On the 12-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Pew Research has found that 73% of American citizens do not trust the government in Washington, D.C. Undoubtedly, a majority of the recent distrust can be attributed to the continuous revelations surrounding the National Security Agency’s spying programs (e.g., XKeyScore). Prior to these unsettling disclosures, however, Americans were already becoming increasingly doubtful of whether the federal government could be entrusted with their health, safety, and welfare. Such skepticism has even gone so far as to cause a rising belief in government-related conspiracy theories. Perhaps the most cynical of these are those posited by the “9/11 Truthers.”
While conspiracy theories surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks vary greatly, a similar premise lies at the heart of each theory: The U.S. government either directly orchestrated the attacks or knew about them in advance and purposefully allowed them to happen. Moreover, the majority of Truthers believe that the ultimate objective of the 9/11 attacks was to justify initiating wars in the Middle East with Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite abundant evidence pointing to the contrary, a 2006 Scripps Howard News Service poll found that one in three Americans believes that 9/11 was an inside job. Such a shocking statistic leads one to wonder: Have Americans always been so distrustful of their government and, if so, why?
Americans seem particularly attracted to the speculation that necessarily comes with conspiracy theories. Jesse Walker, senior editor at Reason magazine and author of United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, suggests that conspiracy theories are as American as apple pie. Indeed, there appeared to be no shortage of conspiracy theories surrounding many of the 20th century’s major historical events. Many of these conspiracies, such as the JFK assassination, the 1969 moon landing, and the Roswell, New Mexico UFO incident, have made a lasting impression in American popular culture despite never having been proven correct. While such conspiracy theories are mostly harmless, suggesting that the president and/or the U.S. government willfully allowed its citizens to be maimed or killed should never be taken lightly. After all, such an act would directly contradict the president's oath to uphold the Constitution, which states that the purpose of government is to "provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty."
Nonetheless, 9/11 Truthers are not the first to make such a bold claim. In a nearly identical vein to the Truthers’ argument that 9/11 was permitted as a pretext for the United States to have jus ad bellum (“right to war”) against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, conspiracy theorists such as journalist Robert Stinnett and former U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald have contended that the U.S. and British governments had advance knowledge of the impending December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and allowed it to happen so that America could enter World War II alongside the Allied Powers. While there has yet to be a smoking gun presented proving this theory (beyond individual testimonials stating they believed President Franklin Roosevelt desired for America to enter World War II to put an end to Nazi aggression), the fact remains that, like the 9/11 Truthers, there were prominent Americans who believed the U.S. government to be capable of such sinister behavior.
With the passages of time, historians have all but ignored the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory. Hopefully Truthers’ conspiracies will meet a similar fate as they are ultimately a slap in the face of the people who lost someone on 9/11, but the number of Americans who have bought into such conspiracies has fluctuated in the wrong direction since 2001. For example, around May 2002, in the first 9/11 poll, the New York Times and CBS News asked respondents, “When it comes to what they knew prior to September 11, 2001, about possible terrorist attacks against the United States, do you think members of the Bush administration are telling the truth, are mostly telling the truth but hiding something, or are they mostly lying?” In 2002, a meager 8% of respondents believed the Bush administration was “mostly lying” about having prior knowledge of the attacks. Only four and a half years later, however, 28% of respondents held that very same belief, despite not a single individual coming forward to admit participation in any of the purported 9/11 conspiracies. Moreover, a survey by Public Policy Polling in March 2013 found that 11% of voters believe the U.S. government allowed 9/11 to happen. Clearly the percentage of believers will fluctuate with time, but it would be preferable if history recalls the events of 9/11 as illustrated by the evidence, not far-fetched theories espoused by Truthers.
Perhaps it should not come as too much of a surprise that Americans are suspicious of their government. After all, the United States of America was founded by men who harbored a great deal of distrust against the tyrant King George III, hence why the Founding Fathers were in favor of a limited government. Indeed, James Madison maintained that “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.” With the proliferation of the internet, at no point in mankind’s history have disillusioned individuals been given such a large platform to express their distrust in the federal government. Yet, perhaps these conspiracy theories have helped some in the healing process from the senseless violence inflicted by Al-Qaeda. Professor Ilan Shrira, a social psychologist at Loyola University in Chicago, theorizes that conspiracy theories allow humans to cope with and make sense of traumatic events by providing a scapegoat who can be stopped and punished, thereby permitting individuals to reestablish control over their own lives. Maybe a handful of Truthers are a small price to pay for this sense of closure.