Sunday, October 15, 2006

Loose Change/Upper East Side: Part II - Chaos and Its Consequences

(Note: This is the second in a series of posts about 9/11 conspiracy theorists and their reaction to the Cory Lidle tragedy last week. Part I can be found here.)

If one looks at some of the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, many of them include and/or are prompted by some bit of eyewitness testimony. Usually that testimony conflicts with other people at the scene, or even with the complete recollections of the same people being cited. Nevertheless, if a single person claims to have seen something that doesn’t fit with the “official” version of events, this is taken as an indication that a conspiracy is afoot.

Last week, when Cory Lidle’s plane hit a building in New York City, I already happened to have the television on. I switched to the coverage of the accident about 10-15 minutes after it occurred, and then had on a variety of stations covering the situation for the next few hours. If you were watching the coverage – and especially if you were following the coverage across a few different stations – you couldn’t help but notice discrepancies in many initial accounts. There were differences between what different stations were saying (presumably because of differences amongst their sources), and even differences among the accounts on the same station.

One of the most obvious discrepancies was whether the craft in question was a helicopter or a fixed wing airplane; it was this discrepancy, incidentally, that originally led me to want to write about this, in order to illustrate how well-meaning people can get facts wrong. And, quite frankly, some of them were wrong. This was a fairly simple, knowable fact. There is but one correct answer (unless you maintain that there were two aircraft involved). There is no gray area here, no room for interpretation.

In case you are wondering, let me say that it is abundantly clear now that it was a single, fixed wing plane that hit the building. If you don’t think that’s the case, well, I guess we can talk about it. But given all the evidence that suggests otherwise, the onus will be on you to show why that is not correct.

If it is true that that is the case, why did some people say they saw a helicopter? Simply put, they were mistaken. Remember, things happen quickly, circumstances are scary, chaos abounds, and situations are confusing. This is incredibly important to realize: people make mistakes, including about what they see, and especially under stressful situations. They don’t do this because they are necessarily evil or conniving; they do it because they are human. Someone hears something, turns, and looks. Maybe they turn in time to take in the situation, maybe they turn in time to see a blur, maybe they turn in time to see the immediate aftermath. The mind tends to fill in the details in circumstances like these, especially when the situation is traumatic and someone wants to have seen the whole thing. Our minds are actually incredibly good at filling in details to augment limited information sets and make sense of a situation. For example, think about being on a phone call with bad reception; your mind is filling in lots of blanks (word and parts of words missed) based on context and other clues, making (or trying to make) a sensible whole out of fragmented parts.

There is also a natural human impulse to want to be important, and no one is more important in the aftermath of a tragedy than an “eyewitness.” Concurrently, there is a subconscious desire to make what you saw newsworthy, to subtly fill in blanks, or say things with more certainty than you probably should. Someone who says they really didn’t see much gets interviewed quietly and quickly; someone who says they saw the whole thing gets to have their family watch their interview on the news that night played time and again. Hence, our bias to matter.

Back to the conspiracy theorists and their message board. One of the posters actually almost had his hands on the answer and didn’t even realize it:
"Lot's of conflicting reports coming out right now about the crash. Reports of odd things from eye-witnesses. It's as if nobody is 100% sure what's going on so soon after a tragedy. What does it all mean? I don't know."
As I said above, it means that people make mistakes. Some are confused, some are mistaken, and some are even right. You find out who’s who by looking at the totality of the accounts and the evidence, not by hanging the conspiracy shingle on a single conflicting, contradictory account.

In addition to the plane/helicopter discrepancy, there was also initial confusion about the path that the flight had taken. The correct path was later identified by radar records and other means, but early on it wasn’t clear which way it had come. Different channels were offering contradictory accounts:
“cnn showed the fight path coming from teterboro, going up to 1500 ft. as it reached the west side of manhattan. it flew straight across manhattan island, turned south upon reaching the east river, then turned right after dropping down to 400 ft., flying directly into the building.

mayor bloomberg just said that the plane came up the east river after circling the staue of liberty twice.

the plane can't be in 2 places at once.”
That’s right, the plane can’t be; another case of some witnesses being wrong. Here’s another poster:

"why is there 2 different versions of the direction the plane came in from? one version is that it corcled the statue of lberty 2x before heading north along the east river, then turning into the building. that would make it a left turn into the building not a right turn.
the other version has the plane flying across manhattan island, coming from west to east, across restricted airspace, and turning south along the east river before turning right into the building.
the video of the plane hitting the building suggests that the plane was on a beeline course for this building, not from the river but coming in directly across from the southwest."
Regarding this last quote, one further point. I watched that video the poster is talking about. It doesn’t show the plane coming in from the southwest; in fact, it shows exactly the opposite, looking at the north face of the building as the plane hits it, traveling towards the southwest. The poster made a mistake about what they saw. Not unlike some people on the ground.

The funny thing is, many conspiracy types want it both ways. On the one hand they will jump on any discrepancy in accounts as a sign that something is wrong, and at the same time they will point to any too-quick consensus as, well, a sign that something is wrong. To put it another way, there is never a set of circumstances that tells them there is not a conspiracy. To wit:

"Well this was not a terror attack. It must be true because its in the news! No but really they covered the whole thing very fast and now things are suddenly so clear about it. People what else is happening Right Now as we are blinded listening to the news and concentrating only on this?"
And another poster:

"Talk about drills btw. Oh yes they are bragging about how they have learned from all the drills. They ansver everything so knowingly, like this happened already a month ago!"
So for some there simply is no set of information or evidence that suggests they can be wrong; any information provided will always indicate a conspiracy among us. That’s not logic or reason at work; that’s fanaticism.

Coming up next, a discussion of the “Kansas City Shuffle.”

(Note: I’ve left quotes from the message board as they appeared, and haven’t corrected spelling, etc.)

UPDATE: Over the past few days, the Loose Change website has had a revamp. The old forum appears down, and they now have a new forum (registration required) that doesn't seem to contain the old threads. I've left the link to the old message board up, although it isn't working now. If I find a new link to the old threads, I will post it.

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