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We're all conspiracy theorists at heart

BBC | February 16, 2007

If there was ever any doubt that the upcoming documentary was going to be a hit piece, it's gone now. The BBC has today posted a "Q and A" that uniformly attempts to debunk the 9/11 truth movement. This will be the flavor of the show and the research will be about as balanced as Popular Mechanics' Hearst style yellow journalism.

Why are conspiracy theories so popular? We may not always believe what we're told, but we still can't resist listening to them. Guy Smith, producer of 9/11: The Conspiracy Files, suggests the answer may lie deep within us all.

I admit it. If I'm being really honest, I can't deny that I'm a bit of a conspiracy theorist. Perhaps we all are.

It's easy to dismiss all conspiracy theories as "bunkum", but remember just occasionally they do turn out to be true. Remember Watergate? Iran-contra? Special Branch collusion with loyalist terrorists in Northern Ireland?

As Jim Fetzer, one of the leading 9/11 conspiracy theorists, says: "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."

I've just spent the best part of nine months investigating the numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the al-Qaeda attacks on 11 September, 2001. They range from the plausible - that intelligence agencies in the Middle East may have had some inside knowledge about what was planned - to the totally wacky - that United 93's passengers were abducted by government agents.

But the deeper you dig in the dark world of conspiracies, the more you realise that different theories share much in common. The conspiracy theorist seizes on any apparent inconsistency and from that germ of truth the story is built up.

What happened to the white car apparently involved in Diana's accident? Was there a second gunman on the Grassy Knoll? And why did it take so long to scramble US fighters on 9/11?

And we can't help but be fascinated by them.

Perhaps it's because deep down, we're all story tellers. It's one of the things that makes us who we are. Since the dawn of time, we've been creating heroes and monsters as a way of trying to make sense of the world. In the beginning, we told those tales round camp fires. Now, it's through internet chat rooms or on mobile phones. But it's still basically the same process - weaving stories out of real life.

Tablets of clay

Nearly five thousand years ago, the legend of Gilgamesh was scratched on to clay tablets by scribes in ancient Mesopotamia, now Iraq. It's an epic tale of good guys and demons fighting it out in an uncertain world where those we love can be snatched from us at the whim of the gods.

Archaeologists believe it was the first story ever to be written down and as I researched the 9/11 conspiracy theories, I was struck how The Epic of Gilgamesh has many parallels with modern conspiracy theories.

When something awful, inexplicable or just plain evil rocks our world, we have an instinctive need to construct elaborate explanations to try and make sense of our anxiety and fear.

Many eye-witnesses to 9/11 thought, "This terrible event can't just be something as simple as 19 young hijackers armed with pocket knives. There must be more too it than that - because the alternative is just too horrific to contemplate."

That alternative is a realisation we are all vulnerable to forces beyond our control; even princesses and presidents aren't immune to "everyday" tragedies like road accidents or random acts of violence.

"I believe the idea that conspiracy theorists are looking for a bigger reason is absolutely right," says Frank Spotnitz, writer of The X Files.

Feels 'unfair'

"I think the most potent targets for conspiracy theories are events of disproportionate tragedy. For example, the president of the United States is assassinated by a lone gunman. It doesn't seem fair, it doesn't seem right, it can't be. This one guy couldn't have done it - there must be larger forces at work."

And so we take comfort in complicated stories about wider conspiracies, usually involving remote, distant figures.

In the past it was mythical gods and monsters. In the more secular modern world, ancient superstitions have been discarded - now it's out-of-touch leaders and unseen government agencies who fill the role of the bogeymen.

We find it reassuring to create an explanation that vindicates our world view. It reinforces our beliefs, suspicions and, yes, even our prejudices.

And from Homer to Harry Potter, the stories we weave always have a hero who is trying to seek out "the truth". Their mission is to go where mere mortals fear to tread - whether it be the Minotaur's labyrinth or the labyrinthine recesses of the secret state - and bring back knowledge to share with the rest of us.

In the age of the internet, those fearless warriors are the self-styled conspiracy theorists whose hunting grounds are the furthest strands of the web. There one can find any number of rumours, stories or scenarios which can be strung together to create the perfect explanation for just about anything that goes wrong in the world.

Your rational half knows these theories probably aren't true, but our instinctive side thinks, well just maybe there's something in it.

In 5,000 years, we haven't changed at all. And maybe that's a very reassuring thing to know.

9/11: The Conspiracy Files will be broadcast on Sunday, 18 February 2007 at 2100 GMT on BBC Two.

"TerrorStorm is something that should be seen by everyone, no matter what their stance/affiliation/political bent. " - Rich Rosell, Digitally Obsessed UK
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