Skeptic Project

Your #1 COINTELPRO cognitive infiltration source.

Page By Category

Blogs - Muertos - The Sacred List: An Illustration of the Illogic of Conspiracy Theorists

Author: Muertos (Show other entries)
Date: Jul 18, 2010 at 21:34

By Muertos (

If you spend any time at all listening to the arguments of conspiracy theorists, particularly 9/11 Truthers, sooner or later you'll encounter the "Sacred List" argument.  This phenomenon, which was given its name by the terrific bloggers over at Screw Loose Change, is a staple of conspiracy theorizing, but once you begin to delve into it you see how pathetically stupid and illogical it is.  It's worth a blog post both because Sacred List arguments are extremely common in conspiracist circles, and also because it helps illustrate in graphic detail how profoundly disconnected from logic and reality conspiracy theorists are.

What is a Sacred List argument?

A Sacred List argument is a type of supposed discrepancy or anomaly in one official record or another that conspiracy theorists claim indicates holes in an "official story" or some other truth that conspirators are trying to cover up.  Because conspiracy theorists rarely if ever have any coherent beginning-to-end narrative of what they think happened, their entire basis for argument depends on discrepancies; consequently, perceived anomalies are very important to them.  What defines a Sacred List argument, however, is that whatever the conspiracy theorists claim the anomaly is, logically it would have been extremely easy for the alleged conspirators to change or falsify it--and the act of doing so would be child's play compared to the magnitude of other acts that theorists claim the conspirators committed.

This description of a Sacred List argument doesn't really jell until you peruse some examples.

Examples of Sacred List Arguments

1.  "The 9/11 hijackers aren't on any of the flight manifests."

This is the classic paradigm of the Sacred List, and is frequently pushed by arch-Truthers like David Ray Griffin and Killtown (example here).  Because purported passenger lists of the planes hijacked on 9/11 do not contain the names of the hijackers (or "alleged hijackers," as 9/11 Truthers say), to them this is a piece of "evidence" indicating that there were no hijackers, or no persons with Arabic names, aboard the planes.

2.  "Bin Laden has never been indicted for 9/11."

Truthers claim (example here) that because no U.S. court has issued an indictment of Osama bin Laden for conceiving and directing the 9/11 attacks, this is "evidence" indicating that he didn't do it.  Usually the perceived rationale behind this move is that if bin Laden was indicted, captured and brought to trial, he would present evidence of his innocence of 9/11, which the conspirators obviously do not want to happen.

3.  "9/11 does not even appear on Bin Laden's FBI Wanted poster!"

This is a variation of #2 above.  Because the official FBI's "Wanted" bulletin on Osama bin Laden (here) does not mention the September 11 attacks, this is more "evidence" indicating that he did not do it, or at least that the FBI's claims of evidence linking bin Laden to 9/11 is shaky or faulty.  (Example of this argument).

4.  "Barbara Olson/Todd Beamer/other noted 9/11 victims are not listed on the Social Security Death Index."

Barbara Olson is one of the more well-known victims of 9/11, not merely because she is one of the people who is known to have made telephone calls from Flight 77 (more on that later) but also because she was married to Ted Olson, former solicitor general of the United States.  Truthers have scoured the Social Security Death Index for anomalies, and found that Barbara Olson is not listed there.  Jim Fetzer, a notorious 9/11 Truther, has used this argument (example here).  Supposedly this means that Barbara Olson isn't dead.  This jives with some Truthers' theories that Flight 77 did not crash near Shanksville, PA, that it was secretly diverted and passengers taken off (and then what happened to them?), or even that Flight 77 was not hijacked at all.  Similar claims have occasionally been made regarding other 9/11 victims.

5.  "Records of phone calls made to Ted Olson show that Barbara could not have called him from Flight 77, as the official story goes."

More Barbara Olson lore, this one focusing specifically on her calls to her husband as Flight 77 was headed toward its fiery doom in Shanksville.  (This argument is sometimes employed with regard to other victims too, but the Truthers love to pick on Barbara Olson for some reason).  Supposedly, "evidence" of phone records shows discrepancies regarding the calls received when compared with those the "official story" maintains happened.  David Ray Griffin is the source of this argument (here) but it's been widely repeated in Truther circles.  This is a subspecies of the various conspiracist arguments that the phone calls could not have been possible at all (the "cell-phone-versus-Airfone" debate), which supposedly proves that the evil gubbermint used "voice-morphing technology" to fake the calls.

6.  "The flags in U.S. courtrooms usually have gold fringes.  A gold-fringed flag is a military flag, and the presentation of a military flag in a civil courtroom means that the U.S. civil courts are actually under military control."

This is a non-9/11 related example, and comes from the milieu of the militia/patriot/sovereign citizen movement.  Supposedly, the fringe on flags in courtrooms is of great significance, and can mean only that courts who use these flags are actually under military control--which conspiracy theorists usually intend to mean that "civil government" was overthrown by the military some time in the past.  (Example here).  This does not involve a list, but I classify this as a Sacred List argument because in this case the flag in the courtroom is the equivalent of the list that is, in conspiracists' minds, a telltale indicator of "what really happened."

Why Sacred List Arguments Are Stupid

To those reluctant to use critical thinking, Sacred List arguments are easily turned into "smoking guns."  But they're stupid because of one central reason: what do the conspirators possibly have to lose by simply altering the lists?

Think about it.  Assume you're one of the masterminds of 9/11.  You're out there killing people, faking plane hijackings, and blowing up some of the largest buildings on Earth.  You're covering it up every which way, sparing no expense to do so.  With all of this power at your disposal, and with your obvious willingness to violate the law with impunity, how much trouble would it be to simply fake a list or other official document?

Let's see how this works as applied to the examples I gave.

1.  Flight Manifests.

The 9/11 hijackers supposedly don't appear on the official flight manifests.  Okay--how hard would it have been to simply fake those manifests, and release ones that do include the hijackers' names?  The real explanation for the "hijackers aren't on the manifests" phenomenon is that 9/11 Truthers have repeatedly and deliberately confused lists of the victims of 9/11 with official passenger manifests.  (See discussion on this confusion here).  The hijackers weren't victims, they were perpetrators; and furthermore, if you do look at what are the real passenger manifests (you can download the one from Flight 77 here) you will find the hijackers on them.

Really, how stupid is this argument?  If the supposed absence of hijackers was really a "smoking gun," wouldn't the powers-that-be have simply corrected the lists?  If they've already murdered 3,000 innocent people, why would they stop at forging a passenger manifest?  Yet, conspiracy theorists ask to you believe that the conspirators either were afraid of doing that, for whatever reason, or that they were so incompetent that they just let it slip--and have not tried to correct the slip-up in 9 years.

2.  Bin Laden's Indictment.

Bin Laden hasn't been indicted for 9/11.  That is true.  Why hasn't he been?  Because virtually the only chance of catching bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in Waziristan (a remote section of Pakistan), is by the intercession of U.S. military forces--and the U.S. wants to try bin Laden as an enemy combatant under a military tribunal.  (See discussion on this issue here).  If he's indicted for 9/11, by, for instance, the federal court in the Southern District of New York, where the World Trade Center attacks happened, he would be subject to prosecution by that civilian court.  It is also standard practice for federal suspects wanted for many crimes to be subject to only one indictment for an earlier crime; meaning, as they commit more crimes, authorities usually do not keep adding indictments piecemeal, one for each crime.  Bin Laden was indicted for the 1996 terrorist bombings in Africa.  That was years before 9/11.

This is a quite common practice, by the U.S. as well as others.  Mobster Al Capone wasn't convicted and jailed for the St. Valentine's Day Massacre or any of his other infamous crimes; he landed at Alcatraz for tax evasion.  Saddam Hussein was tried and executed under Iraqi law not for his most infamous crimes--the invasion of Kuwait, or the chemical bombing of Kurdish towns in 1988--but rather, for a much more obscure offense, a series of assassinations in 1982 that few outside of Iraq had ever heard of.  Serial killers are rarely indicted for all their suspected crimes.  Where a suspect has a number of crimes to his or her name, a prosecutor has a wide range of charges to choose from.

In short, it has nothing to do with a supposed dearth of evidence.  It has everything to do with prosecutorial strategy regarding how, and particularly where, a suspect is indicted.

Personally, as a former attorney, I disagree with the decision not to indict Osama for 9/11.  I believe he should be charged with that crime, and, even if captured alive by the military, I think he should be tried in a civilian court.  It is interesting to note that other 9/11 figures, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, have been indicted and will be tried in civilian courts.  I would think it likely that, if (God willing) Osama is captured, he will eventually be indicted for 9/11--probably after he's already been found guilty by a military tribunal.

Note that on the FBI's page listing its most wanted terrorists, including bin Laden it specifically says:
"The indictments currently listed on the posters allow them to be arrested and brought to justice. Future indictments may be handed down as various investigations proceed in connection to other terrorist incidents, for example, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001." (emphasis added)

If bin Laden was truly innocent, and the people behind 9/11 really wanted to frame him, how hard would it be to come up with a phony indictment?  They wouldn't even need to rig a grand jury; they'd just present them trumped-up evidence indicating his guilt.  This would be the first thing the conspirators would have done after 9/11! If it was a frame-up, how could they possibly have let something like this slip through the cracks?  Once again, as with all Sacred List arguments, conspirators want you to believe either that (A) the conspirators, having committed all sorts of other heinous crimes, stopped short at the relatively easy step of securing a phony indictment; or (B) the conspirators were so careless as to allow this oversight, which has not been corrected after nearly 9 years.

3.  Bin Laden's Wanted Poster

This is pretty much the same story as the indictment.  The FBI does not listed unindicted charges on wanted posters; that's been the Bureau's policy for a long time.  (Discussion here).  Once again, if 9/11 was a conspiracy, how hard or dangerous would it be to come up with a phony wanted poster?  Is there any possible way that the conspirators would have overlooked this, or would have feared doing that, which is far dwarfed by the other crimes the 9/11 Truthers claim they committed?

4.  Barbara Olson's Absence from the Death Index.

There are a number of reasons why Barbara Olson and other passengers don't show up on the SSDI.  They may not have been involved with the Social Security program; their deaths may not have been officially reported to the Social Security bureau; or their survivors may still be receiving death benefits (the most likely explanation).  The SSDI is not, and never purported to be, a comprehensive list either of all deaths in the U.S., or of the deaths of all persons in the U.S. who had Social Security numbers.  You can see a detailed explanation of these exclusions, and specifically with regard to 9/11 victims, here.

But again, as with the passenger lists and wanted poster, how hard would it have been for conspirators to put phony names on the SSDI?  Why would they, after having either murdered Barbara Olson outright or at least faked her death (and sent her someplace where she has never been seen anywhere in the world since September 2001), have blanched at adding her name to the SSDI?

This argument makes no sense at all, and is one of the more laughable ones employed by Truthers.

5.  Barbara Olson's Phone Records.

You know the drill by now.  If the phone records show that Barbara Olson didn't phone her husband from Flight 77, how hard would it have been for the conspirators to plant phony phone records that did show she called him?  And why would they have chosen not to take this step, if it was so easy?

In fact, 9/11 Truthers are simply lying about Barbara Olson's phone records.  You can see the records of the calls reproduced here as well as a lengthy discussion of the issue.  The records do show that she called her husband from Flight 77.  Evidence to the contrary is totally false.

6.  Gold-Fringed Flag

The presence of gold fringe on an American flag is purely ceremonial, and has absolutely no substantive significance.   That it means anything, much less military jurisdiction, is a total myth.  This myth has been tried in various court proceedings, and hammered down brutally every single time.  Tax protestors love this argument, but they've never won on it.  In fact, even making the argument in court is a sanctionable offense--meaning, it's so stupid that a judge will fine you for insulting his or her intelligence by bringing it up.

But even if it was true, how hard would it be for the secret military government of the United States to issue an edict to all its courts saying, "Whatever you do, don't hang a fringed flag in your courtroom"?  Especially if that argument could successfully release someone from the obligation of paying taxes, why on earth would the government not close that loophole and save itself millions a year in lost tax revenue?  Of the Sacred List arguments, the gold-fringed flag is by far the silliest.


Conspiracy theorists love Sacred List arguments, but they universally employ them without understanding how ludicrous they really are.  Truthers really want you to believe that a cabal of conspirators who killed thousands of innocent people were either too careless or too scared to fake passenger lists, phone records and other documents; tax protestors really want you to believe that the "military government" of the U.S. attaches such symbolic importance to the fringe on a courtroom flag that they are willing to let defendants escape justice and people renege on tax obligations so as to preserve it.  Do these make any sense at all?

Sacred List arguments are among the most easily debunked of all conspiracy claims.  The next time someone tells you that the FBI admits it has no evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11, ask them how stupid they think the conspirators really are.  Chances are the answer won't make any sense--just like the Sacred List arguments themselves.