The world the Troofers made
How the "9/11 truth" movement paved the way for today's conspiracy theorists.
On Monday, the Covidiot-Canadian community staged demonstrations in front of hospitals, because reasons.
A series of protests — against vaccine mandates and other COVID-19-related public health measures — held outside hospitals across Canada on Monday was condemned by politicians and health-care organizations as unacceptable and unfair to staff and patients.
The protests were organized by Canadian Frontline Nurses, a group founded by two Ontario nurses who have promoted conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and attended rallies in the U.S. for those who think the pandemic is a "fraud."
The group says the "silent vigils," expected in all 10 provinces, are meant to critique public health measures put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Organizers oppose what they call "tyrannical measures and government overreach," adding that they are not encouraging nurses to walk out on their shifts or abandon patients.
The protest here in Halifax drew a whopping two dozen people. I believe even stupid people have the right to peacefully protest, as long as they aren’t harassing people or trying to stop them from entering the hospital.
Some demonstrators in Vancouver actually did impede an ambulance entering the hospital a few weeks ago. In these kinds of situations, well, I think the Ron DeSantis approach has some merit.
This isn’t the first time internet-fueled conspiracy mania has swept the nation. On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, City Journal published an article by former Popular Mechanics editor James Meigs, describing his run-ins with the “9/11 Truth” movement back in the day:
One day, I opened the New York Times and saw a full-page advertisement for a book called Painful Questions. The ad suggested that we hadn’t been told the truth about 9/11 and offered a list of factual claims that supposedly refuted the conventional account of the attacks. For example, it claimed that jet fuel doesn’t burn at a temperature high enough to melt steel (therefore the jet plane impacts couldn’t explain the collapse of the Twin Towers) and that the hole in the Pentagon wasn’t big enough to have been made by a commercial jet (so it could only have been made by a guided missile), and so on.
I’d been in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, and I had loosely followed the conspiracy theories that bubbled up in the attack’s aftermath. The theories surfaced first in the Arab world—for them it was all Israel’s fault, of course—but extremists of various stripes around the world quickly embraced and embellished them. Most versions of the idea suggested the real perpetrator was a cabal that included Bush, Cheney, oil companies, military contractors, the Mossad, and other malefactors, all conspiring to launch wars in the Middle East. In the faux-insider jargon that conspiracists love, it was a “false-flag operation.” The notion meshed perfectly with the Howard Zinn view of history in which all evils in the world can be traced back to some original sin involving U.S. policy. (True to form, Zinn offered a supportive blurb for one of the most popular books promoting these 9/11 claims, David Ray Griffin’s The New Pearl Harbor.) Such theories, avidly discussed on left-wing websites and in the alternative press, rarely surfaced in the American mainstream media. But here was a full-page ad proclaiming these ideas in the New York Times.
The book’s claims sounded doubtful but also fairly easy to confirm or disprove. How hot does jet fuel burn? How big a hole would a Boeing 757 make in a reinforced concrete building? These questions were very much in the Popular Mechanics wheelhouse. Every conspiracy theory ultimately rests on a handful of claims about physical reality. What if we put together a team of reporters and simply fact-checked the most common claims made by 9/11 conspiracy theorists? If the factual assertions were wrong, then the elaborate theories built on them were wrong, too. On the other hand, if there were even a grain of truth in any of these claims, well, what could be more vital to investigate?
We assigned eight reporters to the inquiry. Popular Mechanics executive editor David Dunbar led the project, making sure to keep it focused on technical questions and rigorously non-political. For the next few weeks, our reporters interviewed experts, pored over documents, and talked with eyewitnesses. In every case, they found that the conspiracy advocates’ claims were based on evidence that was inaccurate, misinterpreted, or deliberately falsified. For example, it is true that jet fuel burns at 1,100 degrees Celsius, while steel melts at about 1,500 degrees Celsius. But, as our sources explained, a steel beam can lose half its strength at temperatures as low as 600 degrees. A number of in-depth engineering studies provide detailed accounts of how the impacts of the planes, combined with heat from fires, eventually weakened the structures to the point where collapse was inevitable.
In February 2005, as our cover story, “Debunking 9/11 Myths,” hit newsstands, we braced for the blowback. When we started the project, we imagined some conspiracy buffs might actually be pleased that a mainstream outlet was finally taking their questions seriously. By the time we finished, we had learned that conspiracy theorists respond to factual refutation much the way the human immune system reacts to a foreign substance: by trying to destroy or absorb the unwelcome intruder. Almost overnight, my staff and I weathered the most inflammatory accusations: Popular Mechanics was a CIA front, a “tool of the Illuminati,” and an agent of the Mossad. Christopher Bollyn, a longtime champion of the most outré conspiracy theories, published an article comparing our investigation with the 1933 Reichstag fire, which helped cement Nazi power in Germany.
If not for the death threats, it might have been almost amusing.
We had launched the project in the hopeful belief that facts matter, and that people of goodwill could review the evidence and make up their own minds. That turned out to be the case for many readers. I gave some lectures about our 9/11 reporting and was reassured by the people who showed up. Quite a few had doubts about what they saw as the “official” version of events—which isn’t a bad thing; people shouldn’t blindly accept everything the media or government tells them. But after listening to how carefully we had investigated their concerns, most left satisfied that the mainstream view of 9/11—that it really was the work of al-Qaida terrorists—actually made sense.
That appeal to a shared sense of reality didn’t work with hardcore conspiracy fans, however. Quite the opposite. Dedicated conspiracists use a whole suite of techniques to dismiss inconvenient facts. They vilify opponents with ad hominem attacks. While refusing to engage with legitimate evidence, they zero in on a handful of anomalies they think undermine the mainstream narrative. For example, a single eyewitness’s mistaken impression becomes definitive proof against the weight of hundreds of other eyewitness accounts. (Michael Shermer, then a columnist at Scientific American, called this approach “argument by anomaly” and noted that creationists and Holocaust deniers employ the same sort of selection bias.) Of course, Popular Mechanics’ reporting showed that even the supposed anomalies relied on falsehoods. But that gave the Truthers little pause. If a claim became too troublesome, they would simply abandon it and move on to new, even flimsier assertions. For example, most Truthers eventually dropped the contention that a missile and not an airplane hit the Pentagon. (There were simply too many photos showing pieces of American Airlines Flight 77 scattered around the impact zone.) Instead, the defter theorists pivoted. They began arguing not only that the missile claims were wrong, but that phony conspiracy theorists had planted them in order to make the Truther movement look bad.
The 9/11 conspiracy theorists were a pretty big deal in the George W. Bush era. (Do you remember Rosie O’Donnell promoting 9/11 conspiracies on The View? For that matter, do you even remember Rosie O’Donnell?) They’ve pretty much fizzled out, despite Spike Lee’s best efforts, but their legacy lives on with election and COVID conspiracy theorists:
I now believe the 9/11 Truthers I encountered were canaries in the coal mines of American society. They were an early warning sign of a style of thinking that has only grown more common in the years since 9/11: alienated, enraged, and not just irrational, but anti-rational. Today, fantasy universes abound in our current political culture. On the far right, Capitol-storming QAnon followers imagine vast, deep-state conspiracies involving pedophiles and pizza parlors. The Left’s conspiracy theories aren’t as obviously bonkers, but progressives also imagine powerful forces that secretly conspire against the people. In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, for example, writer Naomi Klein introduced the concept of “disaster capitalism”—a kind of global plot to exploit the powerless—and promised to “reveal the puppet strings behind the critical events of the last four decades.” Today, the Woke Left routinely portrays American institutions as engines of cleverly concealed oppression. Racism, sexism, and the like are not just biases to be overcome but fundamental organizing principles of American society.
For more than two centuries, the U.S. has occasionally had spasms of populist fantasies: fears about Freemasons, “minions of the Pope,” “international bankers,” or other shadowy forces controlling events from behind the scenes. But the grassroots popularity of 9/11 conspiracy theories—and the surprising tolerance for such ideas in elite media and political circles—helped bring paranoia into the modern mainstream. I watched it happen.
Incidentally, Meigs’ former magazine was telling readers how to tear down problematic statues by mid-2020. That symbolizes something, though I’m not sure exactly what.
So how do we push back against conspiracy theorists? I think this guy has some intriguing ideas, and I wish to subscribe to his newsletter.
Some Canadians may have noticed that a group calling itself “Canadian Frontline Nurses” organized Monday’s protests, and assumed that this is a legitimate organization of health care providers. According to the modestly titled website Vancouver is Awesome (which is undoubtedly is, as long as it’s not trying to block ambulances) it’s actually a misleadingly named fringe group:
Canadian Frontline Nurses is an offshoot of Global Frontline Nurses, which predates CFN by one year. The foundations for CFN were built mainly on social media by women like Kristen Nagle, a neonatal ICU nurse and Sarah Choujounian, a registered practical nurse both from Ontario.
Before the pandemic, Kristen Nagle’s Instagram was filled with photos of her children, healthy recipe ideas and dieting tips. But on Aug. 10, 2020, Nagle made one of her first posts about the pandemic, in which she likened the use of masks and social distancing to Munchhousens, arguing the mentality created by these measures was making more people sick than the virus was.
Over the next few months, she spoke at city council meetings spreading misinformation about masks and went on to attend, organize and speak at anti-mask rallies in Ontario. For these actions, Nagle was eventually fired from her job, according to the CBC.
According to Choujounian’s bio she, like Nagle, was fired from both her nursing jobs at care homes in Ontario.
According to the website, three more are listed as members of the organization. Kristal Pitter, a RN who is still entitled to practice with no restrictions but is no longer employed as a nurse, according to the College of Nurses of Ontario. Jessica Faraone, a RN from Quebec is also entitled to practice but is no longer doing so. Finally, there is Nordia German, another RN from Quebec who according to the Order of Nurses of Quebec is still entitled to practice until 2022.
The head of the Canadian Nurses Association says it’s only a tiny minority of nurses and doctors that actually believes this stuff, but that tiny fringe can still make a lot of noise, especially for an audience that wants to hear what they’re selling:
Villeneuve says in any group, including the hundreds of thousands of nurses across Canada, there are bound to be a few people that don't agree with the rest.
“The problem is when the group is 448,000, half a percent is still a couple thousand people, and they could be very vocal using social media," he explains.
The conspiracy kooks have always been with us. But it’s never been so easy for them to organize.
When Formula One cars started sporting unsightly “halos” around the cockpit to protect drivers from possible head injuries, many fans complained about it.
No one is complaining about it now.