Archive for August, 2007

Fisking Fisk

It’s perhaps something of a clichéd observation, but whenever someone clears their throat by appending “I’m not a racist, but…” to the start of their sentence, you can be all but sure that a racist remark of some kind or another will follow. In a similar vein, Robert Fisk claims that he’s “not a conspiracy theorist” in today’s Independent, and then goes on to perform a flawless impersonation of one. In my experience (and that of many rationalists), conspiracy theorists have a habit of claiming that they’re “just asking questions”; this term is then abbreviated, by said rationalists, to “JAQ” and further corrupted to form its own neologism: “JAQing off”. This undeniably pejorative colouration is due to the fact that the questions the conspiracy theorists are “just asking” are usually of the “Have you stopped beating your wife?” variety. Fisk’s are no different.

If it is true, for example, that kerosene burns at 820C under optimum conditions, how come the steel beams of the twin towers – whose melting point is supposed to be about 1,480C – would snap through at the same time?

This particular question serves as a classic example. Firstly, note the internal confusion over whether the steel is supposed to have melted or snapped: He begins by talking about the temperatures of the fires and the melting point of steel and finishes by asking how the “steel beams” (I think he means columns) could “snap through at the same time”. However, the two don’t appear to have any obvious and necessary connection. Secondly, he misleadingly places undue significance on the role of the kerosene itself: While kerosene-like Jet A-1 fuel undoubtedly accelerated the fires in the towers, it was not the only substance fuelling them; once they had taken hold, they had an abundance of office contents and aircraft wreckage available to work on. Thirdly, the question serves to straw man the position it purports to interrogate: No one is claiming that all of the columns snapped at the same time. Nor are they claiming that any of the steel melted. The following is from the National Institute of Standards and Technology FAQ on the collapse:

In no instance did NIST report that steel in the WTC towers melted due to the fires. The melting point of steel is about 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,800 degrees Fahrenheit). Normal building fires and hydrocarbon (e.g., jet fuel) fires generate temperatures up to about 1,100 degrees Celsius (2,000 degrees Fahrenheit). NIST reported maximum upper layer air temperatures of about 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800 degrees Fahrenheit) in the WTC towers (for example, see NCSTAR 1, Figure 6-36).

However, when bare steel reaches temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celsius, it softens and its strength reduces to roughly 10 percent of its room temperature value. Steel that is unprotected (e.g., if the fireproofing is dislodged) can reach the air temperature within the time period that the fires burned within the towers. Thus, yielding and buckling of the steel members (floor trusses, beams, and both core and exterior columns) with missing fireproofing were expected under the fire intensity and duration determined by NIST for the WTC towers.

One might be excused for thinking that Fisk should have made at least a passing attempt to familiarise himself with the basics of the subject matter – perhaps by having actually read the above – before putting pen to paper.

They collapsed in 8.1 and 10 seconds.

This claim is particularly odd. The following is again from the National Institute of Standards and Technology FAQ:

NIST estimated the elapsed times for the first exterior panels to strike the ground after the collapse initiated in each of the towers to be approximately 11 seconds for WTC 1 and approximately 9 seconds for WTC 2.

It seems that Fisk (or the conspiracy theorist who deceived him) has taken these figures and deducted a second from each for good effect. In doing so, however, he’s caused himself something of a problem. Even in a vacuum (in other words, unimpeded even by air-resistance), the time it would have taken for an object to fall from the roofs of the towers to the ground is 9.22 seconds. So, we can see from the off that Fisk’s lower figure of 8.1 seconds is simply physically impossible. Further, it’s important to note the wording of the NIST quotation. The figures they cite are the “elapsed times for the first exterior panels to strike the ground after the collapse initiated”; they are not the total times for the collapses of the entire structures.

What about the third tower – the so-called World Trade Centre Building 7 (or the Salmon Brothers Building) – which collapsed in 6.6 seconds in its own footprint at 5.20pm on 11 September?

World Trade Centre 7 did not collapse in 6.6 seconds. Conspiracy theorists arrive at this figure by timing only the collapse of the visible exterior (the façades, etc.) of the building.  They ignore the fact that the collapse had initiated some eight seconds prior when the east mechanical penthouse began to sink into the main superstructure. Further, the building did not fall into its own footprint: The collapse caused significant damage to surrounding structures such as 30 West Broadway and The Verizon Building, and minor damage to several others.

Incidentally, World Trade Centre 7 was also known as The Salomon Brothers Building. Personally, I’ve never heard of “The Salmon Brothers Building”. Perhaps it’s a Fish ‘n’ Grill.

Why did it so neatly fall to the ground when no aircraft had hit it?

Indeed, World Trade Centre 7 was not hit by an aircraft. It was hit, however, by a collapsing 110-storey skyscraper. It then suffered approximately eight hours of widespread fires. It’s rather odd that Fisk simply failed to mention those rather important contributory factors.

The American National Institute of Standards and Technology was instructed to analyse the cause of the destruction of all three buildings. They have not yet reported on WTC7.

Well, I suppose that Fisk must have applied his structural engineering expertise to the interim report on the collapse and concluded that it’s not really a report at all. Further, the final version of this report is due for release later this year. The investigators are indeed taking their time over it, but I imagine this is because they are dedicated professionals who actually care about getting things right.

Journalistically, there were many odd things about 9/11. Initial reports of reporters that they heard “explosions” in the towers – which could well have been the beams cracking – are easy to dismiss. Less so the report that the body of a female air crew member was found in a Manhattan street with her hands bound.

I have to admit to being somewhat unsure of the point Fisk is trying to make. Presumably, we’re to conclude that the idea that the terrorists might have handcuffed a flight attendant is absurd – so absurd that the existence of a massive conspiracy is at least comparably likely. (Let’s not forget that said terrorists are believed to have murdered individual passengers and crew while initiating the hijackings.)

OK, so let’s claim that was just hearsay reporting at the time, just as the CIA’s list of Arab suicide-hijackers, which included three men who were – and still are – very much alive and living in the Middle East, was an initial intelligence error.

This is a tactic Fisk applies liberally throughout the article; it’s the rhetorical equivalent of humming the theme music from The X-Files: He raises and then superficially dismisses a number of supposed anomalies in the official narrative – presumably with the intention of fostering further suspicion without actually having to commit himself to the fallacious claim in question. One might call this the passive aggressive school of conspiracy theory.

I suppose it could be considered poetically appropriate that the “Some of the terrorists are still alive” canard just won’t die. The claim generally stems from this BBC article, which has since been superseded; the uncertainty in question seems to have originated from cases of mistaken identity. From a more recent article:

The story, written in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, was about confusion at the time surrounding the names and identities of some of the hijackers. This confusion was widely reported and was also acknowledged by the FBI.

The story has been cited ever since by some as evidence that the 9/11 attacks were part of a US government conspiracy.
We later reported on the list of hijackers, thereby superseding the earlier report. In the intervening years we have also reported in detail on the investigation into the attacks, the 9/11 commission and its report.

We’ve carried the full report, executive summary and main findings and, as part of the recent fifth anniversary coverage, a detailed guide to what’s known about what happened on the day. But conspiracy theories have persisted. The confusion over names and identities we reported back in 2001 may have arisen because these were common Arabic and Islamic names.

Fisk then goes on to cast suspicion on lead hijacker Mohammed Atta’s final religious writings; we’re informed that Fisk’s Middle-Eastern Muslim acquaintances are mystified by them. Well, that doesn’t seem all that suspicious to me. I suspect that Atta’s religious justifications for murdering three-thousand innocent people might leave them scratching their heads, as well. To be frank, I’d be rather concerned if his final thoughts didn’t confound a Muslim or two.

Now that the specifics are out of the way, allow me to indulge in some conspiratorial thinking of my own: According to one Robert J. Hanlon, one should “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity”. Wise words though they are, Hanlon’s Razor, as it is known, only goes so far. It just doesn’t seem particularly feasible, for instance, to think that an experienced journalist like Fisk could have written such a straightforwardly error-ridden and innuendo-laden article due to incompetence alone. Further, he’s also reasonably well known for both fostering and manifesting a Westerner’s self-loathing of the most wretched kind. So, it seems at least possible that Fisk wrote this piece for purely ideological reasons: To spread misinformation and doubt about the core premise for some of the United States’ least popular actions – to groundlessly and cynically call 9/11 itself into question.

Offence Trumps Reality, Again

From Drama over Casualty plot as BBC bans terror script in today’s Guardian:

The BBC has abandoned plans to screen a fictional terrorist attack by Muslim suicide bombers in the primetime drama Casualty after internal clashes over whether the highly sensitive subject matter would cause offence.

BBC drama executives were keen to push the storyline and may even have started filming, a source close to the production told The Observer. But they were overruled by the corporation’s editorial guidelines department, which ordered that the episode be changed so that the Muslim characters were replaced by animal rights extremists

Well, what a good idea. The BBC should be doing everything it can to shield religious people from potential offence – even if that means shielding them (and, as a corollary, the rest of us) from reality. The decision, of course, is a pathetically snivelling one, but it’s also flatly insulting for two reasons: Firstly, it’s insufferably patronising towards the large section of moderate British Muslims who acknowledge that Islamic terrorism both exists and is an undeniable part of the current zeitgeist. Secondly, it serves to scapegoat animal right activists as the indiscriminate bombers of public transport. However, these are small concessions to make if they go some way to appeasing rage boy and his ilk, I suppose.

Update:

According to this article in the Guardian, it turns out that the decision to replace the Islamic terrorists with animal right activists was actually made by the writer. So, my apologies to the BBC!

[T]he series editor of BBC1’s Casualty, commenting on newspaper reports that the editorial policy unit had insisted that two Islamist terrorists in a script were changed to animal rights activists, insisted that the switch had been made by the writer, who apparently feared inviting a reaction from extremists.

I’ve learned my lesson, so I won’t try to speculate over whether “inviting a reaction” were the Guardian’s words or those of the writer, but they’re rather depressing either way.

Thanks to Matthew in the comments section for the update.