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Debunked!: Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends, and Evil Plots of the 21st Century

Debunked!: Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends, and Evil Plots of the 21st Century

by Richard Roeper

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You know what's really going on, don't you? Flight 93 secretly landed in Cleveland, where the passengers were whisked off to a NASA facility. Nostradamus predicted JFK Jr.'s plane crash, which was engineered by the One World Government. Online poker sites are rigged to knock out the short stacks. Donald Rumsfeld was behind the bird flu panic.

That's what it's


You know what's really going on, don't you? Flight 93 secretly landed in Cleveland, where the passengers were whisked off to a NASA facility. Nostradamus predicted JFK Jr.'s plane crash, which was engineered by the One World Government. Online poker sites are rigged to knock out the short stacks. Donald Rumsfeld was behind the bird flu panic.

That's what it's like to live inside the mind of the 21st-century conspiracy theorist, who believes that all you have to do is look at the signs and you'll see what's really going on. And thousands if not millions of people actually believe this is the way the world works.

Debunked! is a breezy but fact-filled dissection of more than two dozen of the most popular urban legends and conspiracy theories of the 21st century. As he did in Urban Legends and Hollywood Urban Legends, and as he has done in dozens of columns for the Chicago Sun-Times over the last decade and a half, Richard Roeper lays out the basics of each conspiracy theory, quotes some of the true believers—and then tears the theory apart with his bare hands.

This book will provide you with invaluable ammunition for the next time you communicate with someone from that other, shadow world—that place where secret tribunals pull the strings and influence the outcome of everything from terrorist attacks to professional sporting events.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Along with pointing out why much-loved legends are asinine, Roeper isn't above going for laughs (and getting most of them)."  —Booklist

"[Roeper's] hyped up on information and lays it all out there in easy-to-follow logic."  —Chicago Sun-Times

"Roeper injects lots of humor and fun into his dissections and isn't afraid to get on his soapbox."  —Pop Syndicate

"A very entertaining book."  —blogcritics.org

A very entertaining book.

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Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
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Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends, and Evil Plots of the 21st Century

By Richard Roeper

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2008 Richard Roeper
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55652-970-2



Well your a moron Dick I will never buy or read the Sun Times after your column on Rosie today! She has more courage than you will have in your next 100 lives combined. I'm a Navy veteran and ... I can tell you for a FACT that 9-11 was a complete and total INSIDE JOB! Keep selling your country down the river for your newspaper paycheck you are now and always will be a piece of shit traitor. You don't have the guts to print an honest 9-11 piece.

— One of the more reasoned e-mails I received from 9/11 conspiracy theorists after I wrote a column expressing doubts about Rosie O'Donnell's 9/11 opinions

If there were one point I'd like to drive into the mindsets of all the conspiracy theorists that look at the events of 9/11 not as one of the most tragic days in American history but as the mother lode of all conspiracies, it would be this:

The steel didn't have to melt.

Every time I make even a passing reference to 9/11 conspiracies on TV or radio or in my newspaper column, I hear from the indefatigable legions of 9/11 skeptics.

They send me 2,000-word rants about the "Phantom Plane" and the Pentagon.

They provide handy links to all sorts of Web sites offering "proof" of a wide-ranging 9/11 conspiracy that begins and ends with the White House.

They make claims about "secret government facilities" that house the passengers and the crews from the flights that "supposedly crashed."

They ask unanswerable questions, as if doing so somehow adds weight to their arguments.

And they inevitably trot out the supposedly irrefutable proof that preplanted explosives felled the World Trade Center. This proof hinges on the theory that jet fuel doesn't burn at a high enough temperature to melt steel, and therefore the steel didn't melt, and therefore something else had to make the buildings collapse. Something like preplanted explosive devices.

But here's the thing:

The steel didn't have to melt.

When jet fuel burns, it reaches temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and it's true that steel won't yet melt at that temperature — but try to find an experienced firefighter who has ever come across fully melted steel at even the worst fire scene. (Charred and bent and distorted, yes. Melted? No.) For the towers to collapse (say it with me now), the steel frames of the WTC didn't have to melt — they had to sag and crack and experience stress, which is surely what happened. At 1,500 degrees, the steel frames would have lost 75 percent or more of their strength — and that's enough for a building to collapse.

Pointing out that jet fuel doesn't burn at temperatures high enough to melt steel has about as much relevance as pointing out it was a sunny and beautiful day in New York City on September 11, 2001.

* * *

You'd think conspiracy theorists would embrace the known facts of 9/11. After all, it was a conspiracy — a complicated, audacious, obscenely horrible conspiracy involving a multitude of murderous thugs acting in concert at the behest of an evil, United States-hating terrorist.

Like any such plot in recorded history, it was a messy and mistake-riddled conspiracy that could have fallen apart at any number of junctures. There is no such thing as a "perfect" conspiracy. If there were, the conspiracy theorists wouldn't know about it, because then it wouldn't be perfect, would it?

But just because it was sloppy and preventable doesn't mean it didn't happen — nor does it mean there "has" to be a more elaborate and even more devious plot behind the plot.

Before sunset on 9/11, conspiracy theorists were already working themselves into frenzied speculation about what was really going on. By now the 9/11 conspiracy game is an industry unto itself, with dozens of Web sites, DVDs, and books dedicated to "exposing" the "real truth" about what happened on that terrible day and who was "really" behind it.

Yet in nearly seven years, none of these hundreds of self-appointed detectives has come even close to scoring a major scoop about 9/11.

Still, they try. As if it's not mind-boggling enough to believe that planes smashed into the WTC and the Pentagon and that a fourth plane was crash-landed before it could reach Washington, D.C., and that these acts of war were carried about by murderous, suicidal maniacs doing the bidding of a madman in a cave.

The conspiracy theorists crave more. They need to believe in outrageously complicated plans involving our own government. They have to buy into theories about remote-controlled airplanes hitting the twin towers, missiles striking the Pentagon, and Flight 93 landing in Cleveland. They have to concoct conspiracies involving literally thousands of people, all acting in concert to fool the world.

On some strange level that's well beyond the ken of most logical minds, the conspiracy theorist takes some kind of psychological and emotional comfort in believing in the most complex, most outlandish scenario imaginable. If you can fixate on the illogical, the ludicrous, and the beyond ridiculous, you don't need to worry so much about the harsh realities of the world as we know it. You can live in a cocoon of paranoia, obsessing about Bush and Cheney and the rest of the Illuminati and their fictitious roles in the 9/11 attacks, instead of focusing your attention on the realities of a very scary world.

* * *

Consider the popularity of Loose Change, perhaps the most factually challenged documentary I've ever seen. (I also watched the updated version, Loose Change: 2nd Edition. It wasn't any better. I haven't watched Loose Change: Final Cut, released in November 2007, because life is too short to watch yet another version of a film with more holes than Pebble Beach. Besides, I'm waiting for the release of Loose Change: We Were Just Kidding.) This is an amateurish piece of panic-peddling nonsense riddled with half-truths, rehashed rumors, and implausible innuendo — yet it became a big hit on DVD and online.

If I went into all of the problems with Loose Change in this book, there wouldn't be any room to talk about deadly Jager Bombs and psychic hucksters and the "Clinton Body Count" — so we'll just spotlight a few of the holes in the film.

1. One of filmmaker Dylan Avery's favorite techniques is to present raw news footage from the morning of 9/11, when things were still developing and nobody was really sure what in God's name was happening to our world. Avery presents preliminary reports from correspondents working for CNN and Fox News and various local channels at the scenes of the three tragedies, as well as "eyewitness" accounts, as evidence of the conspiracies and coverups. Reporters and anchors talk of "explosions" at the World Trade Center. Regular folks talk about seeing planes that didn't look like commercial airliners.

So what? In a breaking news story of this magnitude, you'll almost always have early reports that eventually need to be corrected — and eyewitness accounts that turn out to be less than accurate. Hell, if you interview six people who witnessed a bar fight a few minutes after the fight ends, they're likely to give you six different versions of what went down. Do you think you're not going to get conflicting preliminary reports about what happened in lower Manhattan or at the Pentagon or in the skies above Pennsylvania on the morning of September 11?

True, a few eyewitnesses thought they saw noncommercial airliners flying into the World Trade Center. Then again, thousands of eyewitnesses did identify the planes as commercial aircraft. Not to mention the video footage that clearly shows these were passenger planes.

2.Loose Change quotes one Karl Schwarz as saying the engine at the Pentagon was from an A-3 Skywarrior. What the film fails to note is that Schwarz is an infamous conspiracy theorist and that he misidentified the type of engine that would be used with an A-3, had an A-3 been deployed, which was not the case.

3. In another segment, we're told that Charles Burlingame of the United States Navy was part of an exercise that simulated what it would be like if a commercial plane crashed into a building. Loose Change goes on to inform us that Burlingame took a job with American Airlines in 2000, less than a year before an American Airlines Boeing 757 crashed into the Pentagon.

Reality: Burlingame joined American Airlines in 1979, not 2000. He was on reserve assignment with the Pentagon until 1996 — but he retired from the navy four years before the alleged exercise was said to have taken place.

4.Loose Change states as fact that Osama bin Laden was treated at the American Hospital in Dubai on July 4, 2001, and was visited by a CIA agent. There's absolutely no proof of this. The hospital and the CIA denied the rumor.

5. Sometimes the narration clearly contradicts the footage onscreen. We're told that explosions can clearly be seen detonating "20 to 30 stories" below the point of impact on the Trade Center towers — but the footage shows no such thing. We see debris shooting outward, which is what naturally occurs when a structural collapse is taking place.

In another instance, we're told there was a crash at the Pentagon "without a single scratch on the lawn," when that's clearly not the case.

6. According to Loose Change, the "official" explanation for the lack of debris at the Pentagon was that American Airlines Flight 77 and all its passengers "vaporized." No such explanation was ever offered. In fact, parts of the plane were recovered, and officials on the scene after the crash have told horrifying stories of finding body parts.

7. Avery also advocates perhaps the loopiest 9/11 conspiracy theory of them all: that Flight 93 never crashed in Pennsylvania, because it landed safely.

As we have already noted, you'll often see "first draft" reports during breaking news events that turn out not to be true. At one point on the morning of September 11, 2001, the Web site for a Cincinnati television station posted a link to an Associated Press story that erroneously mentioned United Flight 93 landing at Cleveland-Hopkins Airport due to a bomb threat.

The report, like so many reports filed in the middle of one of the most confusing and complicated days in the history of journalism, was in error.

According to the documentary, United Flight 93 really did land in Cleveland — and there were some 200 passengers on that plane, and they were "quickly taken to an empty NASA Research Center."

The phone calls placed by United 93 passengers and flight attendants? Phony. The crash site? Bogus.

So I guess that means that more than a half-dozen years after 9/11, the passengers on United Flight 93 — and the passengers on those other planes, if we're to believe missiles and noncommercial aircraft were deployed in the three other crashes — are all still squirreled away in some research facility. That means that hundreds of citizens from all walks of life, people with families and jobs and lives that seemed to be normal — they were either a part of the conspiracy or were swept up in the grandiose plot. And now they're living their lives on a compound somewhere — or they've all been murdered by their government.

And what, pray tell, is the motivation behind all these conspiracies?

According to Loose Change, it's gold.

"Rumor has it that over $160 billion in gold was stored in the World Trade Center," we're told — and that only a couple hundred million was ever recovered. The World Trade Center was brought down, a plane (missile?) crashed into the Pentagon, and another plane secretly landed in Cleveland while a fake crash was staged in Pennsylvania — and it was all part of a plan to steal a shitload of gold.

"Rumor has it"? Well, gee, why didn't you just say so in the first place? Now we've got something to work with!

* * *

Rosie O'Donnell's blogging style falls somewhere between haiku and what-the-heck-is-that. On the "R Blog," O'Donnell fills her Web site with videos and stream-of-consciousness ramblings on topics ranging from her favorite charitable causes to her personal adventures to the war in Iraq.

She's also weighed in on 9/11, both in her former capacity as cohost of The View and on her blog, as in this entry:

at 5:30 p.m. 9 11 2001 wtc7 collapsed

for the third time in history fire brought down a steel building reducing it to rubble hold on folks here we go

• The fires in WTC 7 were not evenly distributed, so a perfect collapse was impossible.

• Silverstein said to the fire department commander, "the smartest thing to do is pull it."

• The roof of WTC 7 visibly crumbled and the building collapsed perfectly into its footprint.

On The View, when Elisabeth Hasselbeck asked O'Donnell if she believed the United States government had anything to do with 9/11, Rosie replied, "No, but I do believe it's the first time in history that fire melted steel."

All together now: "The steel didn't have to melt!"

Thanks so much.

Rosie continued: "I do believe that it defies physics for World Trade Center 7, which collapsed in on itself. It is impossible for the building to fall the way it did without explosives being involved."

For the record: I admire much of what Rosie O'Donnell has accomplished over the years. She has fought tirelessly for the rights of gay and lesbian parents, she has raised millions of dollars for worthy causes, and she's never afraid to speak her mind, consequences be damned.

That said, when it comes to the fall of WTC 7, she's full of shit and she's giving a platform to some urban legends that will not die.

The myth persists that WTC 7 was just standing there intact some eight hours after Tower 1 and Tower 2 were felled, when all of it sudden it collapsed, as if part of some planned detonation.

For a moment let's ignore the evidence and the factual timeline of the day and make the huge leap of faith that says this is what really happened — that explosives were secretly planted in WTC 7 by unknown forces and that it "collapsed perfectly into its footprint."

If that's the case, why would the conspirators wait eight hours to set off the explosion? Wouldn't it make more sense for WTC 7 to fall in the morning while the madness and chaos were in full force?

By late afternoon/early evening, the world media were focused on Ground Zero. Never in the history of humankind had so many people been tuned to one locale. That's when you're going to sneak in a little thing like the collapse of a building? Or are we to believe that something went wrong and somebody somewhere was pushing a button for eight hours before finally getting the damn thing to go off?

As they say on the talk radio shows, I'll hang up and wait for my answer.

* * *

Let's try to clear up some of the myths contained in Rosie's comments, made on her blog and on The View.

I'm pretty sure I don't have to say, "The steel didn't have to melt" yet again, but hey, I just did it.

Beyond that, the collapse of the 47-story WTC 7 in no way "defies physics." Smoke and rubble obscured the view of WTC 7 for a while, but as we have seen from countless pictures and hours of video footage, and as investigators have reported, tens of thousands of tons of steel girders from WTC 1 and WTC 2 fell directly onto WTC 7. There was also major damage to the southwest corner and to at least the first 10 floors of the south face of the building.

There was a tremendous amount of diesel fuel stockpiled in the basement of WTC 7 — and that fuel burned for several hours. Throughout the afternoon, visible flames raged on the 11th and 12th floors. Other fires caused significant damage on the 5th, 6th, and 7th floors. The damage was so severe that the New York City Fire Department suspended all rescue-and-recovery efforts in the immediate vicinity of WTC 7. Expectations were that the building would collapse sooner rather than later.

At around 5:20 P.M. on September 11, WTC 7 collapsed. Nobody near the scene reported hearing explosive devices. (Never mind the myriad logistical problems that would be involved in wiring WTC 7 — or for that matter WTC 1 and WTC 2 — with enough explosives to down the structure.) Investigators never found any evidence of explosive devices. Reports from literally dozens of agencies in the public and private sectors indicated that the building sustained massive structural damage from falling debris and that fires weakened the structure. Nobody ever found evidence of a controlled-demolition blast.

As for the "Silverstein" comment, Rosie is referring to Larry Silverstein, the real estate developer who owned WTC 7.

First, Pull it is not an expression used by explosives demolition teams. It's used when a structure has been deliberately weakened — teams attach heavy cables to the building and "pull" it down, as if felling a tree.

Second, the owner of the building that's in flames does not have the authority to call for a building's demolition. That decision rests with the fire chief and other such authorities.


Excerpted from Debunked! by Richard Roeper. Copyright © 2008 Richard Roeper. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Richard Roeper is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and the co-host of Ebert & Roeper. He is the author of Sox and the City, Schlock Value, Ten Sure Signs a Movie Character Is Doomed, Urban Legends, and Hollywood Urban Legends.

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