Conspiracy beliefs reflect anger with government
More than a third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East, according to a new Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll.
The national survey of 1,010 adults also found that anger against the federal government is at record levels, with 54 percent saying they “personally are more angry” at the government than they used to be.
Widespread resentment and alienation toward the national government appears to be fueling a growing acceptance of conspiracy theories about the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Suspicions that the 9/11 attacks were “an inside job” – the common phrase used by conspiracy theorists on the Internet – quickly have become nearly as popular as decades-old conspiracy theories that the federal government was responsible for President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and that it has covered up proof of space aliens.
Thirty-six percent of respondents overall said it is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took no action to stop them “because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.”
“One out of three sounds high, but that may very well be right,” said Lee Hamilton, former vice chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also called the 9/11 Commission.) His congressionally appointed investigation concluded that federal officials bungled their attempts to prevent, but did not participate in, the attacks by al-Qaida five years ago.
The poll also found that 16 percent of Americans speculate that secretly planted explosives, not airliners, were the reason the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed.
Conspiracy groups for at least two years have questioned why the World Trade Center collapsed when fires that heavily damaged similar skyscrapers around the world did not cause such destruction. Sixteen percent said it’s “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that “the collapse of the twin towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the two buildings.”
Twelve percent suspect the Pentagon was struck by a military cruise missile in 2001 rather than by an airliner captured by terrorists.
That lower percentage may result from an effort by the conservative Washington-based Judicial Watch advocacy group to debunk the claim.
The group filed claims under the Freedom of Information Act and obtained images from Pentagon security cameras, showing “a plane hitting the Pentagon at incredibly high speed,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton.
Many conspiracy Web sites have posted the video segments and report the films are inconclusive or were manipulated by the government.
“Some folks will never be convinced,” Fitton said. “But I’m hoping that these videos will dissuade reasonable people from falling into a trap with these conspiracy theories.”
University of Florida law professor Mark Fenster, author of the book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, said the poll’s findings reflect public anger over the Iraq war, realization that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction and growing doubts of the veracity of the Bush administration.
The Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University has tracked the level of resentment people feel toward the federal government since 1995, starting shortly after Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City.
But the new survey found that 77 percent say their friends and acquaintances have become angrier with government recently and 54 percent say they, themselves, have become angrier – both records.
The survey also found that people who regularly use the Internet but who do not regularly use so-called “mainstream” media are significantly more likely to believe in Sept. 11 conspiracies.
The level of suspicion of U.S. official involvement in a Sept. 11 conspiracy was only slightly behind the 40 percent who suspect “officials in the federal government were directly responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy” and the 38 percent who believe “the federal government is withholding proof of the existence of intelligent life from other planets.”
The survey was conducted by telephone from July 6-24 at the Scripps Survey Research Center at the University of Ohio under a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.