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Conspiracy theories thrive 10 years after 9-11 attacks on New York, Washington

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OTTAWA - Patrick Whyte, like all good pitch men, is personally invested in his product.

"I prefer to look at paranoia as just another means of awareness," the co-owner and proprietor of Conspiracy Culture says without a trace of irony.

Whyte, on the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, is hardly alone.

His five-year-old shop on Toronto's funky downtown Queen Street West promises "strictly non-fiction, researched theories" on conspiracies and paranormal subject matter in book, magazine and DVD formats.

Alternative theories on what happened in New York and Washington that crisp September morning 10 years ago make up "a big slice of the pie" of Whyte's merchandise, but his material covers the conspiratorial waterfront — like his clientele.

"We've got professors, students, janitors, TTC (transit) workers, doctors, teachers, policemen," said Whyte.

"Anybody and everybody comes in here. The one thing that ties them all together is just their genuine curiosity in terms of trying to make sense of what's going on."

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, have sparked a veritable conspiracy cottage industry.

A conference on alternate 9-11 explanations will convene a who's who of eminent conspiracy theorists at Ryerson University in Toronto from Sept. 8-11, although event co-ordinator Graeme MacQueen prefers the term "evidence theorists."

MacQueen, a retired McMaster University professor, says conspiracy theory is a disparaging "ten-dollar expression" that means nothing.

"Everybody knows the 9-11 attacks were the result of a conspiracy. It just means a plan by several people, in secret, to commit a crime," the Harvard-educated specialist in Buddhist studies said in an interview.

"What we're disagreeing about is simply who were the conspirators and why did the conspirators do this, and how?"

Claims reverberating around the Internet range from the U.S. government having prior warning of the attacks — and consciously doing nothing — to cries of active White House involvement.

There are technically detailed arguments that the fall of the Twin Towers in Manhattan were controlled implosions, that a missile rather than a jetliner must have hit the Pentagon and that a fourth airliner that fell in Pennsylvania was shot from the sky, to name just three of the most popular.

Whatever their merits — and serious, non-biased researchers have painstakingly debunked claim after claim, only to have new ones pop up like a Prairie dog colony — the conspiracies have an enduring mass appeal that's impossible to deny.

Those who study the phenomena say conspiracy theories are an attempt to make sense of incomprehensible events. Big, traumas attract big conspiracies.

The moon landing, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the death of Princess Diana and the spread of AIDs, for instance, have spawned enduring conspiracy theories.

Believing JFK died at the hands of a lone, mentally unstable gunman, according to British psychologist Patrick Leman, "presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect."

Writing in the magazine New Scientist, Leman suggests that "in a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability."

He's explored a phenomenon called "flashbulbs memory" — sudden, shocking events that impact individuals on a personal level and provide fertile ground for conspiracies.

Sept. 11, 2001 fits the bill perfectly.

"It's our big event," Whyte, 35, says of his generation. "We all watched it unfold throughout the course of the day. We were all massively traumatized. It's something of great importance to us because it changed the way everybody lives."

Professor Ted Goertzel (GET-zel), a sociologist at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J., studies social movements and conspiracy thinking and has his own theories on the driving forces.

"Perhaps the strongest appeal is the need to find someone to blame for the problems of the world — someone you can use as a sort of scapegoat, or to help you understand why things are not going well in the world," Goertzel said in an interview.

People who blindly support the official government line may also be guilty of the same kind of thinking, he said, but conspiracy theorists tend to migrate from event to event.

"It's not usually just one conspiracy. It's a generalized tendency to see this evil force behind everything."

Not only does such thinking provide a target for blame, Goertzel argues, it also "allows you to elevate your own self concept, in a way, because you believe that you can see truths that are missed by major newspapers, government commissions, all sorts of scientists and experts."

Such theorizing about conspiracy theorists drives MacQueen to distraction.

"Why on earth would people question the official story?" the professor asks in mock exasperation.

"Who are we? Is there something wrong with our toilet training? Are we just a wee bit psychotic?"

Yet the disdain cuts both ways. There's often a whiff of superiority, or withering condescension, when conspiracy theorists discuss the blindness of those who don't subscribe.

In Whyte's world view, "the general populace is pretty much ... bread and circuses.

"Give them their lottery, give them their sports on TV, give them their free health care and their flouride in their water and everybody's just groovin' and rockin,'" said the Toronto bookshop owner.

"There are the few people that watch with a keen eye and just say, 'This just doesn't make sense.'"

Goertzel notes how truly difficult it is to independently examine something as big and complex as 9-11. Highly technical claims, for instance, that the speed of the buildings' collapse indicates a controlled demolition are impossible for a layman to corroborate or refute.

A profound absence of trust is fundamental to conspiracies.

"There are facts that are true, like the fact dinosaurs existed," says Goertzel. "Or were those bones just put there by the devil to test our faith?

"Once you allow that sort of logic then you can believe anything."

At times, conspiracy theory can seem like a kind of religious faith, although Goertzel puts it in a different context, that of nihilist philosophy: "The idea that truth is relative; there's our truth and their truth and everybody's entitled to their own truth."

Whyte says people don't want to admit they subscribe to conspiracy theories, or they feel they're alone in their beliefs. He hears it regularly from surprised newcomers to his bookstore.

"There's such a stigma associated with it. They label you as crazy. And the term 'conspiracy theorist' nowadays usually lands you on the top shelf, cut off from any further dialogue."

People like James Reuhle, a 51-year-old builder and property manager in Pickering, Ont., who somewhat reluctantly agreed to be interviewed.

"The general idea is that people don't believe anymore," Reuhle said to explain his search for alternative 9-11 theories. "We don't believe what's being rammed down our throats."

Nonetheless, Reuhle has stepped back from the computer monitor after binging on Internet conspiracies.

"I paid attention when I was angry, when I was avoiding my life," he said, adding: "I vented my anger by searching 'truths' on the Internet.

"I was running around raging like a lunatic. It helped destroy my marriage, for sure."

Reuhle says he's "given it up now, I'm tired of being miserable," but he hasn't changed his fundamental belief that 9-11 was an inside job.

"I still believe it. I still believe what I read and I saw and what I learned. It just doesn't affect me as much anymore so that I have to pursue it."

That active pursuit of conspiracies is one aspect of the phenomenon that 9-11 survivors and their families find galling.

Hans Gerhardt lost his son Ralph Gerhardt in the north tower. He says he's been approached by strangers "who wanted to share what they knew about 'what really was taking place.'"

"I lived in New York and I certainly read a lot of books and talked to lot of people about this and so, no, I'm not one of these conspiracy supporters," said Gerhardt, 69.

Abigail Carter, who lost her husband Arron Dack in the attacks, shrugs off the conspiracy theories, especially after her architect father explained the buildings' structure to her.

"It was totally meant to pancake if anything like that happened, just so it wouldn't take out blocks and blocks," she said. "This whole idea that there were bombs, well yeah, no. It doesn't really hold water to me. I think the building did exactly what it was designed to do."

It's a curious phenomenon: intelligent, educated people believing in conspiracies that require leaps of faith far greater than acceptance of the official government line.

Goertzel says it used to be conspiracies worked best among people who were physically isolated in a sect or geographic pocket. Paradoxically, with the global flood of information, there's a new form of isolation.

"Now you can isolate yourself on the Internet, if you choose to," said the sociologist. "You just associate with people who share your views and ignore what everybody else says because you don't trust their motives."

Conspiracy thinking, said Goertzel, "can be an excuse not to deal with things because, why should I worry about my career when the sky is about to fall down due to this vast conspiracy?"

"That's why (conspiracies) sort of die after awhile, because nothing much happens."

But with the repercussions of 9-11 still rattling through our security-obsessed society, there remains plenty of fuel to keep the conspiratorial fires hot and raging.

MacQueen points to a 2008 poll of 16,000 people in 17 countries that found only 46 per cent believed al-Qaida was responsible for the terrorist attacks.

"Let's assume for a moment these are sane, rational people," says MacQueen, pleading for a fair hearing.

If you use this assumption, he said, "that would mean Canadians are killing and dying in Afghanistan — or they have been in the past — on the basis of a lie. The restriction on our civil rights and all this B.S. we go through as we get on the airplane exists on the basis of a lie. ..."

"At the very least, hundreds of millions of people in the world don't believe the official story."

— With files from Diana Mehta

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