Sunday, April 29, 2007

Occam's Razor and Controlled Demolitions

Although they disagree on what hit the buildings, conspiracy theorists generally agree that the Twin Towers (and Tower 7) were brought down by some type of controlled demolitions. Most people do not know enough about structural engineering to competently judge the subject. But we can still apply Occam's Razor.

For instance, if the Twin Towers were brought down by explosives, why bother with the planes at all? Surely bombs would have just as much dramatic effect. And some of the events offered as evidence of demolitions don't bear close examination. Many witnesses saw or heard explosions in places remote from the crash well before the towers collapsed. There is said to have been molten steel in the basement after the towers collapsed. Both of these are alleged to be inconsistent with damage caused by the planes. But are they consistent with controlled demolitions? When buildings are deliberately brought down, do random explosions normally go off in sites far from the actual demolition? Is there usually molten steel in the basement afterwards? Really?

What happens when a plane flies into a skyscraper? Well, in 1945 a B-25 bomber flew into the Empire State Building. The building did not fall because the plane was much smaller and flying slower, but the fuel tank exploded on impact. Although the bomber contained only 800 gallons compared to 10,000 gallons in the planes that hit the Twin Towers, it sent a fireball through hallways and stairwells, that caused damage several floors below impact, and one elevator fell to the bottom of the shaft. Multiply that by eight times the weight, over twice the speed and more than ten times the fuel load and it should hardly be surprising that the WTC suffered far-reaching damage. And anyone wanting to use any event at the WTC to prove disprove the "official account" should first answer this conspiracy debunker:

I'd like to propose a little thought experiment to the conspiracy believers. I've asked this before but no one has ever answered. Please describe, in as much detail as possible, what you would EXPECT to hear and see after a fully-loaded airliner hit a skyscraper at top speed, causing enormous damage, and the building caught fire to the point of collapse? And when a billion-pound building does start to collapse, what would you EXPECT to see and hear at the lower levels? Because in order to be surprised by what did happen, you must have some expectation of what SHOULD have happened.

Touching very briefly on technical details of what caused the collapse, I will point out that just before the towers fell, people inside were desparate, reporting that the ceilings were bulging and the floors were sagging. This is consistent with the truss theory, that the fire caused the metal strips (trusses) supporting the floors to sag, which pulled the walls inward and caused them to buckle. Of course, the most obvious shortcoming with the demolitions theory is how were all those explosives planting without anyone noticing? All that demolitions work going on in three different towers, and not one person noticed anything out of the ordinary?

But perhaps the best evidence of just how implausible the controlled demolitions scenario is was unwittingly made by one of its own advocates:
In addition to having to determine the quantities and placement of explosives necessary to achieve the total destruction of the Towers, the planners had to plan the timing of their detonations with some precision. It is clear from photographs and videos of the Towers' destruction that the zones of destruction moved downward at about the same rates as the exploding rubble clouds descended, so that these zones remained concealed by the clouds. If these zones of destruction moved either too quickly or too slowly, they would would have become visible below or above the rubble clouds, blatantly contradicting the official account of gravity-driven collapses.

Translation: Videos appear to support the "official" view of progressive collapse from the site of impact. That proves how cleverly the evidence was faked. Occam, someone needs a shave.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Meanwhile, Other Conspiracy Theories

In the immediate aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting certain right-wing commentators had the knee-jerk reaction of suspecting that Islamic terrorists were behind it all. It is senseless to try to score cheap political points from the tragedy by accusing them of using the tragedy to score cheap political points. Their fears are sincere, if paranoid, and they assume that the rest of us are either woefully naive or reflexively polically correct to dismiss that possibility.

So, in the interest of fairness and rationality, why do we (or at least I) dismiss that possibility. Experience, for one. In that time that I have been able to follow the news, there have been many stories of mass shootings in the US, going back before anyone ever heard of Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. The vast majority were the work of isolated, highly disturbed individuals, acting alone. A small number (the Columbine High School shootings and the Washington, DC snipers are the only ones I can think of) were the work of pair. Not one of these mass shootings involved a larger conspiracy of any kind. Granted, just because it hasn't happened in the past doesn't mean it can't happen in the future. But, as the saying goes, when you hear hoofbeats, don't assume a zebra. If no US mass shooting in the past has been part of a larger conspiracy, don't assume a larger conspiracy absent some sort of evidence.

Furthermore, most mass shooters attack in familiar locations. Postal workers hit the post offices that fired them. School shooters hit the school they attended. Again, exceptions are possible, but let's rule out a horse before we assume a zebra. From the start there was evidence that the shooter knew his way around campus. To the paranoid, that is evidence that the terrorists scoped it out well in advance. A much more obvious explanation would be that, like most school shooters, this one was a student there. And surely terrorists scoping out a campus would be more likely to attract attention and suspicion that a student who writes disturbing poems.

This leads to the question of the target. I speak as one who immediately recognized the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building as the work of anti-government Americans, not Mideastern terrorists. The Oklahoma City federal building just is not a "sexy" enough target to interest Mideastern terrorists. Despite frequent claims that the Heartland is more "American" that coastal cities, an attack on the heartland just isn't a symbolic attack on American in the same way as an attack on New York City. The same applies to Virginia Tech. It just isn't a dramatic enough target.

And finally, when Bin Laden pulled off the September 11 attacks, he set himself a presumably unanticipated problem. How do you top that? How do you do a more mundane act of terrorism without appearing to lose your touch? After destroying the Twin Towers and killing some 3,000 people, a campus shooting is certain to look amateurish by comparison.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Occam's Razor and the Remote Control, No Hijackers Theory

Not all 9-11 conspiracy theorists believe so far-fetched an account as the one in Loose Change. Many accept that the first three planes did, in fact, hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and that Flight 93 crashed. They also generally accept the phone calls from the planes as genuine. But, they say, the three planes were flown by remote control and not by hijackers, and Flight 93 was shot down.

This view is not as obvious a violation of Occam's Razor as the no planes theory, but it raises problems nonetheless. The main argument offered against a hijacking is the lack of resistence, or even distress calls, by the pilots. By looping and rolling the plane, it is argued, a pilot can thwart any hijacking. Of course, if one takes that argument to its logical conclusion, then no hijacking should ever take place. Since hijackings have, in fact, taken place, it seems reasonable to assume that pilots do not normally use this technique. Before 9/11, it was generally assumed that hijackers were not suicidal, but merely wanted to divert the plane and take hostages. Pilots were therefore not inclined to use drastic and possibly dangerous flying techniques to thwart them, and passengers usually submitted to what they assumed was survivable. Conspiracy theorists are expecting pre-9/11 pilots to think in post-9/11 terms. As for distress calls, if the pilots were taken by surprise and killed, they could hardly make them.

Besides, if the flights were being flown by remote, the lack of pilot resistence is even more problematic. Why didn't the pilots attempt to override the remote, or at least inform the ground that they had suddenly lost control of their own planes? A proposed answer is that the plane was depressurized or filled with "potent gas" to kill or incapacitate the people on board. But that leaves the problem of the phone calls, which subscribers to this theory generally accept as genuine. There were calls from all four planes, describing hijackings in all four cases. The passengers could hardly have made those calls if they had been killed or incapacitated. If the phone calls were genuine and true, they refute the remote control theory. If the phone calls were genuine, but coerced or reporting staged events, then there would have to be suicidal conspirators on board the planes to coerce the passengers or fake the hijackings. As for the possibility of the calls being faked, I have discussed that at length already. The site linked here makes no attempt to reconcile its remote control theory with the phone calls reporting a hijacking. And it is hard to imagine any explanation that Occam would accept.

Furthermore, the remote control scenario apparently accepts the overwhelming evidence that there were hijackers on Flight 93 and a geuine passenger revolt against the hijackers, but the flight was shot down as the revolt was on the verge of success. This raises all sorts of obvious questions. If the other three flights could be flown by remote, why not Flight 93? Why bother with hijackers if they were not necessary? Who were the hijackers, anyway? Were they part of the conspiracy? Or was there, by a remarkable coincidence, a real hijacking by real Arab terrorists immediately after three fake hijackings by fake Arab terrorists?* Conspiracy theorists do not even ask, let alone answer, these questions.

Conspiracy theorists further deny that the purported hijackers were on the planes at all and claim that some or many of them are still alive. In fact, this appears to be a case of different people with the same names the hijackers. (Given the notorious mixups that have occurred on everything from no-fly lists to "extraordinary renditions," is it any wonder that there has also been confusion over the identities of the hijackers?)

But if the identities of the hijackers were faked, and if they were never on the planes at all, that raises another obvious question. Surely if there is one thing all of us can agree on, it is that the Bush Administration was determined to start a war with Iraq. So when it staged this elaborate hoax, including the falsified hijackers, why did it falsify 15 Saudis and not one single Iraqi? Are we seriously to believe that an Administration capable of pulling off so complex a scheme as 9/11 couldn't fake Saddam Hussein's participation while it was at it? Keep in mind that the Administration, particularly Dick Cheney, has been trying to falsify Saddam's participation in the attacks for a long time. But the attempt to claim a meeting between hijacker Atta and Iraqi intelligence has been thoroughly discredited, and all attempts at proving a link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda have been duds. Even George Bush has given up trying to prove that Saddam was involved in 9/11 and settles for hinting at it by continually mentioning Iraq, terrorism and "taking the fight to the enemy" in the same sentence. How can a conspiracy capable of staging such an elaborate and successful ruse be so utterly inept at tying in their primary target?

*The takeover of Flight 93 at 9:28 occurred about 3/4 an hour after the first flight hit the North Tower, 25 minutes after the second plane hit the South Tower and nine minutes before the third plane hit the Pentagon. The takeover also happened after there had been calls from all three other flights reporting hijackings by Arab terrorists.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Defining a "Person"

The Supreme Court's most recent allowing restrictions on late-term abortions has once again raised the painful question of what rights, if any, does a fetus have. Opponents of abortion set a bright, clear and offer a bright, clear reason for it. Life (and, by extension, full rights of personhood) begins at conception because from the very moment of conception each of us has a unique genetic endowment that remains unchanged for our entire lives. Opponents of abortion are extremely vague as to what rights, if any, a fetus has and when, if at any time before birth, they begin to vest. But if one is going to deny that genetic uniqueness defines personhood and all its rights, one does well to explain why not, and what does define a person. Birth seems a poor answer, since a full term fetus inside its mother is really no different from a newborn. Viability is no better; it suggests that incubators and the state of neonatal medicine can determine when personhood begins.

A better place to begin is to consider what is wrong with defining personhood as genetic uniqueness. The answer is obvious -- identical twins. Identical twins are genetically the same, yet different people. And what makes them different? Separate bodies? No, because some twins are born conjoined, yet they are still separate people, with their own separate personalities and separate tastes. So if conjoined twins are genetically identical and share much of the same body, what makes them separate people? Surely it is because each has a separate functioning brain. And reinforcing this hypothesis consider separation. It is the accepted practice to separate conjoined twins if there is a reasonable likelihood that both will survive. But if they share so many organs that it is impossible for both to survive, it is not acceptable to "discard" one twin to save the other. But imagine as a hypothetical (I do not know if it is possible) one head but a split below the waist. Presumably no one would object to amputating a duplicate set of legs or even internal organs, even though, of course, the amputated organs are living tissue that would die if removed. But without a brain, duplicate organs have not claim to personhood.

Defining personhood by functioning brain rather than genetic uniqueness also works at the end of life. Death is defined as the cessation of brain activity. Yet if the person who dies is an organ donor, any number of living organs with his or her unique genetic code may survive in someone else's body. Yet no one would regard the donated organs as a separate "person" from the donee because they are genetically different. And once brain function ceases, the donor is no longer an existing person, no matter how many other living organs have his or her genes.

So, if a functioning brain defines one's status as a person over one's lifetime and at the end of one's life, it makes sense for brain function to define personhood at the beginning of life as well. Let an embryo be recognized as a person when it begins to have a functioning brain.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Occam's Razor and No Phone Calls, Either

An obvious reason to question the scenario laid out in Loose Change is that it contradicts the accounts of people who made calls from the hijacked airplanes. But our clever fiction writer has an easy answer. It was impossible for cell phones in 2001 to contact the ground from an airplane. The calls were actually faked by voice duplication technology.

Not only is there considerable evidence that such cell phone calls were possible, many of the calls were made from Airfones (phone provided by the airline, attached to seats), not cell phones. If Airfones can't contact the ground from in flight, what is the point in having them? Then there is the question of whether voice duplication technolgy is capable of faking extended narratives or active conversations.

But even without getting into a technical discussion, Occam can see obvious flaws in the claim that the calls were faked. Where would the conspirators get recordings of the callers voices? How would they know the telephone numbers of their family members? How would they know the personal details some of the callers discussed? Avery does not even address any of these questions in Loose Change. A.K. Dewdney, the apparent inventor of the no-calls theory, does address the question - and makes himself look ridiculous with his answer:

The operatives first gathered personal data on regulars of the flight through a combination of data mining and human engineering. Then they leveraged that information by repeatedly taking the flight and engaging flight regulars in conversation to get personal details and record voice samples for study and practice. On the big day, the operatives worked in a single "war room" with a big screen to keep them on the same page.

Occam could go to town on this one! And even if the conspirators did somehow get voice recordings and personal information on flight "regulars" (presumably meaning flight attendants and passengers who routinely commuted on the same flight), what about passengers who were not "regulars"? I know of no evidence whether any of the passengers who made calls were regular commuters on any particular flight. And at least two not only were not regulars, but had made last-minute changes in plans. Barbara Olson had originally been booked on a flight the day before but delayed by one day so she would be with her husband on his birthday. Conspiracy theorists may distrust Barbara Olson, but surely they have no suspicion of Lauren Grandcolas. Grandcolas was originally scheduled to fly later the same day and moved her flight up at the last minute. (She was also not a regular commuter, but was going home from her grandmother's funeral). Some telephone calls also included personal details the conspirators were unlikely to uncover either by datamining or by casual conversation. Passenger Linda Gronlund gave the location of her will and the combination to the safe!

Avery latches onto a handful of mistakes and oddities to discredit the calls. But many people make mistakes or say strange things, particularly when under extreme stress. In fact, the timing and content of the calls matches very well with external evidence about the hijackings.

On American 11 (the first flight to hit the WTC), flight attendant Betty Ong called an American Airlines office in North Carolina five minutes after the flight stopped responding to air traffic commands. She reported stabbing and said that the attackers were in the cockpit and they could not contact the cockpit. She had not personally seen the attack and was unclear on some of the details, which is consistent with her working in the rear of the plane. She reported the plane was flying erratically about the time it made a sharp turn. She lost contact about two minutes before the first plane hit the North Tower. Flight attendant Amy Sweeney called American Airlines in Boston a few minutes later and gave seat numbers of the hijackers, which permitted the airline to identify them. She also reported that the passengers in coach did not realize the plane had been hijacked and thought there was a medical emergency in first class. This is consistent with accounts by the air traffic controller that the hijackers kept broadcast announcements intended for passengers over the air traffic control channel instead. In the last two minutes before impact, Sweeney reported they were in rapid descent, flying much too low, and she saw water and buildings. Then the call cut off.

On United 175 (the second plane to hit the WTC), flight attendant Robert Fangman called United Airlines in San Francisco and passenger Peter Hanson called his father in Connecticut, both five minutes after the plane first began acting strangely. Both gave essentially the same account that a flight attendant had been stabbed and the hijackers were flying the plane. Calls from both Hanson and passenger Brian Sweeney broke off just before the second plane struck the South tower. Indeed recipients of both calls turned on their television sets when the calls broke off and saw the plane hit the tower.

Communications with American 77 (the flight that hit the Pentagon) were sketchier. Flight attendant Renee May called her mother in Las Vegas at 9:12, about 18 minutes after the flight deviated from its course. Barbara Olson called her husband the Solicitor General somewhat later, although it is not clear when. No calls were in progress when the plane hit the Pentagon. Perhaps the much-heralded 330 degree turn the plane took before its final dive threw the passengers too much off-balance to make any last-minute calls.

As for United 93, the basic facts are too well-known to need repeating. Numerous called to unrelated people in different places reported that the passengers were planning to retake the plane. The two final calls from the flight both appear to have been placed at 9:58 and to have cut off when the plane crashed. Several calls had sound of men planning the counter-attack or reciting the 23rd Psalm in the background. There is some uncertainty when the first call after the hijacking was made. Air traffic controllers heard the takeover of the cockpit at 9:28 a.m. Passenger Tom Burnett's wife is adament that she received four calls from him, the first at 9:27. Accounts from the Zacarias Moussaoui trial lists only three calls, the first at 9:30. The Pittsburg Post-Gazett, almost certainly erroneously, gives the time as 9:20.

If any call from Tom Burnett reported a hijacking at 9:20, eight minutes before the takeover, that would be a serious anomaly. His wife's report that the call was at 9:27 could mean that Burnett, a first class passenger, saw the disturbance as the hijackers broke into the cockpit before the air traffic controllers overheard the takeover within the cockpit. And a first call at 9:30 presents no problems at all. No other timing anomalies are even suggested. On three of the four flights, calls began within a few minutes of the takeover and broke off just before impact. Calls from each plane report essentially the same events (although there were some differences in MO between the planes). Flight 11 accounts of what the plane was doing match what the radar indicated. Two calls from Flight 175 cut off so soon before impact that the recipients turned on their TV's and immediately was the South Tower being hit. Calls from Flight 93 not only agreed that the passengers were planning to resist, but reported the revolt beginning at about the same time. The final two call ended with the plane crashing. And all these calls were received in completely different places, by people who had never heard of each other.

Perhaps the conspirators not only had information on the people whose calls they were faking, but were also tracing the planes (excuse me, decoys) on radar to match their narrative to what the blip was doing. But it seems almost incomprehensible that they could coordinate so many calls without making a single mistake. A much simpler explanation is that the calls began with the hijacking and ended with the crash, matched each other and the radar blip and were perfectly coordinated because they were real calls, describing real events.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Occam's Razor and the No-Planes Theory

Of all "alternative" theories to September 11, the one presented in Loose Change is probably the best known and most complex. Producer Dylan Avery proposes that none of the four planes actually hit their targets. The Twin Towers were hit by substitute planes. The Pentagon was hit by a cruise missile. The passengers the four planes were actually transferred onto Flight 93, which did not crash, but landed in Cleveland. (The crater in Pennsylvania was dug to simulate a crash). The passengers were taken from the plane and have not been seen since. All four planes may still be in service.

Occam could wear out several razor blades shaving off the needless complications here. On September 11, 2001, four planes deviate from their courses and stop responding to radio. Two of the planes broadcast messages from apparent hijackers. People who have never met, in completely different locations, simultaneously begin receiving calls from family members on board reporting the planes have been hijacked. Two planes are filmed flying into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Numerous witnesses see another plane fly into the Pentagon. The fourth plane vanishes, leaving behind a crater and debris. None of the four planes or the people on board have been seen since. What is the simplest explanation? Why, that that three hijacked planes hit the targets and the fourth one crashed!

Consider the problems with Avery's scenario. When were the substitutions made? Presumably not before boarding. Preventing the passengers from boarding the planes would have attracted attention. Not between boarding and takeoff. Switching planes on the runway would also have attracted attention. So the substitution must have taken place in the air, where there would be no witnesses except the air traffic controllers. But problems appear here, too. Air traffic controller track planes in two ways, by tracking each plane's unique transponder signal, or by radar. The transponder is more accurate because radar does not indicate the plane's altitude or identity. Air traffic controllers tracking the four planes on September 11 noticed that they failed to respond to instructions and turned off their transponders or changed transponder codes and that the planes deviated from flight paths. On Flight 93 the air traffic controller even overheard the takeover. But they did not observe any decoy flights. Avery makes no attempt to explain how the air traffic controllers were failed to notice the substitution. Other conspiracy theorists have proposed that all four planes were warned of a terrorist attack and commanded to turn off their transponders, maintain radio silence, and land at a military base. Before each of the planes landed, a decoy was sent up to match its flight path, either above or below it, so as to fool air controllers into thinking that the decoy's radar blip was from the original flight.

Decoys would have been needed, not only to hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, but to allow Flight 93 to sneak off to a hidden rendezvous unnoticed. After hearing the takeover of Flight 93 at 9:28, air traffic controllers continued to follow its transponder signal until 9:41 and to follow the radar blip until around 9:53. Even after radar contact was lost, other aircraft saw Flight 93 in the vicinity of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. At 10:08, they saw black smoke rising. So, if Flight 93 was meeting the others in an unknown location and then heading to Cleveland, something else would have to take its place. And someone would have to set off a smoke bomb within minutes of its apparent crash. Not to mention the question of how the conspirators managed to dig the crater where Avery says the crash was faked without leaving any tracks of earth-moving equipment.

I will admit to not knowing enough about air traffic to say for certain that it would be impossible for controllers to miss hearing secret commands or seeing the decoys' radar blips converge with and then diverge from the four planes. Nor can I say with certainty that the pilots would have noticed the decoy planes paralleling them and reported this anomaly. But it seems far-fetched.
And even if the substitution could have taken place in the air unnoticed, the no-planes theory leaves other unanswered questions. Where did the decoy planes and cruise missile come from? Where did the four hijacked planes meet? (Not Cleveland; that is where Flight 93 went after the passengers were transferred). Why did no one notice the four planes meeting up where ever they went? And what became of the planes and passengers afterward?

Avery attempts to answer only this last question. He acknowledges not knowing what happened to the people on board the planes. As for the planes themselves, he suggests that they are still in use. His evidence for this is that two of their tail numbers are still valid and the tail number of Flight 93 was spotted in Chicago in 2003. That is, however, the only reported sighting of any of the four planes. Furthermore, Flight 93's tail number of N591UA was spotted on a plane whose official tail number is N594UA. Applying Occam's Razor, which is the more plausible explanation, that someone mistook one digit of a plane's tail number, or that the plane has been in use all these years and only one person has ever seen it?

Avery says he originally intended Loose Change as a work of fiction but ended up being convinced that it was true. And, indeed, Loose Change comes across more like a fiction writer trying to be clever than anything that would happen in the real world. A clever enough fiction writer might be able to make up explanations for all the holes in the story -- where the decoys and cruise missile came from, how the air traffic controllers failed to notice the substitution, where the planes met, how they avoided being detected, and why neither the planes nor the people on board were never seen again. But that still leaves one obvious question that Loose Change never even attempts to address. Why would the government conspirators attempt such an absurdly complex plot with so many potential places to fail when flying the planes into their targets would be so much easier?


The Lure of Free Lunches

At Obsidian Wings today Hilzoy had a post criticizing Senator Sam Brownback's editorial against stem cell research. It reminded me a great deal of recent columns by Rich Lowry and Charles Krauthammer criticizing Al Gore's approach to global warming. Brownback and Gore, though far apart ideologically, share a common problem -- both consider it vitally important to adopt policies that will have unpopular consequences.

Al Gore fears that pollution will lead to catastrophic global warming. But cutting back on greenhouse gases requires people to give up many of their creature comforts that cause pollution and hampers our economic growth. Since making economic sacrifices will meet with resistence, Gore assures us that creating cleaner technologies is a growth industry and we can offset the pollution we create by buying "carbon units" to reduce greenhouse gases somewhere else.

Senator Brownback considers embryonic stem cell research (which involves the destruction of embryos) to be a form of murder. But condemning stem cell research means elevating the rights of a 5-day-old blastocyte over the hope of helping chronically ill people. Since this set of priorities also tends to meet with resistence, Brownback argues that adult stem cells offer more promising therapy, and that embryonic research is a dangerous distraction.

There are no free lunches here. If adult stem cell research was more promising than embryonic, then no one would bother with embryos. If new technologies could maintain our present standard of living without the pollution, they would long since have been adopted. There are painful trade-offs to be made here that both men avoid discussing because they fear, no doubt correctly, that faced with the real choices most people would not share their priorities. Global warming seems so overwhelming, and each person's ability to fight it so small, that few would be willing to give up their creature comforts to remove a few drops from the great ocean. And if 5-day-old blastocytes are very young people, they have less emotional appeal and are not as good at telling a heartrending story than people with Parkinson's, Alzheimers and the like.

Of course, clever politicians know that they will never get people to adopt their desired policies only by moral appeals; they must convince people that the policies serve their interests. And technology - whether cleaner and more efficient techologies that pollute less or adult stem cell research - holds great promise. Perhaps only by convincing people that the desired technology is cost-free can it be made viable at all.

But even so, sometimes I long for honest voices, telling us the unpleasant truth, and demanding that we acknowledge the difficult choices that must be made.

Monday, April 09, 2007

911 Conspiracies, Meet Occam's Razor

I really shouldn't waste my time on such foolishness, but as one who has seen the 911 conspiracy movie Loose Change and who has known people who believe there may be something to it, I do believe it is worth while for anyone who comes into contact with September 11 conspiracy theorists to know what they believe and have some convincing refutation.

Different people believe such theories for different reasons. Some are chronic paranoids or such hard-core Bush haters that they will believe anything about him. People with such immutable preconceptions are impossible to argue with. But I believe that many people who are not hard-core can be convinced by 911 conspiracy theorists because they lack the technical knowledge to refute them. To be able to truly judge the validity of such theories calls for knowledge of NORAD defense procedures, aircraft design, metallurgy, structural engineering, demolitions, and communications technology far beyond the understanding of any ordinary layperson. Counter-experts and dueling opinions will only further confuse most people. Conspiracy theorists have the advantage over ordinary people even with non-technical evidence, like eyewitness testimony. How many people have times to read through the thousands of interviews to see when conspiracy theorists are cherry picking and citing out of context?

But if most people do not have the expertise to refute 911 conspiracy theories in detail, what we do have is common sense and the ability to apply Occam's Razor to see how plausible these theories are. I will, therefore, focus as much as possible on ways to apply common sense and Occam's Razor to conspiracy theories that do not call for any research at all. I will secondarily present research (properly linked) not calling for any specialized technical knowledge. I will avoid technical argument as much as possible (although it is not always possible). September 11 conspiracy theorists focus on poking holes in the "official" version of events. But anyone casting a critical eye on any conspiracy theory will find holes large enough to fly a Boeing 767 through.

Before discussing any technical scenario in detail, there is the allegation that people in power took actions that suggest advance knowledge. Attorney General John Ashcroft stopped flying on commercial airlines several months before September 11. On September 10 a group of top Pentagon officials canceled flights for the next day and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown received a call warning him not to fly the next morning. But none of this makes any sense whatever as evidence that 9-11 was an inside job. If Ashcroft and the Pentagon officials were conspirators, they would have known which planes would be targeted and would have not reason to avoid any other planes. Willie Brown, on the west coast, was well outside of the danger zone. And why would the conspirators care about the fate of the liberal Democratic Mayor of San Francisco? If the point is that the political elite protects its own regardless of party, the conspirators would have had to have kept track of the travel plans of an immense number of people to know that so obscure a figure as Brown, so far from the attacks, was flying that morning.

And if the political elite protects its own, why did the conspirators fail to warn Barbara Olson, conservative commentator on CNN and wife of Ted Olson, Solicitor General of the Bush Administration? Barbara Olson was on the plane that hit the Pentagon. Why would the conpsirators warn the Mayor of San Francisco, flying on the west coast, but not the wife of the number three official in the Justice Department, who was much closer to the danger zone? Were the Olsons left out of the loop? Was Barbara Olson really part of the conspiracy? Is she alive and well and recently arrested along the non-existent Polish-Austrian border? Is any insanity too far-fetched for a conspiracy theorist?

September 11 conspiracy theorists are divided into many quarrelling factions, each presenting scenarios of what happened and regularly accusing each other of peddling deliberate government disinformation. The next few posts will take Occam's Razor to some of the leading rival theories.


Monday, April 02, 2007

David Hicks: The Latest Bush Outrage

Just when I was so jaded that nothing the Bush Administration did could shock me, they have once again proved me wrong. The latest outrage is the sentence agreement for Australian-born David Hicks, one of the terrorism suspects detained at Guantanamo.

Make no mistake; Hicks is no innocent. He was brought before a commission at least in part because the Administration believed it had an actual case against him. He has established terrorist affiliations. In 1999 and 2000, he attended terrorist training camps with Lashkar-e-Toiba, a Pakistani militant group seeking to drive India from Kashmir and participated in the fighting in Kashmir. He also appears to have trained with Al-Qaeda, although the details are controversial. At the time of the US invasion of Afghanistan, Hicks joined the Taliban forces and was captured.

Hicks recently pleaded guilty to "giving material aid" to terrorism. A panel of officers deliberated for two hours and imposed the maximum sentence of seven years. But after they left the courtroom, the presiding judge suspended all but nine months of the sentence and allowed Hicks to serve the time in Australia. The suspension was subject to some revealing terms. Hicks must withdraw all allegations that he was mistreated at Guantanamo, renounce his right to sue the US government, and agree not to talk to the press for one year. That bad enough in itself, considering that Hicks has previously alleged that he was beaten (sometimes while blindfolded and handcuffed), saw others similarly beaten, had his head rammed into asphault, was drugged, underfed, deprived of sleep, and held in solitary confinement for months at a time with no opportunity to leave his cell.

But now even more disturbing revelations have been made about the plea agreement. Apparently the deal was made between Major Dan Mori, Hicks' lawyer, and Susan Crawford, the top military commission official without so much as consulting the prosecutor. The lead prosector appears to have been taken completely by surprise by the lenient sentence, which he would never on his own authority have agreed to. The deal appears to have been made at the request of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a close Bush ally, whose inability to secure the return of Hicks, as an Australian citizen, has been hurting him politically. In order to help Howard's electoral fortunes, Dick Cheney appears to have used his influence with Crawford. Significantly, Hicks' prison term will expire around the time of Australia's elections; the gag order will extend some time beyond them.

Unlike many Guantanamo detainees, Hicks was a real terrorist, albeit small fry. Any reasonable Administration would have had him tried by an impartial court and sentenced to a reasonable term for a small-fry terrorist, under high-security but humane conditions. This Administration, instead, holds him for five years without charges, subjects him to who knows what kind of abuse and then, in hopes of boosting a friend's electoral prospects, meddles in the judicial process to secure a grossly inadequate sentence for a deadly terrorist, with a focus on keeping their worst conduct concealed. Was there ever a more perfect example of all the Administration's worst offenses, all combined? I suppose we should applaud that one victim is out of their clutches and will be delivered to the more humane Australian penal system. Otherwise the deal is an outrage in every aspect.

The Administration has long justified its human rights violations as necessary to keep us safe. Well, now a man they claim to be a deadly terrorist will be unleashed on the world in less than a year, and the Administration seems a good deal more interested in hushing up what has been done to him than in keeping him off the streets. And if it is willing to subvert the judicial process to help a political ally in anything so grave as a terrorism case, what does that say about its willingness to manipulate an ordinary political corruption case for partisan gain? Perhaps I should not be so shocked or outraged by this deal. It is simply the Bush Administration true to form, placing short-term political advantage before all else.