Towers of Babble

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The eight men huddled around a table at a Seattle coffee shop could easily be confused with a comic-book fan society or a Dungeons & Dragons kaffeeklatsch. They’re mostly white, in their 20s and 30s, many with creative facial hair. They’re dressed casually. The majority of them are computer programmers. Nearly half of them work at Microsoft, although they coyly refer to it as “a major computer-software firm based out of Redmond,” presumably for fear of workplace repercussions.

“I’d like to call this meeting to a quorum,” a guy named Robin says, presumably hamming it up because a reporter is present. This is a meeting of We Are Change Seattle, one of the many local branches of a loosely affiliated network of 9/11 Truth organizations. The group gets together in coffee shops and bars every week or two.

Robin spent much of his life in New England working as an air-traffic controller and manager of standup comedians, and he recently moved to Seattle to be closer to his daughter and granddaughter. He’s the oldest of the group but in many ways the most passionate, followed closely by a charismatic man named Giancarlo. Giancarlo’s father brought him to the United States 20 years ago from “a communist country”; he evades questions about which one. He’s forceful, handsome, and young, the kind of person who says “with all due respect” with a smile and then proceeds to tell you exactly what’s wrong with you. His magnetic personality could probably earn him an elected office if he smoothed out his angry edges.

“What’s really a slap in the face,” Giancarlo says, “is that they dumbed down the explanation to such third-grader principles, that the terrorists did this because they hate our freedoms. I hate the fact that I believed that for five years.” Giancarlo’s rant about freedom gives way to a conversation about the failure of the anti-Iraq war movement, which the group agrees has consisted of hippies singing folk songs, ridiculous puppets, and self-righteous preaching to the choir.

“This is why the 9/11 Truth movement is brilliant,” Robin says, “because we’re on the web and we have DVDs and we’re out handing things out”–specifically, he says, in places they aren’t wanted. “We’re doing what I’d like to call civil informationing.”

It’s true that educating people who are hostile to your cause, rather than smugly marching in lockstep with like-minded activists, is the way to operate a movement. Giancarlo is said to be the best at debating naysayers and sweet-talking reluctant people into taking copies of We Are Change Seattle’s information. Kristian Konrad, probably the closest thing that We Are Change Seattle has to a leader, says that when members hand out literature outside Mariners baseball games, they attract comments like “Get fucked, traitor” and “Oh, look, it’s the freaks.”

I was invited to this meeting after an e-mail exchange with Konrad in which I compared the level of hatred for Truthers to the way most people treat Lyndon LaRouche followers and Jehovah’s Witnesses. This touched a nerve with Konrad, who replied by saying, “Unlike LaRouchers, we have regular jobs and don’t adhere to one man’s ideas.” He added, “I’m just a regular guy, trying to get the word out that buildings don’t fall apart at free-fall speed due to fire.”

Weeks after the meeting in the coffee shop, Konrad is at Seattle Hempfest handing out DVDs to strangers. He has 400 of them, which he paid for himself at an estimated cost of “27 cents apiece, not including time,” he says. He was up all night burning them. A sign that reads “Google 9/11 Truth” is sticking out of his backpack, but otherwise he could easily fit into the Hempfest demographic. A preteen boy who must have been 5, at most, in 2001, says, “Dude, it was six years ago. Get over it!” One man shouts, “Fuck you!” A soft-spoken man in his 50s takes a DVD and then hands it back and walks on.

I catch up to him. He tells me, “I’m not interested. I feel like conspiracies in this day and age would be extremely difficult to perpetuate. Now, with the Internet, governments are running scared. The writing is on the wall and they can’t control the people. They’re in trouble and they know it.”

When I tell Konrad about the man’s response, he laughs. “Good for him, man,” he says. “I want some of what he’s smoking.”

Three months ago, at a birthday party, I met a dour young man wearing a “9/11 was an inside job” T-shirt. I’d already been noticing a lot of “inside job” stickers and graffiti around town, and now, faced with a real-life Truther, I found that I couldn’t stop staring at him: He was at a celebration of a friend’s life and he was wearing a shirt announcing that nearly 3,000 American citizens were killed by our own government. It’s easy to dismiss a guy like this as a lone wolf, but he’s actually not alone: A 2006 Scripps Survey Research Center poll found that 36 percent of all Americans believe that the government is responsible for 9/11–either by direct action or by willfully ignoring clear evidence that it was going to happen.

There is no end to the variety of Truthers’ claims, but most of them believe that the United States government perpetrated 9/11 in an elaborate conspiracy to bring about the decomposition of civil liberties and the fortification of the American empire in the Middle East. They think this because, since 9/11, we’ve witnessed the decomposition of civil liberties and the fortification of the American empire in the Middle East.

Most Truthers claim that their starting point in the movement was watching the third World Trade Center tower fall. At 5:20 p.m. on September 11, 2001, WTC 7, a 47-story steel-framed skyscraper located 300 feet north of Tower 1, collapsed. This collapse, as seen in news footage, looks a lot like an implosion, as if it had happened through controlled demolition. This is the drum that most Truthers bang on when they’re trying to get people to pay attention, and it’s a pretty sexy bullet point: No planes struck WTC 7, so why would it collapse?

But, for that matter, why would the Twin Towers collapse? The 9/11 Commission Report claims that the towers fell at nearly free-fall speed because of something later dubbed the “pancake theory,” which means that each floor fell on top of the floor below it. Truthers claim that the puffs of smoke that jetted from the side of the buildings during the collapse were signs of controlled explosions within the buildings. And, further, that the jet fuel-stoked fire inside the towers could not have burned hot enough to weaken the metal structure of the building.

It’s inaccurate to refer to Truthers as conspiracy theorists because, as they’re quick to point out, many of them don’t have a theory. They only have questions. Some of them believe that the government is guilty of knowing about the attacks and simply allowing them to happen, others believe that the planes were remote-­controlled and no passengers died in the attacks, and still others believe that the Pentagon was hit by a cruise missile and no plane was involved at all. Many Truthers believe that Flight 93 couldn’t have crashed in Pennsylvania since the crash site is only 6 feet wide by 20 feet long. A radical few even claim that no planes struck the Twin Towers. The debate within the movement is intense and not always polite; some Truthers believe that denying that hundreds of air passengers died on September 11 is disrespectful and stupid.

There are almost as many notions about what happened on September 11 as there are members of 9/11 Truth organizations. To add to the confusion, the movement is home to not a few eccentrics. After the coffee shop meeting with We Are Change Seattle, I got the first in a series of e-mails from a woman named Rebecca. Rebecca was angry that she wasn’t allowed to take part in the group interview, a decision that Konrad justified as a way to present a “more united front” to the media.

Rebecca and three other original members of 9/11 Truth Seattle–the umbrella entity that makes communication between various Truth groups in Seattle possible–had decided to abandon We Are Change Seattle anyway after a disagreement. Most recently, Rebecca has decided to stop being part of any 9/11 Truth organization. In her words: “I have instead decided to give priority to my creative work with political satire and performance poetry.”

This tiny schism is emblematic of larger rifts within the Truth movement. Its first few years have seen a number of organizations come and go in a flurry of arguments and personality clashes. For instance, last year, after a prolonged argument about whether the towers were felled by miniature nuclear weapons, some members of a group called Scholars for 9/11 Truth voted to disband and reform as the new, improved Scholars for 9/11 Truth and Justice. Many Truthers rejected a man named Webster Tarpley as a major public face of the movement because of his previous work for the LaRouche Connection, a news service funded by the LaRouche organization. “Many of us felt like he took some credibility from the movement,” a Truther who wanted to be anonymous told me. Tarpley is rumored to be considering a run for president on a 9/11 Truth ticket, which could draw some of the Truth votes from both Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, who seem to be running neck-and-neck in popularity with the primarily Libertarian-leaning members of 9/11 Truth groups.

In the midst of all this it’s easy to forget that, by virtually any measurement of intellect, Truthers are highly intelligent people. The very fact that they’ve branded themselves the “Truth” movement shows a canny grasp of public relations on a level with the Bush administration’s lusty embrace of the word freedom. Who could possibly be against truth? Truth is part of the credo of superheroes, along with justice and the American way. It’s the same kind of organic organizational genius that people who are against abortion drew on when they came up with prolife. Adopting a powerful, emblematic word like truth or life or freedom gives you an important edge at the start of an argument. It’s more than a statement of purpose; it’s brilliant marketing, and it reveals an organization wise enough to use the same tools as the institutions they’ve sworn to fight. Truthers get dismissed as idiots on liberal and conservative message boards around the country, but it’s hard to think of another movement that has covered as much ground as quickly, and has defined itself as well, as 9/11 Truth has.

I left that first coffee shop meeting with a huge stack of books and DVDs. The bible for most of the movement is David Ray Griffin’s confusingly titled Debunking 9/11 Debunking, written in response to the March 2005 issue of Popular Mechanics that refuted commonly floated 9/11 Truth theories. It’s a necessarily dry book–great swaths of pages are devoted to whether jet fuel fire would burn black or white–and Griffin, a retired professor of theology and philosophy of religion, is not by any stretch of the imagination an inspirational writer, but his methodical approach gives the book gravity.

The first Internet-distributed movie that turned people on to the Truth movement was Loose Change. Despite being an amateur production, Change is paced and edited like a mainstream documentary. It’s a shame it’s so bad. Director/narrator Dylan Avery’s voice is nasally reminiscent of Ira Glass’, which partly explains why Change seems like an episode of This American Life on acid. Avery makes crazy suggestions and then stops and says, in a folksy stage exclamation, “Wait a minute! What did I just say?” The last third of the film posits that Flight 93 never crashed in Pennsylvania. By this point it’s clear that Change is the work of someone who’s spent too long examining the evidence and needs to step out for fresh air.

The Truth movement’s newest, most popular film is a documentary called Zeitgeist. Not as professional as Change, Zeitgeist still has weird power: Based solely on anecdotal evidence, it’s probably drawing more people into the Truth movement than anything else.

The first 40 minutes explain in detail why Christianity is a sham and Jesus Christ is not the messiah. It’s fairly well argued and revolves around commonly known facts: Many early religions had messianic stories involving virgin births, crucifixions, celebrations on December 25, and so on. The second part is devoted to 9/11 Truth, and it’s probably the most clearly stated case I’ve seen, covering the “facts” concisely. The third part of Zeitgeist lost me entirely–it’s a screed about how everything has always been a part of a master plan to create a New World Order, and the film’s emotional climax involves a documentary filmmaker befriending a loose-lipped Rockefeller family member who blurts out the events of 9/11 . . . nearly one year before they happened!

It’s fascinating, this structure. First the film destroys the idea of God, and then, through the lens of 9/11, it introduces a sort of new Bizarro God. Instead of an omnipotent, omniscient being who loves you and has inspired a variety of organized religions, there is an omnipotent, omniscient organization of ruthless beings who hate you and want to take your rights away, if not throw you in a work camp forever. Zeitgeist is the film most Truthers mention online when they’re new to the movement, and it believes in a magical fairyland dominated by evil villains. It’s fiction, couched in a few facts.

There are even nuttier resources, like Inside Job: Unmasking the 9/11 Conspiracies by Jim Marrs, who’s made a career of writing about the JFK assassination and extraterrestrial encounters. David Icke, who famously believes the world is being controlled by lizard-men (in a plot startlingly similar to the cult NBC miniseries V), has contributed his very particular genius to the genre with Alice in Wonderland and the World Trade Center Disaster. Just type a couple of words into Google and the whole thing spins into crazy within seconds.

You can get sidetracked tearing apart every bit of evidence with a Truther. Was the whole thing done with remote-controlled planes bearing bomb pods on their underbellies? If so, where are the real people who were ostensibly the passengers of those flights? How did they–whoever they are–pull it–whatever it is–off?

I ask Konrad how many people it must have taken to wire the towers to explode.

“If they had long enough, probably you could have gotten it done with crews of 20 or 40 people,” he says.

So how did the government convince those people to execute its evil plan, and why have none of them come forward?

“It’s just my theory,” he says. “But the people who wired the towers to explode are already dead. They probably got three in the back of the head, just like Pat Tillman.”

But what about the people who did the people who did the towers? And the people who told the people to do the people who did the towers? You can imagine a line of men in suits shooting each other in the back of the head extending all the way from New York to Washington, D.C., and ending in the Oval Office, but somewhere along the way, someone’s going to squeal. Truthers tend to implicate the media in the attack, but, as anyone who’s ever gotten drunk with a journalist could tell you, a conspiracy that involves the media would be short-lived.

The secrecy of our government is a major reason why the Truth movement has gained such successful footing in such a relatively short time, and President Bush’s and Vice President Cheney’s refusal to cooperate with the 9/11 Commission can easily be interpreted as an admission of guilt. Plus, Bush and Cheney probably are guilty of a lot of horrible things, some of which we’ll never know about. But wouldn’t a government conspiracy to go after Iraq just have tied the towers directly to Iraq? If the Truth movement’s only job is to uncover discrepancies, it’s dooming itself to forever pulling facts apart. It’s kind of a Zeno’s arrow of illogic: Truthers will never come to a reasonable conclusion because there’s never going to be an absence of doubt. It’s time for them to put up or shut up, in other words–it’s been six years since 9/11 and they’ve yet to produce anything coherent.

Most Truthers will tell you that what they’re looking for is a new, independent–possibly international–commission to investigate the events of September 11. When I ask Konrad in an e-mail if he thinks that such a commission could accurately identify what happened, his answer is less than fulfilling: “I do think there is still enough evidence to indict some of the perpetrators. . . . There is a lot of evidence, and it needs to be objectively sorted out. . . . We may never know who exactly ordered the attacks, or who did the footwork, but it is necessary to investigate. This whole war on terror, and the wars in the Middle East, are based on it.”

Do I think that the government gave us the whole truth about 9/11? Of course not. The CIA trained Osama bin Laden to fight the Soviets, the Bush and bin Laden families have been tied together in business dealings forever, and the administration has released barely any usable information about the attacks. But I also think that the Truth movement people are looking backward, which won’t help them succeed in their mission.

Many people are quick to dismiss the Truth movement the second a Truther starts talking. This is a mistake. In many ways, Truthers represent a step forward, in part because of the high value they place on reason–nothing to sneeze at in a religious age. Outside of the always-to-be-expected lunatic fringe, the majority of the Truthers I’ve met have used clearheaded and civil discussion as their primary method of coercion, and it’s worked remarkably well. The problem is that many of the believers–like the ones who love Zeitgeist–have started to fall for spiritual hooey and Masonic bunkum. There’s a cult of coincidence just waiting to be born in the Truth movement that could prove to be every bit as awful and wrongheaded as any religion, but if the intelligent rationalists that I’ve met can keep their wits about them, be reasonable, and stick to facts, they could become a very important force.

The awful truth, of course, is that we’re all living in a huge conspiracy, and things are so ridiculous that we barely even think about it anymore. We entered into the Iraq war under false pretenses. Our government routinely spies on its citizens both inside and outside its borders, and runs secret courts with special rules. We torture and kill civilians in other countries because we can.

I was surprised when I met some of Seattle’s Truth groups because I was confronted by smart, sincere people with lots of information about the sad state of civil liberties and corporate control in the United States, people eager to inform other people about what’s happening to our rights and using money out of their own pockets to do it. People fighting, in other words, the single biggest sin in America: laziness. The kind of pervasive laziness that can be found everywhere today–in our leaders, in our media, in ourselves.

They could do a lot better by dropping the arguments about the melting point of steel and whether or not planes actually did hit buildings. What they already have in their hands is priceless: In just a couple of years they’ve created, from nothing, a truly democratic, highly visible grassroots framework for a new kind of peace and civil rights organization that could use that concept of “civil informationing” to bring about change. It would require the movement to endorse some candidates, and make some compromises, but there comes a time in every adult’s life when you’ve got to get to work because it’s time to stop pointing at the heavens and shouting “Why?”

Reprinted from the Stranger(Sept. 6, 2007), Seattle’s weekly alternative arts and culture newspaper. Subscriptions: $59.99/yr. (52 issues) from 1535 11th Ave., 3rd Floor, Seattle, WA 98122;

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