Essay:"Pentagon Strike": Analysis of an Event Conspiracy Theory

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Essay.svg This essay is an original work by Shelley Aley.
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After 9/11, conspiracy theories emerged countering the official reports about what happened on that horrific day. One of the early examples is a brief Flash video titled "9/11: Pentagon Strike," which went viral on the Internet during the summer of 2004. The piece, created by Darren Williams, a 31-year-old British systems analyst, claims that it was not an airplane that struck the Pentagon. His is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of event conspiracy-theory postings that raise doubt and seek to influence millions of viewers around the globe. At this time, it is available in 19 languages.

According to a 2004 Washington Post article, Williams created a Pentagon Strike web site where he posted his video (www.pentagonstrike.co.uk) and then emailed it to the online group Signs of the Times, hosted by Laura Knight-Jadczyk, an author and an American who lives in France with her Polish physicist husband and five children. Signs of the Times is an online publication “that blends discussions of science, politics and the paranormal” according to the Washington Post article. Knight-Jadczyk told the reporter she never expected the video to go viral, but it did. In fact, Williams’ own Web site “collapsed under the crush of tens of thousands of visitors.” Other people’s sites published the video. One site located in Texas and hosted by a former casino worker and libertarian, “began drawing almost 700,000 visitors a day.” A Navy specialist put the video on a personal Web page created for just family and friends and “suddenly, the site was inundated by more than 20,000 hits,” as quoted in The Washington Post. The article states that, “demand for the video was so great that some webmasters solicited donations to pay for the extra bandwidth.”

Pentagon Strike presents and supports its claims through a series of photographs taken by unidentified photographers at the Pentagon supposedly just after the attack. The flash of mostly color photographs against a black background, interspersed with texts of apparent witness accounts, plays against a musical arrangement taken from the Dust Brothers’ Fight Club soundtrack and a cut from a Marilyn Manson album. The photographs show no evidence of the plane, an American Airlines Boeing 757 carrying 59 people, which reportedly hit the Pentagon, or the kind of damage one would expect to see after such a collision, according to Williams. Williams argues that no parts of the airplane were found. His witnesses do not claim to have seen the giant 757. Some claim that they thought a missile hit the Pentagon or that a bomb had gone off. Finally, Williams claims that cameras located at the Pentagon and at nearby gas stations, hotels, and highways did not capture the image of an airplane. He claims that in fact those images have never been released.

The implication made by Williams in Pentagon Strike is that this act of violence against a massive, highly symbolic United States military target was perpetrated and then covered up by the US government. The video implies this was a deliberate act of violence committed by unnamed government insiders for unexplained reasons. It is intended to persuade viewers who already distrust the American government that the events of 9/11 were not acts of terrorism carried out by a small band of Islamic extremist, but a deliberate attempt by the government to fool the country and the world into believing that the event was a terrorist attack when it really wasn’t.

In addition to preaching to the choir of conspiracy buffs lurking on the Internet, this video was created to muddy the waters, and make it difficult for anyone to trust the official accounts that were being published in the aftermath of 9/11. While it does not make any explicit claims against the Bush Administration then in the White House, it does imply that this was an act of government-sanctioned terrorism, possibly using American weapons against Americans. The viewer is required to fill in the blanks and answer the question: If it wasn’t American Airlines Flight 77 that hit the Pentagon on 9/11, what did and why? Williams assumes, probably rightly, that the believers in conspiracy theories are already on board: as far as they are concerned, they already believe it was an inside job.

While this video is not convincing to a viewer who has a great deal of knowledge about the events of 9/11 or who is open-minded enough to research the video and seek answers to the questions it raises, it is quite likely to persuade someone less critically predisposed who is already persuaded that the government was capable of doing the deed. In this sense, the video is more propaganda than argument. It doesn’t have to persuade the believer, only reinforce already held beliefs. Many other viewers will not take the time to do any research.

9/11: Pentagon Strike relies on its fast-paced presentation of images possibly taken and altered in the aftermath of the event to make its point. It stands to reason, Williams wants his audience to believe, that a picture is worth a thousand words and cannot lie. Seeing, after all, is believing. Right? If that’s what the viewer believes, then this kind of logic can be quite convincing. Taken at face value by viewers who may overly trust what they see on the Internet or who are already predisposed to distrust official accounts of 9/11, this video argues just how unlikely it was that a huge airliner hit the Pentagon. Superimposed over the photographs are statements raising questions about the lack of damage to the building and the intact windows near the impact site. It asks questions: Where is the mess that airliner wrecks make? Where is the wreckage? Why doesn’t the plane show up in the security camera pictures? On a more sinister level, why has security-camera evidence not been released by the officials who confiscated them?

To answer these questions, a viewer would have to do some work to question the photographs—where they came from and how reliable they are. Were they altered? Have they been doctored? The questions Williams raises in his video are based on his reading of only a small selection of photographs available and easily accessed on the Internet. The bulk of the photographic evidence available at the time the video was created clearly shows that indeed there was damage to the Pentagon. It was a messy wreck site, and clearly there were chunks of the American airline found, along with other pieces of debris. In fact, human remains were recovered making it possible to do DNA testing, resulting in the identification of all the victims, including the hijackers, according to a Washington Post article. A Google search of the Internet using the key words “9/11 pentagon plane crash” turns up hundreds and hundreds of photographs of wreckage identified as coming from an American Airlines airplane. The exterior parts of the plane are emblazoned with the American Airlines name and logo. It also turns up links to numerous Web sites containing additional information about the attack and the evidence available, including eyewitness testimony indicating that this was without a shadow of a doubt Flight 77. Williams’ video excludes all this evidence.

A savvy viewer realizes immediately that officials collect evidence in the aftermath of a crime and often do not release it until years after an event, sometimes not until they are pressured to release it. It would come as no surprise that officials confiscated security-camera evidence that might reveal what happened at the Pentagon on 9/11. That is not suspicious behavior in most reasonable people’s minds. Not ever making that image available to the public would seem suspicious, though. Williams claims the images have never been released, but that is simply not true. It may have been true right after the attack, but over the years the images have been released. For example, CBS News released the Pentagon security camera footage. The raw footage is available at the following link: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=1622299n.

According to CBS, "The images, recorded by Pentagon security cameras outside the building, were made public in response to a December 2004 Freedom of Information Act request by Judicial Watch, a public interest group." The video and isolated images had previously been leaked and circulated on the Internet. The airplane on the video is a thin white blur skimming close to the ground before it slams into the Pentagon at ground level. Almost instantly a white flash and a huge orange fireball appear on the video, followed by a tower of gray-black smoke, according to CBS News. In the years since, footage from other security cameras has also been released and can be accessed on the internet. Due to the nature of security photography, which shoots frames one photograph at a time a few seconds apart, these images could not capture the image of the plane any better than the Pentagon security footage. The plane was traveling too fast for the kind of technology that was in use at the time.

While research can quickly answer the questions that Williams raised to make his claims, viewers tend not to check the facts when they are predisposed to agree with the argument or when they are basically not informed on the topic. Many who are persuaded by this video, despite its weak, factually unsupported reasoning, will never actually do the research, because they already share an affinity with the video and its creator. They already distrust any official accounts; therefore, further research is beside the point.

As I was doing my analysis, I was put off by Williams’ video in its attempt to apparently dupe me into believing his claims based on thin evidence. He may be able to create a slick Flash video, but he created a fiction and is trying to sell it as the truth. He fails to impress me with his credibility, because he (at the time of publication not named) has little respect for his audience. When the credibility of the author is in question, an argument has little hope of being persuasive. Instead of eliciting belief in the argument, Williams’ ethos turns me off. If you anger your audience against you, you have failed in your argument. Only those who can share Williams’ ethical realm would be persuaded.

Each time I view the video, I find myself wanting to challenge and question its claims. This is the opposite of what Williams would want me to do. His audience would already be in agreement with Williams, because they share the same world view: that the US government is capable of attacking its own people to further its cause (to do what?) and it is willing to carry out an atrocious act and blame it on others. If someone were to question the video and take the time to check facts, he or she would soon realize that Williams is not on the level. The emotional response of someone who feels he or she is being duped is anger and disappointment. Someone who believes Williams would feel satisfied and perhaps justified to believe that their assumptions about the government were correct. Their response to the video may be to share it with other like-minded people, hoping that others will feel the same sense of satisfaction.

Either way, the video went viral. Thousands, if not millions, of people have viewed it. I have shared the video as an example of unethical rhetoric. Others have shared it because of its novelty and entertainment value, but many have shared it believing that no airline jet hit the Pentagon on 9/11. Instead it was hit by a missile fired by US officials for some unknown reason. Williams’ desire to get people to believe that strikes me as sad and dangerous.

This video explores no alternatives or other points of view either to take them into account or to refute them. Good arguments make allowances for other opinions and views and they rebut claims made against them. Good arguments also employ qualifiers to temper their arguments for the audience in order to build credibility. This video does none of this.

In reflection, I don’t believe Williams’ video is a valid argument, because it does not seek any kind of consensus with the audience. It seems more like propaganda. Either a viewer believes or not. Some people who already believe this could likely go along with Williams’ assertions without questioning them. Others who question the claims find that Williams is just plain wrong. He isn’t trying to win assent for his argument. He’s just preaching to the choir. The believers are already devoted to the idea that a US government conspiracy is a more likely cause of 9/11 than what was published in the official report.