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It’s instructive to listen carefully to U. S. commentary after the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine. Observers make these points, with some urgency:

We have to secure the crash scene. Put yellow crime tape around it. Don’t leave it in control of the Russian separatists who control it now. They are the ones suspected of launching the missile that brought the plane down, so they have all incentive to hide and destroy evidence of what happened.

We have to allow access by impartial investigators. That’s not easy, in a war zone, but we have to do it. Only impartial investigators, not Russian separatists and their allies in Moscow, can learn exactly how this plane crash occurred.

Thirdly, we want to treat the crash scene with respect. We don’t want looting or tardy removal of bodies. We should return remains of the dead to their families as soon as we can.

Russian surface-to-air missiles on mobile launchers, easy to deploy, maintain and launch, deadly to 70,000 feet.

These points are instructive because they take us to the period after September 11, 2001, when Europe and the rest of the world so hoped we – someone – would conduct a proper investigation of the attacks that occurred that day. Instead, the United States government declined to conduct any investigation at all. American authorities secured the crash scenes in Manhattan, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, not in order to gather and evaluate evidence, but to clear the evidence away as quickly as possible.

Consider the attack on the Pentagon, for example, every crime scene investigator will say, the first rule is to leave everything exactly where it is, for investigators need to map out pieces of the plane, location of bodies, gather samples for laboratory testing, and so on. Instead, people from the FBI, the very agency we expected would conduct an investigation, cleared away evidence from the Pentagon attack as quickly as they could. The same story, on a larger scale, occurred in Manhattan. Authorities scooped up steel from the Twin Towers and shipped it overseas as expeditiously as they could. Shanksville tells the same story: secure the crash scene not to investigate it, but to clear away evidence so no one can investigate it.

So it goes when people want to hide the truth. The people who brought down Flight 17 near Donetsk bragged about their success, tweeting about it and posting an actual video, until they discovered their mistake. Then they deleted evidence of their act immediately. You can expect the people who launched the missile to treat all the other evidence of their complicity the same way. The Russians have already blamed the Ukrainians for bringing down the airliner. Now they must destroy any evidence that contradicts that accusation.

After 9/11, those who controlled all three crime scenes had to cover their guilt. The same has already happened with the people who brought down Flight 17 over Ukraine. The mobile missile launcher is gone. Investigators say you have to leave the scene intact. Otherwise the evidence cannot reveal the truth. When you clean up the scene as fast as possible, as Johnson did with Kennedy’s limousine, you cannot retrieve the stuff you washed away, removed, and destroyed. In 2001, a shocked American public largely accepted the government’s account of what happened on September 11.

People in Europe were more skeptical. They would have liked to see a real investigation. By the time President Bush acceded to pressure, and created the 9/11 Commission in 2002, the evidence at all three locations was long gone. With no crime scene evidence to analyze, the commission instead wrote a treatise about how to prevent future attacks, and of course about the dangers posed by groups like Al Qaeda. The commission did not do any of the things you would expect an investigative commission to do. It couldn’t. The evidence investigators need to analyze to determine what happened was gone.

So when we call for an impartial, international investigation of what happened in eastern Ukraine on July 16, 2014, we can think of a season, not so many years ago, when the rest of the world wanted to see a similar level of openness here in the United States. You know that Russia, in this time of anger and sadness about the war in Ukraine, will follow our example then, not our words now, as they decide what to do about an investigation of the crash scene.

They will maintain control of the scene until the evidence is gone. They believe that whatever suspicions their behavior might provoke, those suspicions make for lighter problems than what might follow if people know the truth. In the end, officials who want to hide their complicity don’t think that distrust from people they don’t know is all that high a price to pay, as long as they are not publicly caught out. If you want to hide your complicity in a heinous act, removal and destruction of evidence becomes the highest priority. You can see that pattern of behavior over and over.

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Photographic evidence

The great thing about photographs and video recordings, especially in the age of the internet, is that this type of evidence is not so easy to destroy. Consequently, people involved in crimes have a harder time hiding their involvement.

The South Tower explodes at 9:59 am on September 11, 2001. Note the squibs firing by the red arrow.

Someday we will say, “How did we think this destruction was anything other than a controlled series of explosions?” Put another way, how could we think that gravity – by itself – brought down all 110 stories of this skyscraper? We make ourselves believe one thing, because the alternative is too awful.

Sometimes simple analysis yields clear results. Consider the pancake theory, used to explain how each tower fell straight down shortly after jet fuel fires ignited the upper floors. The theory has a certain plausibility, if you concentrate on certain parts of the evidence. The first key element of the theory is that the collapse of the upper floors initiated a chain reaction, whereby the collapse of each floor causes the floor below it to fail. The second key concept proposes that the horizontal trusses supporting each floor unzipped from the vertical columns as the weight of the pancaking floors above came down on them. Not designed for the kind of strain they experienced, the trusses detached from the columns floor by floor, until the zipper reached ground level.

Now consider the building in its standing state. The columns and trusses at floor ten, and of course the nine floors below, bear the weight of one hundred stories above them. Structural integrity matters. Ten stories bear the weight of one hundred. Eleven stories bear the weight of ninety-nine, and so one. Each lower set of floors must bear the weight of all the floors that rise above it. That is why the columns near the bottom of the building are so much thicker than the columns near the top. The base bears a lot of weight. It bears that weight securely, no matter how much the top of the building might sway due to high winds. It bears that weight securely, even if an airplane crashes into an upper floor. A disturbance, trauma, or other unusual condition at the ninety-first floor does not affect the integrity of the base. It does not affect the base’s ability to support the weight it always supported.

World Trade Center under construction.

Another view of the base.

The force of gravity cannot “unzip” a rectangular, steel-framed skyscraper. To see why, compare an arch with a Lego tower. An arch has a keystone at the top, the last stone the builder places. Remove the keystone, or any other stone in the arch for that matter, and the structure fails. The integrity that gave it the ability to hold so much weight is gone. A rectangular structure does not permit the empty space underneath that distinguishes an arch, but neither does it depend on every component remaining in place to retain its vertical strength. Build a rectangular tower of Lego bricks, then press down on it from the top. It will never give way. Remove some bricks three-quarters of the way up. You may have weakened the tower at that point, but you have not damaged the integrity or strength of the tower below that point. The internal reinforcements in a steel framed tower give the structure the same robust resistance to vertical pressure. That is why we consider skyscrapers constructed of steel and concrete such a miracle of architecture, an eye-catching demonstration of our ability to conquer vertical space, and gravity, with materials so substantial we can live in the air a thousand feet above ground. You cannot make a tower constructed with steel columns collapse from the top down, by gravity or any other natural force. To destroy a tower like that, you have to destroy the integrity of its internal reinforcements. You have to break the columns, not in one place, but throughout the structure.

Here is one more observation concerning the impossible roles of weight and gravity in bringing the towers down. The pancake theory holds that by the time chain reaction reaches the tenth floor, the extraordinary strain that occurs from a hundred floors pancaking down, one after another, causes the trusses to fail at floor ten, then at nine, until you reach the ground. When you look at video recordings of the Twin Towers coming down, however, you don’t see extra weight from falling floors causing a progressive collapse from the top of the building to the bottom. In fact, you don’t see any weight at all! By the time the destruction reaches floor ten, the building above is just a toadstool-shaped ball of dust and debris. The weight the bottom ten floors bear when the pancake theory says they must collapse, is far less than the weight they bear when the building stands in its normal state. In fact, the weight they bear near the end of the progressive destruction is almost nothing.

What accounts for the destruction of the building’s base? Before you answer that question, ask why clean-up workers found so much molten steel underneath the ruins at ground zero.

Today’s quiz

How do you know someone is a member of organized crime?

He wears an American flag on his lapel.

How do you know when a member of organized crime wants to hurt you?

He wears an American flag on his lapel, and he asks you for your vote.

Why don’t female leaders wear American flags on their lapels?

They’re unpatriotic.

Give me another answer.

It’s not fashionable. They don’t wear dark business suits.

Give me another one.

People don’t challenge women to prove they’re patriotic.

Give me one more.

Women don’t consider themselves members of an organized crime syndicate?

Sign of danger. When you see someone who wears this pin: get away!

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