The following story is about people who believe that the Boston Marathon bombing was an elaborate hoax — a bizarre belief, considering how this is probably the most-filmed terrorist attack since 9/11. It first appeared in Pando on May 15, 2015.
The photos were all taken within milliseconds of each other, and they’re all very similar—if not practically the same.
A woman wearing a backpack purse gets pulled away from the danger by someone wearing a white sweatshirt. Two people who were dropped to the ground, one wearing a blue windbreaker, the other wearing sunglasses, are huddled together. Faces are twisted in what appear to be agony, or shock, or incomprehension. In the upper left hand corner, if you recognize the light grey sweatshirt with the dark gray sleeves, you can make out Jeff Bauman, the double-amputee who famously helped investigators identify Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.
These photos were taken by Ben Thorndike, an amateur photographer and self-described “marathon junkie” who spent April 15, 2013, snapping pictures of the finish line of the Boston Marathon. They capture some of the clearest shots of the infamous attack and its immediate aftermath, and in the days following the the bombing they were featured on NBC Nightly News, CNN, and a number of other outlets.
Considering the magnitude of the attack, the media attention is to be expected.
What Thorndike did not expect was the attention he and his pictures would receive from conspiracy theorists around the world. To them, the photos were the smoking gun that proved the Boston Marathon bombing never happened.
On April 8, Dzhokar Tsarnaev was found guilty of the bombing that killed three people and injured 264 others. His life now hangs in the balance, as jurors decide whether he should face the death penalty or life in prison. To jurors, Dzhokar’s guilt was a foregone conclusion. But for a small crowd of conspiracy theorists, the defense team’s admission of guilt was just the latest in a series of lies told to the public in service of a larger, false narrative.
There’s no modern conspiracy theory that’s more counterintuitive or flat-out mean than the belief that the victims of the Tsarnaev brothers (three killed and roughly 260 injured) were merely actors. According to this theory, the dead and wounded are the real criminals, working in league with a secret government to hoodwink the American people.
On race day, Ben Thorndike was positioned in the window at his firm, Feingold O’Keeffe Capital, documenting the action with his DSLR camera.
“I was looking toward the finish line, and right before me there was a huge explosion, a fireball, a deafening boom,” he told the Boston Globe. “I basically knew it was a bomb. My gut instinct said it was horrific, and my brain said to aim the camera and push the button. I started shooting almost instantaneously.”
After he got home and found what his camera had captured, he contacted a friend in broadcast media. The reaction was instantaneous and overwhelming. News trucks arrived at his home. The phone started ringing, didn’t stop for weeks. At the peak of the media’s interest, Thorndike began declining interviews. ABC, Fox News, and multiple print magazines got the cold shoulder, he says. A producer from Entertainment Tonight went so far as to camp out on his doorstep at 9:00 PM one night and refuse to leave until Thorndike consented to an interview (which never happened).
That’s where things would have remained, had he not come across something called The Memory Hole Blog. Founded and maintained by a Florida Atlantic University professor (and unaffiliated conspiracy theorist) named James Tracy, the site is a newswire for all the latest conspiracy bugbears. What Thorndike found published there beggared belief: “proof” that the government had faked the bombing, and that all the so-called victims were instead government agents. Finding the allegations almost as upsetting as the event itself, he emailed Tracy in an attempt to set the record straight.
“You wrote an article about my marathon photos that is filled with inaccuracies,” Thorndike wrote. Why hadn’t Tracy contacted him before publishing the story? “I would have thought a disciplined author would seek out sources and ask questions before leaping to conclusions and putting them in writing.” (Although I’ve been in touch with Thorndike, he’s declined requests for interviews; from here on out, I’m quoting from a batch of emails that Tracy sent me, for some reason.)
A maddening volley of emails ensued. Tracy seemed to believe that the photos not only revealed a government plot, but that they also somehow fingered Thorndike as a co-conspirator. “I am also especially interested in your most opportune positioning at the site of the event as it transpired,” Tracy replied, sounding like an imbecilic robot.
“Opportune?” asked Thorndike, incredulous. “How about you, Mr. Tracy, walk to a window and have a bomb go off underneath you, and then we’ll see if you think of it as ‘opportune.’”
Later, over the phone, Tracy told me he’s “not even sure who Ben Thorndike is. I’m not sure as to whether or not he might somehow be a government player.” As Tracy explains it, the attack at the Boston Marathon was a training exercise for government operatives. It was the next evolution of something like Urban Shield, a mock terrorist attack conducted by a private company meant to test the abilities of local, state, and federal responders.
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“There were people that were brought in, to more or less act as injured parties and deceased parties," Tracy said. “There have been studies that have been done on [Thorndike’s] photographs that show the mechanics of the event itself,” that ostensibly prove that the bombing never happened.
Of course, there haven’t been studies — just rants on blogs and forums. But for plenty of people (too many people, in fact) that’s evidence enough.
In the 1960s and 1970s, conspiracy theories were exemplified by the examination and re-examination and re-re-examination of ballistics evidence in the JFK-MLK-RFK assassinations, and the endless cross-referencing of the Warren Commission findings. Over the next twenty years we began to see more of a sci-fi, X-Files-flavored kookiness, with alien abductions and that sort of thing.
Things got even more sinister after 9/11. Individuals began doubting some very basic, rock solid facts. The World Trade Center, it was said, was brought down by explosives — because the planes the nation saw that morning were actually holograms. As for Sandy Hook Elementary, it’s claimed that the school had been closed for a number of years prior to the massacre. Like the victims of Boston, the kids at Newtown were all purportedly actors. This perspective requires a distinct lack of empathy on the part of the conspiracist. You can wallow in this mindset for yourself by looking at Thorndike’s pictures and trying to see in them what James Tracy sees:
Frame six: On the left we see the the man with a hood setting up the fake leg wound prosthetics... The woman is acting as a shield covering what’s happening.
Frame eight: The prosthetics are in place. Amidst all this chaos seconds after the explosion the hooded man takes the time to put on his sunglasses which is a signal.
Frame nine: With sunglasses now on the hooded man and the woman make eye contact, signal received.
Frame eleven: After recieving [sic] the go signal the woman makes an open hand gesture the direction both of them are looking, signaling the staged injuries are in place for cameras…
Frame fourteen: The woman turns her head right but is still holding up that open palm signal with her left hand. The hooded man again busies himself pouring fake blood on the pavement behind the woman. The amputee has both fake injuries in the air now. There is still no blood on his legs, his skin above the injury is clean and dry.
Frame twenty: The fake blood and prosthetics are in place. The amputee gives an open hand gesture along with the woman to bring the cameras in. We’re now twenty frames in and still not a drop of fresh blood from a double leg amputation. His legs are dry, the woman is dry and unscathed. Both are making the same hand gesture.
It takes a cold, cynical person to look at clear pictures of a veritable slaughter and only see actors engaged in some sort of conspiracy.
I assured Tracy that I saw something very different than he did.
That said, if he wanted to run with the assertion that the bombing wasn’t real, I’d go with the flow. But the question then became: who orchestrated this supposed hoax? The answer, as you probably have guessed, was President Obama. He’s the puppet master, directing his minions in the Department of Homeland Security.
“There’s actually a study that was conducted,” he explains, “and I know that there’s got to be more than one. But the Department [sic] of Naval Intelligence was studying Twitter and Facebook, how the event took shape on social media, alongside mainstream media.
In other words, Tracy would like you to believe that the federal government traumatized the entire nation at considerable expense, not only as a training exercise, but to see what people would tweet about it.
I came away from my conversation with James Tracy, the academic conspiracist and self-styled public intellectual, with the distinct impression that he thinks very highly of himself. But compared to some of his peers across the country, Tracy almost comes across as a reasonable human being. In Chicago, for instance, there’s Cass Ingram (also known as Cassim K., Dr. K., and Kaasem Khaleel), a disgraced former osteopath that marries the Boston Marathon bombing conspiracy to classic, old fashioned anti-Semitism. His invective is aimed squarely at Tsarnaev's victims, branding them liars, Satanists, and Zionists. Then there’s the pseudonymous BuelahMan, a self-described “Mississippi redneck” who “don’t trust Jews.” He was one of the first to pounce on the “analysis” of Thorndike’s photos that Tracy bases his theories on. It’s like debunking the moon landing with misspelled rants from power weightlifting forums.
For a conspiracy enthusiast such as myself, it’s always disappointing when I stumble upon a new theory only to discover that it’s a rehash of something as lame as old fashioned anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, says Mark Fenster, the author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, this is practically inevitable. Whenever there’s a national tragedy such as Boston, he recently told me, “there’s a typical pattern, and all conspiracies tend to fall into that fairly quickly.”
According to Fenster, a conspiracy theory (whether it’s promoted as real, or the plot of a movie like JFK or Bob Roberts) is a “generic, stock narrative” that serves as a "framework” for people’s fantasies. In this light, conspiracy creeps like James Tracy are shown for what they really are: hack filmmakers working without a crew. On one level, this should come as a surprise to no one. Just about every conspiracy theory, no matter which shocking “revelations” it may contain, has the same stale plot structure.
To the victims of the Tsarnaev brothers, there’s nothing worthwhile about James Tracy’s work. Indeed, the only thing that's truly revelatory about Tracy is the fact that he’s convinced people to believe his rap.
In their correspondence, Tracy had the nerve to ask Thorndike if he was “truly convinced” the the bombing was “an authentic event?” And “If so, why?” It’s a question that needn’t be dignified with a response, but Thorndike, good sport that he is, responded nonetheless. “I saw the explosion,” he wrote back. “Literally. I saw the huge ball of fire, heard the deafening noise, watched the smoke billowing upwards and saw people knocked to the ground like bowling pins.”
It’s been over two years since the attack, and in that time Thorndike has met a number of people who were either wounded that day, or had family members who were wounded. Of all these people, he says, “none of them doubt what they saw.”