It all started with Nostradamus. In the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, the 16th-century physician‘s name showed up on Web sites, in e-mail and in online chats nearly as often as sex or drugs. “In the City of God there will be a great thunder,” he was reported to have written, an assertion later refined for the skeptics to “In the City of York there will be a great collapse.” No matter how precise the editor made the language, though, there was always the same problem: The accounts dated Nostradamus’ prediction to 1654, at which point the doctor had been dead for 88 years.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of equally debunkable myths followed the phony Renaissance prophecy, some of them fueled by politics, others by fear, others by someone‘s notion of funny. According to one report attributed to a Beirut newspaper, 4,000 Israelis were mysteriously absent from work on September 11 (the report did not specify whether the 130-some Israeli citizens now confirmed dead or reported missing were included in its figure). A sketchy news site known as World Net Daily declared that terrorists had access to secret State Department codes and could pinpoint the exact position of Air Force One. Two visions of Satan, each from a different angle, appeared in the billowing smoke; one artist doctored a photo of an unsuspecting tourist on the observation deck with a low-flying plane headed for the towers.
Myths and pranks are perhaps as predictable as the stages of grief, and perhaps also of the same piece: We are desperate to see and explain what happened, if only to know what will happen next, and to make light of it in our waking lives in order to keep it out of our dreams at night. But as the horrors of the attacks begin to sink into our collective bones, reporters have been upstaging rumormongers as documented news becomes ever more bizarre. Did a drunken band of British soccer players really expose their genitals to mourning Americans stranded in a Heathrow hotel? Could George W. Bush really have said, “I’m not gonna fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt”? And what about that knife concealed in a cigarette lighter, recovered on the ground where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania?
The Urban Legends site www.snopes.com, run by Barbara and David Mikkelson in the San Fernando Valley, has for six years been mecca to the people who have been trying to educate others on the Internet to be more discriminating in their forwarding. Here you can still find the details of how the appeal to save National Public Radio lived on long after the bill it referred to had cleared the U.S. legislature, evidence that the Dalai Lama never encouraged followers by e-mail to “approach love and cooking with reckless abandon,” and a call to halt a circulated petition for the Taliban to stop mistreating women — not least because the Talibs aren‘t likely to care what Westerners think of their gender politics. Lately, however, the Mikkelsons have assumed a new responsibility: assuring the public that not everything collected on the Internet is a hoax.
ITEM: Collected on the Internet, September 12, 2001
PALESTINIANS CELEBRATE THE BOMBING?
There they were, out on the streets, eating some cake and making funny faces for the camera, right?
Well, they’re images of Palestinians celebrating the invasion of Kuwait in 1991!!!!!
A teacher of mine has videotapes recorded in 1991 with the very same images. He‘s been sending e-mails to CNN and newspapers, denouncing what I myself classify as a Crime Against Public Opinion.
ITEM: September 16, 2001
Subject: ASSOCIATED PRESS COVER-UP OF PALESTINIAN CELEBRATIONS
Following the terrible tragedy on Tuesday, there were huge Palestinian celebrations throughout the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Very small examples of this outrage were shown in the U.S. by Fox and the BBC. The Associated Press has videotape that shows the true extent of these events, but refuses to show them to the world under threat of retaliation by the Palestinian authorities.
ITEM: September 20, 2001
No, the pictures are not from 1991. But they may have been faked nevertheless. The current issue of the German Stern magazine has an interview with Fatma Hussein, the woman with the glasses that appears in this sequence. She states that the camera team persuaded them to shout and dance, but they didn’t know the reason. The team bought some sweets for her and the kids, and then the cameraman said, “If you cheer now you‘ll get them.”
Who knows what’s true anymore? The unbelievable has happened: Four commercial airliners went down in one day; two skyscrapers collapsed in flames, a chunk of the Pentagon lies in ruins. Close friends have relayed reports of shredded clothing and scorched office memos littering their downtown sidewalks, of riding their bikes past “car graveyards” on Manhattan Island, where shards of the World Trade Center‘s facade stick out of once-pampered red convertibles. Can we believe this and still go on laughing, vexing over the trivia of our social lives, eating in restaurants? Do we need to know, definitively, whether the passengers on United Flight 93 — which was presumably on its way to the White House, Camp David or a head-on encounter with Air Force One — overpowered the hijackers, or whether a U.S. military fighter jet shot it down? Will it help to know for sure? On the Thursday following the disaster, the 48-hour point at which conspiracies dare to emerge, a businesswoman — the kind who wears pumps and nylons and tasteful gold jewelry — confided to me over the phone that she’s convinced the Bush administration brought this on itself. “Just think,” she whispers, as if a lowered voice can defeat the wiretaps, “what they have to gain.”
In such a climate of disbelief, everything that went before seems prescient. A hip-hop group announce magnanimously that they‘ll replace their upcoming CD’s cover art, which depicted two generic towers in flames. Microsoft‘s Flight Simulator, in which players of mediocre ability crash into any number of world monuments, becomes a suspected terrorist-training aid. But speculation in the aftermath is simply no match for reality: Two pairs of hands bound in the airline’s own flexible handcuffs are found in the debris of the twin towers. A blind man is led to safety by his dog. An Irishman named Ronnie Clifford escapes from the South Tower, only to learn that his sister, Ruth Clifford McCourt, and niece, Juliana, died on United Flight 175 when it plowed into the same building. (McCourt‘s best friend had perished moments before on the first flight to crash into the towers.) A man may or may not have surfed the wreckage from the 81st or 70th or 44th floor to safety, sustaining only a broken limb.
When the FBI finds a flight-instruction video and a copy of the Koran in luggage left behind at Logan airport, the evidence seems so thuddingly obvious it momentarily bolsters the case of conspiracy guru David Icke. “Am I in fairyland or what?” he wrote to his readers. “I am surprised they did not claim to have discovered a letter from bin Laden in the car wishing the occupants the best of luck with their task.” Icke, who believes “a global secret society called the Illuminati have been holding the reigns [sic] of power in the world since ancient times,” disposes of his credibility almost immediately when he claims George W. Bush may have to be sacrificed to serve the final aims of the mysterious Illuminati. But it’s a strange world indeed when he makes any sense at all.