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I’m not even sure what the term mass psychosis means to a psychologist, a sociologist or a psychiatrist. I’m sure those specialists have debated its causes and effects quite a bit. Some of those arguments filter into the mainstream. Here I’d like to consider a plain language understanding of the term as it applies to 9/11 and other social trauma.

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you see the phrase mass psychosis? Lemmings running over a cliff, right? Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 might come to mind, too, or the Red Scare of the early 1950s if you think a little longer. Few right now would throw 9/11 into that category. Someday people will.

Before we develop this point a little, let me comment briefly on the title, Shock and Awe. I wonder sometimes why our Pentagon planners, or whoever they were, picked this phrase to describe a bombing campaign that targeted Iraqi cities. Fear, Anger, and Grief would describe a strategy to drop bombs on urban areas where many civilians live close together. That’s why we remember Picasso’s painting Guernica, or the statue in Rotterdam’s city center, a memorial to Nazi destruction and cruelty.

What’s interesting is that our war planners and public relations people should have chosen Shock and Awe to promote their campaign of death. They could have used the same terms to describe the purpose and effects of the 9/11 explosions just eighteen months earlier. The difference is that the 9/11 events originated right here, whereas we delivered bombs to Iraqi cities from a long distance away.

Thank God for Video Evidence

The idea of mass psychosis makes us see some interesting relations among perception, belief, and language. Via live television or first hand on September 11, or through video recording afterward, we see the destruction and say, “Look, that building exploded.” Someone in authority arrives to say no, it collapsed due to gravity and structural damage. People who witnessed the explosions say, “Yes, yes, collapse.” We don’t want to contest the official account because someone might call us a whacko conspiracy nut. In fact, people who contest the official account are already called that.

In Life of Brian, the main character, mistaken for the messiah, gets exasperated because people follow him around. He tells his would-be followers, “Look, you can think for yourselves. You’re all individuals.” The crowd in front of him shouts back, in unison, “Yes, yes, we’re all individuals.” 9/11 is a good test for all of us: can we think for ourselves, or not? Can we think thoughts that might bring ridicule from our neighbors and friends? Fear of what others might think is a type of mass psychosis.

So let’s take a brief look at the video evidence from 9/11. In the case of the Twin Towers, we see two 110 story buildings demolished from the top down. Any unprompted account of the matter would say the demolition occurred due to a rapid series of explosions. These explosions progress in sequence from the top of the tower to its base. The explosions destroy the building’s frame, as well as the building materials the frame supports.

The third building to come down that day, World Trade Center 7, does indeed appear to collapse. It suffered no structural damage. Whatever brought it down occurred inside the building – we do not see explosions outward as we do with the Twin Towers. World Trade Center 7 collapsed in about seven seconds. Everything about the collapse – everything – points toward a controlled demolition. No contradictory evidence supports an alternate explanation.

When you see a video recording of World Trade Center 7’s collapse, you immediately think, “That’s fishy. That didn’t happen because a few fires in the lower half of the building triggered a catastrophic collapse.” When your eyes tell you one thing and a government report tells you something else, which will you believe? Which evidence carries more weight? As Ronald Reagan said a long time ago about someone who looked less than forthright on television: “The camera doesn’t lie.”

Laws of Physics, Laws of Nature

People skeptical of government’s explanation for the Twin Towers’ collapse point to a simple principle of physics – conservation of energy – to underpin their questions. A system generally contains three types of energy: potential energy, kinetic energy, and thermal energy. All three types can perform work. Moreover, we can measure energy, both before and after it performs work.

Consider each tower as a system. It contains no kinetic energy unless it sways in high winds. The structure contains no thermal energy, except the warmth it absorbs from the sun. Almost all the energy in the systemat rest is potential – the result of lifting large masses high above the ground. If the structure supports its own weight, it remains intact and stationary. Gravity is the only natural force that can convert the potential energy stored in such a system to kinetic energy.

Thermal energy is another matter. The government argues that burning aviation fuel added heat to the structure, causing it to fail where the structural damage was greatest. After that, gravity did the rest. The government’s pancake theory says that a progressive, floor by floor failure caused the entire building to collapse. The only source of energy for this destruction was the potential energy stored in the structure, converted by the earth’s gravitational field into kinetic energy as the building came down.

No part of this theory fits the visual evidence. We see the concrete in each tower turned to dust. We see steel beams blown out the side of each building, to land a couple of football fields away. We see vast pools of molten metal underneath the rubble, metal that remains liquid for weeks. That’s conservation of energy.

No theory that relies only on aviation fuel and gravity can explain any of these phenomena. To overlook the existence of molten metal underneath the wreckage is the most extreme case of willful self-deception. Turning concrete to dust, throwing steel girders hundreds of yards – for both of these one might say, “Well, you had an awful lot of potential energy in those buildings.” You can’t say that about the molten metal. No amount of potential energy in the original structure can explain that.

Mass Psychosis

That returns us to our original observation. What explains self-deception of this type, a willingness to disregard the evidence of our own eyes? What must happen after perception if we see one thing, and interpret it as something else? Psychologists love to analyze this problem, but it gets tricky when a large number of people in contact with one another fall into the same mistake. How do you explain an erroneous pattern of thought that replicates itself? To do so, we must bring together mental processes that occur in an individual brain, with social processes that occur in a much larger social organism.

Three well known processes come into play in a case like this: acceptance of authority, fear of ostracism, and the discomfort of dissonance.

Acceptance of authority. Many citizens trust the government – in fact they regard trust and obedience as marks of good citizenship, since government translates social norms into legal ones. In our families, we are trained to associate acceptance of authority with goodness.

Fear of ostracism. Second, no one wants to be ridiculed or ostracized. That is perhaps the worst and most painful punishment the social organism can inflict on an individual: rejection to the point of isolation, until the individual in question feels entirely alone. That amounts to death, and in fact it often results in death.

Discomfort of dissonance. Lastly, living with uncertainty about major events is highly disagreeable. We function best with routines, and a fairly high degree of certainty about our environment. If you introduce questions that could overturn a person’s entire world view, you can expect the individual to resolve those questions pretty quickly.

Interpretation of 9/11 evidence introduces questions that can undermine one’s fundamental picture of the world. If one resolution of those questions points toward ostracism, disobedience, distrust and uncertainty, whereas another resolution points toward social acceptance and a degree of confidence about the essential qualities of one’s environment, we can predict fairly well how many individuals resolve questions like that. Their first instinct will be, “I don’t really want to think about that.” If they do think about it, they will be sensitive to what other people think.

Once More on Video Evidence

I’m sure the people who planned Kennedy’s murder would not wish that Abraham Zapruder had filmed the president’s public execution. All the discussion about whether the government doctored the film misses this point: no amount of doctoring could disguise the backward snap of Kennedy’s head, or Jackie’s sudden movement to the limousine’s trunk to retrieve a piece of her husband’s brain tissue.  No single shooter behind the car can account for what we see with our eyes in that film.

When you add the evidence in the film to Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Oswald on live television two days later, you create a huge fishiness factor. No matter what Life magazine tells you, a large number of people will think, “What’s going on here?” Yet the social phenomena we’ve discussed make many reluctant to talk about their doubts with family and friends. Fifty years later, we’re more open to talking about it. This week, Robert Kennedy Jr. said that his dad thought the Warren report was “a shoddy piece of craftsmanship.” The day his brother died, Robert Kennedy did not believe Lee Oswald acted on his own. His son Robert Kenney Jr. does not believe it now.

The same kind of thing will happen – has already started to happend – with 9/11. Right now, skeptics who say, “Look what’s right in front of your eyes,” meet substantial resistance. If they become well known, or pose a genuine threat, they can encounter more than that. Consider Mary Meyer, Jack Kennedy’s lover, shot to death near a canal in Washington DC because her enemies feared what she might say about his death. Courageous people who speak publicly against the government’s account of 9/11 – people like David Ray Griffin – know what happened to Mary Meyer.

Forty or fifty years from today, the social environment will have changed. The people who actually demolished the World Trade Center buildings will not be alive. If we still have a democracy, people will talk more freely about the event. Today we talk more freely about Kennedy’s assassination, two generations after the events in Dallas. Evidence collected and analyzed so long after the fact may be less conclusive than evidence collected on the spot, but it is still valuable. Moreover, analysts have a larger framework of evidence available after time has passed. As a result, pieces of evidence – and the conclusions they yield – become less fragmentary. Even more importantly, as analysts correlate pieces in a growing field of interpretation, they advance the good work that precedes theirs.

Reprise on Psychosis

Psychosis sounds so painful, so weighty and so out there. We don’t like to think about mental illness, for some of the same social reasons we’ve discussed. Mentally ill people become ostracized, placed physically apart from the rest of us. All of us experience problems with our mental and emotional health. Not one of us wants to spend time in a sanitarium, a place apart. If questions of psychosis arise in a personal way, we’d like to change the subject. It’s the last thing we care to think about.

Yet psychosis merely refers to an unhealthy state of mind. If we deny the truth or the evidence of our own eyes because we have an unhealthy state of mind, we should try to do something about that. Individuals can respond as they wish to various states of mind – that’s part of what we mean by individual freedom. If as a collective body – a social organism – we find problems related to states of mind, we ought to address those, together. Some types of benign self-deception help us get through life. We can’t deny the truth about 9/11, however, and hope that the results are good for us. They won’t be.