WASHINGTON -- It was a sunny and clear Tuesday morning in Knoxville, Tennessee. Sitting in the kitchen of my girlfriend's apartment, I was eating a bowl of cereal -- Honey Nut Cheerios, I still remember -- and browsing the web before making the 15-minute drive to campus for class.
I was looking for news about the big game, a top 10 SEC matchup between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Florida Gators. I was a junior at the University of Tennessee, and just 10 days earlier I'd broken my wrist during the season opener. It required surgery, so I was going to be sidelined for the next six to eight weeks.
Once on the Internet, I caught my first glimpse of the North Tower on fire, with smoke billowing from the top floors. I remember taking a moment to say a prayer for everyone affected. Then, right before my eyes, a plane flew into another building, the South Tower. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was horrified. But I didn't know exactly what this meant for my country.
A 20-year-old college kid consumed with school and the football season, I never thought much about what was going on outside my own world. Terrorists had attacked our nation, but I was sure the government would hunt down those responsible. Even years later, while playing in the NFL, I figured al Qaeda would soon be destroyed and the nation would move on. After all, who could challenge the superiority of America's badass military?
Fast forward to 2008. A week or so after losing Super Bowl XLII that February as a member of the New England Patriots, I had a long stretch of time on my hands. To take my mind off what I could've done differently in the game -- was there a block I missed somewhere? anything? -- I found myself browsing the web once again.
A young senator from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama had been making international headlines, winning the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary. I was pleased to see someone of color running for the nation's highest office. Although he was affable, well educated and an exceptional orator, I never imagined he had a chance to actually win -- until he actually started winning. I wanted to learn more about his background.
So I turned to YouTube. An unguided journey through the bowels of YouTube can lead to some awfully strange places, as it did for me that day. Somewhere amid my research of Obama, I stumbled across a few videos claiming that individuals within the United States government had conspired with Osama bin Laden decades ago.
My first thought about a bin Laden alliance was, yeah right, but I clicked on the link anyway, out of curiosity. It turned out the claim was true -- and thus began my journey down the rabbit hole.
I was surprised to learn the CIA had assisted the Mujahedeen leading up to and during their fight to repel the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. So had bin Laden -- he sent funds and fighters. My common sense had told me I was crazy to think my country had any connection to militants who would later engage in terror activities around the world, including against the U.S. and her interests. There began my distrust both of the government and of my own common sense regarding the events of 9/11.
If I'd been so wrong about the alliance with bin Laden, what else was I wrong about? What else was the government hiding? This, for me at least, is how the door opened. My journey into and out of conspiracy land, however embarrassing it was for me when a recent pile-on began --
-- is useful to think about, because I am by no means alone. And we ignore or ridicule conspiracy thinking at our peril.
Conspiracy theories are not a recent phenomenon in America, said history professor Robert Goldberg, director of the Tanner Humanities Center and co-director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah, but they have changed in one fundamental way: Before the second half of the 20th century, conspiracy theories focused on people who were seen as outsiders -- Jews, Catholics, Communists. Today's conspiracies focus on insiders -- the government, Wall Street and the military. (Given the intertwined history of anti-Semitism and conspiracism, one constant appears to be Jews.)
According to Goldberg, the fascination with conspiracies is "so normal" in part because "you can find a variety of conspiracies, real conspiracies that have occurred in world and American history." Those, he said, give sustenance to the belief that history is conspiracy.
I soon found myself watching a documentary titled "Loose Change" and listening often to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' radio show. There is an art to building a credible conspiracy theory, and as Goldberg explained, "the keys are media expertise, passion, appearance as Paul Reveres -- that is, patriots without self-interest or anything to gain, who only seek to reveal the 'truth.'" Goldberg also said that while financial gain may not be the conspiracist's motive, it doesn't hurt either. "Note these conspiracy entrepreneurs may be sincere, but they are doing well financially with their radio programs, films, presentations, etc.," he said.
The genius of "Loose Change," a series of films positing a 9/11 conspiracy that have been viewed tens of millions of times online, is the power of vision. Seeing is believing, and people tend to believe something more if they've seen it with their own eyes. The narrator's ability to dive into complex physics or aerodynamics issues, and break them down in simple terms, brings an additional legitimacy to the overall project.
"This is something that everybody is vulnerable to. There's no person or worldview that is immune from it," said Michael Wood, an expert in the psychology of conspiracies who lectures at the University of Winchester in the U.K.
Another important element in spreading conspiracy theories is to raise questions, in which much dot-connecting is implied, and let the viewers or listeners draw their own conclusions. "Loose Change" gives the viewer the feeling that he and the narrator are on a collective search for answers, and that bond engenders trust.
The film "holds the attitude of 'we're just asking questions,'" said Wood. "'We're just going to highlight some of these things that are wrong with the official story.'"
When I began to take my views to Twitter, I often framed them in a similar way, not presenting firm conclusions but rather asking questions about the official story and tweeting out the various 9/11 conspiracy narratives.
NO WAY 9/11 was carried out by "dying" Bin Laden, 19 men who couldn't fly a damn kite. STILL have NO EVIDENCE Osama was connected, like Iraq
— Donté Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) July 20, 2009
Because I felt I had reached my own conclusions, based on my own research, my position was that much more unshakable. Contrast the respect with which many conspiracy theorists treat their audience with the government's posture, which is to offer as little information as possible. Whatever I read in the media afterward, I viewed through the prism of "Loose Change." (Indeed, surveys consistently show that people who believe in conspiracy theories are paradoxically far more informed about an issue than those who don't. If you've ever debated a climate-change denier, you've seen this phenomenon firsthand.)
"You have this secrecy industry in the United States, this idea of keeping millions and millions of papers classified as secrets, and where many Americans believe where there's smoke, there's fire," said Goldberg. Conspiracy theories thrive on this: "Why are they keeping this stuff classified? Why do we need so much secrecy? There must be something that the government isn't telling us."
"Add to that Vietnam, add to that Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, the scandals of the 1990s," Goldberg said, "and you get a sense that the government isn't telling us everything we need to know and that there's things being hidden."
Beyond the reality of actual conspiring, Goldberg noted that Hollywood -- starting with "Birth of a Nation," through "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "The Parallax View," and on to countless films today -- has repeatedly trafficked in conspiracy theories. "A variety of films convince us that conspiracies exist, that they have power, that they have threatened us," he said.
Then the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq was a complete fiasco, in which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were losing their lives and millions were being displaced, while contractors like Blackwater (now Academi) and Halliburton (where Dick Cheney had been CEO) saw profits soar. I figured something more must be going on.
Even beyond the Hollywood influence, I was particularly primed to believe what I was hearing. For many within the African-American community, it is almost commonplace to believe, for instance, that the federal government has been and/or is flooding neighborhoods with guns and drugs that fuel violence within the black community.
From the very beginnings of American history (when Africans were sold into slavery, beaten, raped, tortured and murdered, counted as three-fifths of a person, denied the right to vote, essentially treated as less than human) through present times, African-Americans have felt slighted by the federal government. During the civil rights era of the 1960s, under the FBI's covert project COINTELPRO (with assistance from local law enforcement), numerous peaceful activists and groups (including beloved figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali) were targeted and put under illegal surveillance. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, falsely convinced that these groups were a danger to national security as fronts for Communists or co-conspirators with Communists, ordered infiltration, psychological warfare and harassment. Over years, this government hostility led to multiple deaths and wrongful incarcerations and no doubt further undermined trust in the federal government. Activist Fred Hampton was flat-out assassinated.
J. Edgar Hoover's own conspiracy theories helped to foster generations of conspiracy theories in others.
Investigative reporter Gary Webb, depicted in the recent film "Kill the Messenger," touched a nerve in the black community in 1996 when he identified two Contra fundraisers who were the major suppliers of cocaine to then Los Angeles drug kingpin Freeway Rick Ross. While those wholesalers escaped prosecution throughout the U.S.-backed Contra war, hundreds of thousands of young black men were locked away for minor drug offenses.
Many in the African-American community point to the Tuskegee experiment as further proof that the federal government has contempt for black people. In a 40-year-long study, "people who had syphilis were not treated, even after the invention of penicillin they weren't treated," said Goldberg. Knowing that leads to additional "conspiracy thinking within the black community which is, 'AIDS is a government invention, created in a government lab,'" he said.
In fact, Goldberg said, one-third of Americans overall share this belief about the origins of AIDS. But specifically within the African-American community, as I understood it and as Goldberg explained it, the logic is "based on the idea that this has been done to us in the past, so why won't it be done to us in the present or the future."
It shouldn't be surprising then that while polls find most African-Americans don't think the government knew something about 9/11 beforehand and turned a blind eye or worse, they also find that African-Americans are more likely than other groups to say they don't know.
According to a 2006 Scripps Howard poll, 36 percent of all Americans believed it was "somewhat likely" or "very likely" that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop them because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.
Democracy requires trust to function. And if more than one-third of Americans distrust the government enough to believe that it had something to do with the worst terrorist attack on our soil, that's something the government -- and the media -- ought to do more than poke fun at.
Goldberg pointed to Americans' evolving answer to one particular poll question since the 1950s. "The poll question was, 'Do you trust the government to do what is right all or most of the time? And in the 1950s," he said, "75 percent of Americans answered, 'Yes, I trust the government to do what is right all or most of the time.'" But "what's happened since then is this tremendous erosion of trust and faith in the federal government. And you can see it through Vietnam, you can see it through Watergate, you could see it through the 1980s and 1990s, such that by the time the year 2000 rolls around, you have a mirror image -- that is, 25 percent of Americans trust the government to do what is right all or most of the time."
My own entry into the conspiracy world was typical, said Wood, the University of Winchester lecturer. When people learn of actual government conspiracies (such as the National Security Agency's spying), they tend to become distrustful of the government in general. According to Wood, "something that damages trust like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment or MKUltra," a CIA study of the effects of mind-altering drugs on unsuspecting test subjects, can exacerbate belief in conspiracy theories.
I got deeper and deeper into the conspiracy world than I'd like to admit -- to the point that my good friend Steve Boucher was calling me out in a 2010 interview with Yahoo. It was partly the accumulation of it all that made me start doubting where I was headed. To listen to Alex Jones, everything is a conspiracy, every tragedy a false flag, every explanation a coverup. I began to wonder.
Followers of Alex Jones hear about endless conspiracies -- everything from fake moon landings to a totalitarian world government.
I think the moment the conspiracists finally lost me came when they started proclaiming that President Obama was the Antichrist, essentially sent to America, presumably from Kenya, by an evil cabal to destroy U.S. sovereignty and establish a global government. Obama has done plenty that I've disagreed with, as my Twitter feed will attest, but the Antichrist?
As my doubts about the conspiracy theorists grew, a close friend of mine, Amy Palcic, urged me to rethink 9/11 and to expand my research beyond YouTube videos and Alex Jones. During the early stages of the NFL lockout in 2011, I had extra time on my hands and did a lot of reading, principally The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America, by James Bamford.
What I gained was a much clearer lens through which to view everything I'd been learning. I came to realize how inconsistent some of the conspiracy talk was. If the goal was to invade Iraq, why frame a terrorist hiding in Afghanistan using Egyptian and Saudi foot soldiers?
In the fall of 2013, I was watching a game and, with a punt looming on 4th down and 16 seconds remaining in the first half, I tweeted out the score, assuming the returner would catch the punt and the half would be over, following a kneel-down play. But the punt was muffed, the Patriots recovered the ball inside the Broncos' 40, and suddenly there was a reasonable threat to tap in a field goal, adding three points to the score. I quipped on Twitter that I was similar to a BBC reporter who, the conspiracists say, reported the collapse of a building on 9/11 before it actually happened -- more supposed evidence that insiders had knowledge ahead of time. The tweet was used to claim that my thinking hadn't, in fact, evolved.
— Donte' Stallworth (@DonteStallworth) February 8, 2013
But by then, I had been dismissing the "inside job" line on Twitter for quite some time, as well as in an interview with Mother Jones. Even those of us who have moved on from conspiracy theorizing may sometimes default to the language and ideas that animate that culture. Still, my quick comment would become part of a Twitter storm nearly a year later.
The more I read Bamford's book, the more I began to see what had really happened that tragic day. We were attacked by terrorists, and there were multiple institutional failures within the federal government. The George W. Bush White House was at the very least unimaginative and deaf to warnings about terrorist attacks on U.S. soil that appeared in CIA briefings for months leading up to 9/11. The government was incompetent, not a co-conspirator.
Taking a step back, I came to understand how much bureaucratic infighting, turf protection and ass covering came before and after 9/11. As I learned more about how the government worked (and didn't work) through reading books and multiple news sites, both right and left, I came to agree with what Philip Shenon, a veteran investigative journalist who covered 9/11 and its aftermath closely, said when asked about 9/11 conspiracies. He explained that he had "trouble accepting some of the big conspiracy theories about 9/11 if only because, after 20 years in and out of Washington, I just can't imagine the federal government being nearly competent enough to carry out what would have been such a vast, complicated operation in total secrecy."
The young filmmaker whose video helped start me down this path has since gone through his own evolution. In an interview earlier this year, Dylan Avery, director of "Loose Change," was asked whether he really thought the Bush administration planned the 9/11 attacks. "In 2005 or 2006, if you asked if the Bush administration planned the attacks, I would have said, ‘F**k yeah,'" he said.
But today he's no longer convinced. "I don’t think Bush could plan a bowl of cereal," he said.