You trip over one fundamental idiocy of the 9/11 conspiracy nuts -- the ones who say Bush and Cheney masterminded the attacks -- in the first paragraph of the book by one of their high priests, David Ray Griffin, "The New Pearl Harbor." "In many respects," Griffin writes, "the strongest evidence provided by critics of the official account involves the events of 9/11 itself. . In light of standard procedures for dealing with hijacked airplanes . not one of these planes should have reached its target, let alone all three of them."

The operative word here is "should." One central characteristic of the nuts is that they have a devout, albeit preposterous, belief in American efficiency, and hence many of them start with the racist premise that "Arabs in caves" weren't capable of the mission. They believe that military systems work the way Pentagon press flacks and aerospace salesmen say they should work. They believe that at 8:14 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 11 switched off its radio and transponder, an FAA flight controller should have called the National Military Command center and NORAD. They believe, citing reverently (this from high priest Griffin), "the U.S. Air Force's own website," that an F-15 could have intercepted AA Flight 11 "by 8:24, and certainly no later than 8:30."

They appear to have read no military history, which is too bad, because if they had they'd know that minutely planned operations -- let alone responses to an unprecedented emergency -- screw up with monotonous regularity, by reason of stupidity, cowardice, venality and other whims of Providence.

According to the minutely prepared plans of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), an impending Soviet attack would have prompted the missile silos in North Dakota to open and the ICBMs to arc toward Moscow and kindred targets. The tiny number of test launches actually attempted all failed, whereupon SAC gave up testing. Was it badly designed equipment, human incompetence, defense contractor venality or conspiracy? Did the April 24, 1980 effort to rescue the hostages in the U.S. embassy in Tehran fail because a sandstorm disabled three of the eight helicopters, or because agents of William Casey poured sugar into their gas tanks in yet another conspiracy?

Have the military's varying attempts to explain why F-15s didn't intercept and shoot down the hijacked planes stemmed from predictable attempts to cover up the usual screw-ups, or because of conspiracy?

My in-box overflows each day with fresh "proofs" of how the towers were demolished. I meet people who start quietly, asking me what I think about 9/11. What they are actually trying to find out is whether I'm part of the coven. I imagine it is like being a Stoic in the second century A.D., going for a stroll in the forum and meeting some fellow asking, with seeming casualness, whether it's possible to feed 5,000 people on five loaves of bread and a couple of fish.

Indeed, at my school, the vicar used to urge on us Frank Morison's book "Who Moved the Stone"? It demonstrated, with exhaustive citation from the Gospels, that since on these accounts, no human had moved the stone from in front of Joseph of Arimathea's tomb, it must have been an angel who rolled it aside, so Jesus could exit, astonish the mourners and then ascend. Of course Morison didn't allow the possibility that angels never existed or that the Gospel writers were making it up.

It's the same pattern with the 9/11 nuts. There are photos of the impact of the "object" that hit the Pentagon -- i.e., the Boeing 757, Flight 77 -- that seem to show the sort of hole a missile might make. Ergo, it was a missile and a 757 didn't hit the Pentagon. As regards the hole, my brother Andrew -- writing a book about Rumsfeld -- has seen photos taken within 30 minutes of impact clearly showing the outline of an entire plane, including wings. This was visible as soon as the smoke blew away.

And if it was a missile, what happened to the 757? Did the conspirators shoot it down somewhere else, or force it down and then kill the passengers? Why plan to demolish the towers with pre-placed explosives if your conspiracy includes control of the two planes that hit them? Why bother with the planes at all? Why blame Osama if your fall guy is Saddam Hussein?

The demolition scenario is classic who-moved-the-stonery. The towers didn't fall because they were badly built as a consequence of corruption, incompetence, regulatory evasions by the Port Authority and because they were struck by huge planes loaded with jet fuel. No, they collapsed because Dick Cheney's agents methodically planted demolition charges in the preceding days. It was a conspiracy of thousands, all of whom -- party to mass murder -- have held their tongues ever since.

Of course the buildings didn't suddenly pancake. People inside who survived the collapse didn't hear a series of explosions. As discussed in Wayne Barrett and Dan Collin's marvelous new book, "Grand Illusion," about Rudy Giuliani and 9/11, helicopter pilots radioed warnings nine minutes before the final collapse that the South Tower might well go down and similar warnings, repeatedly, as much as 25 minutes before the North Tower's fall.

What Barrett and Collins brilliantly show are the actual corrupt conspiracies on Giuliani's watch: the favoritism to Motorola, which saddled the firemen with radios that didn't work; the ability of the Port Authority to scrimp on fire protection; the mayor's catastrophic failure in the years before 9/11 to organize an effective emergency command, meaning that many lives could have been saved, cops and firemen could have communicated, and firemen could have heard the helicopter warnings and the mayday messages that saved most of the police. That's the real world, in which Giuliani and others have never been held accountable. Instead, the conspiracy nuts have combined to produce a ludicrous distraction.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2006 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.