Nearly 10 years ago today, I was working with my colleagues on the September 12 edition of the Boston Herald newspaper. We were scurrying to make sense of the attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) and the Pentagon while determining the severity of the damage. Our coverage came from a unique perspective since the two commercial flights that crashed into the twin towers took off from Logan Airport in Boston.
In the early hours of September 11, we had no idea how many people were in the WTC towers when they collapsed. Some reports indicated that 50,000 people worked in the buildings, so for many days we feared that the death toll would be far higher than the final tally of 2,977 people.
More than 10 per cent of that number were firefighters and police officers who died after rushing into the building to save the people inside. Another 184 people perished in the attack on the Pentagon. Nationals from more than 70 countries died on September 11.
The early press accounts saw several erroneous reports surrounding the attacks. Part of my job as a copy editor at the newspaper was to try to separate the facts from the rumours. Ten years later, some rumours are still circulating.
The terrorist group Al Qaida trained the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks. The leader of Al Qaida, Osama Bin Laden, publicly declared war on the US in 1998 — angered by a variety of offences including the presence of US troops on Saudi Arabian soil. In 2004, Bin Laden took credit for the attacks in a taped address.
Of course, many people — particularly in this region — don't agree with this simple narrative. Instead, some believe that 9/11 was part of a grand conspiracy orchestrated by the US government to justify military attacks in the Middle East.
This conspiracy varies greatly depending on the source, but most accounts involve US agents planting explosives inside the twin towers to make them collapse, a US missile striking the Pentagon instead of a passenger plane, or — at the least — the US government allowing the attacks to take place so that they could respond militarily.
I've discovered that some of my Emirati students also subscribe to this conspiracy. Even some US citizens harbour doubts about the official account of 9/11. In my new profession as an academic researcher who studies the media and its effects, I'm not surprised.
Conspiracy theories are popular in all parts of the world and can often be traced to questionable media reports. A few years ago, I asked my American students how many believed that American astronauts had not really landed on the moon. I expected that a couple or three students might raise their hands but was shocked when nearly half of my students expressed their belief in the fake lunar landing conspiracy.
Many of them, I learned, had watched a 2001 Fox television show titled Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? The lunar conspiracy had been around since the 1970s, but really gained traction after 15 million viewers watched this documentary.
The show pointed out a few details from lunar pictures that seemingly indicated that they were faked. Numerous reports have debunked these aberrations, yet the conspiracy still persists.
The moon landing isn't the only conspiracy theory that's gained traction. The deaths of John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Bin Laden have all been linked to nefarious conspiracies. Some Americans choose to believe a conspiracy that all Muslims want to take over the world and institute Sharia. And, of course, the 9/11 attacks represent one of the largest conspiracies around, fuelled in part by media reports that have raised doubts about the official narrative.
Nowhere to hide
My answer to students of conspiracy theories is simple. I ask them to imagine all of the people involved in the conspiracy and whether it's believable that these people could possibly keep quiet after taking part in such a big lie. Think of the 100 men you've seen in pictures Houston's Mission Control.
In today's WikiLeaks-fuelled, open-media environment, is it really believable that they've managed to keep the secret of six fake moon landings all these years?
I would ask those who subscribe to the conspiracy of the 9/11 attacks to apply the same test. Who were these patriotic American agents who planted explosives in the WTC? At whose direction exactly? Who launched the missile into the Pentagon? How many soldiers had to take part in carrying out that order? How many CIA and FBI agents withheld information about the impending attacks because they were told to do so by their superiors? Could all of these people really have kept quiet all this time? We published a lot of funeral stories in the autumn of 2001, giving each person their own special day of remembrance. They deserved no less.
The 2,977 victims of 9/11 also deserve to have the cause of their deaths remembered accurately. They didn't die because a secret cabal of Americans chose to sacrifice their lives for some nefarious purpose. The victims died because of the murderous, extremist ideology of Al Qaida. Nothing more, nothing less.
To those who still choose to believe in the conspiracy, I respectfully disagree. But on Sunday, perhaps, we can put aside these different perspectives and agree on one thing. The victims of 9/11 didn't deserve to die 10 years ago — no matter who masterminded the attack. Today, let us honour their memory and pray that another travesty of that magnitude never befalls any nation.
Dr Matt J. Duffy teaches journalism in the College of Communication and Media Sciences at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.