrative that would involve many people - that's always been the problem with these conspiracy theories. For them to have happened, so many people had to be in the know, that keeping that secret in a democracy is really improbable.

I mean, if you look at the real conspiracies that have happened in American history, and we've had them. If you look at Watergate and if you look at Iran- Contra, these all unraveled. It's just beyond possibility.

MONTAGNE: Timothy Naftali teaches at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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