Essentially, it's all about physics and common sense. Cut steel, and buildings fall. Crash a plane, and the Earth gets scarred. Fire a missile; see a hole. What's up must come down, cause makes effect, and for the truth to set you free, it must be freed itself.
It's dark in the basement of St. Mark's Church and dark outside on a mid-December Sunday night, but inside they have seen the light. Among the 100 or so people in the room, many wear buttons that read "9/11 Was An Inside Job." Others grip the vital texts in their handsCrossing the Rubicon, The New Pearl Harbor, or 9/11 Synthetic Terror. Most in the largely (but not exclusively) white and male crowd can quote you the important passages from "Rebuilding America's Defenses" or The 9/11 Commission Report. A few can guide you through the details of concepts like "peak oil" and pyroclastic flow. All of them suspectand a few simply knowthat their government was somehow complicit in the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans four Septembers ago.
They are watching the new edition of Loose Change, a slick, witty documentary featuring a hip soundtrack and a rapid-fire assault on nearly every aspect of the "official" story of 9-11. The work of 22-year-old filmmaker Dylan Avery, Loose Change came out last year to take its place in a growing library of DVDs that 9-11 skeptics can own: Painful Deceptions, Confronting the Evidence, 911 in Plane Site, 9-11 Eyewitness. Shown in similar gatherings around the country and passed among likeminded friends, the films are what tie together the disparate ends of what many of its members call the "9-11 Truth movement." They unite Luke Rudkowski, an earnest Brooklyn College freshman, with David Ray Griffin, a California theologian who wrote The New Pearl Harbor. They link Les Jamieson, a web designer and coordinator for New York 9-11 Truth, with multimillionaire Jimmy Walter, dreamer of car-free, self-sustaining cities. And they bind a FDNY lieutenant attending his first Truth movement meeting with Michael Ruppert, the Crossing the Rubicon author who blames a fiancée's CIA-and-Mafia-linked drug running and arms dealing for helping to drive him out of the LAPD two decades ago.
It's easy to dismiss the odd characters. It's harder to ignore the regular guys in the room, or the polls showing that 49 percent of New York City residents believe the government knew about 9-11 before it happened, or the rock-solid certainty of these supposed doubters. "I'd love to be proven wrong. I would love for someone to come to me and say I'm full of shit. It hasn't happened," says Avery. "I have scientists on my side. There's so much evidence supporting my side, and the government's side has nothing."
Its name notwithstanding, the 9-11 Truth movement tells a storyand is a storyabout what happens when the government lies. Again, it's simple physics: For every action, there's a reaction equal and opposite.
Everyone has a September 11 tale about how we watched the events in "disbelief." But some people really didn't believe, and in the immediate aftermath of the attacks their doubts took form on the Internet on sites like serendipity.li, plaguepuppy.net, and Killtown. "They were a group of conditioned conspiracy theorists who have been around since JFK and before," says Steve Ferdman, now a 22-year-old marketing major at the New York Institute of Technology, who joined the Truth movement well after the attacks. "They knew how to get the ball rolling immediately. The moment it happened, the conspiracy theories were flying."
It wasn't long before the theories made it to Internet radioand to shows like The Power Hour. Host Dave vonKleist was no stranger to telling alternate stories: His wife was an early Gulf War illness activist, they fled Houston ahead of Y2K, and his three-hour show deals with subjects like depleted uranium and vaccine fears. On 9-11, he recalls, "I got on and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is Dave and before we even say good morning, run to your VCR and start taping. America is under attack.' " As he sat glued to the TV that day, he grew suspicious when the networks went to the file footage of the tall Arab with the gun. "They were still talking about what kind of plane hit," he says, "but they sure as hell knew that Osama did it, and I said, 'Wait a minute.' " These doubts lay dormant for months until vonKleist happened upon Hunt the Boeing, a French website. France was an incubator for many 9-11 doubts. Thierry Meyssan's 2002 book L'Effroyable Imposture (The Horrifying Fraud) spawned deeper inquiries, including vonKleist's film 911 in Plane Site.
While the Pentagon story attracted people because so little was seen or known about that attack, the demise of the World Trade Center was burned in collective memory. Eric Hufschmid, a software designer from Santa Barbara, took the attacks at face value on 9-11 and even mocked the nascent conspiracy theories. "Then I started looking at it," he tells the Voice. "It was obvious something was wrong at the towers. They looked like they'd been blown up." He began contacting engineering professors, asking them to look into it, but none did. So he took up the cause himself, penned the book Painful Questions in early 2002, and produced the companion movie, Painful Deceptions, a few months later.
Around the same time, Dylan Avery was completing a job as a helper on the construction of a new restaurant for James Gandolfini. He tended bar at the opening party, and when he got a few minutes alone with the Sopranos actor, he said he'd thought he might like to direct films. "James said, 'If you want to be a successful director, you've got to have something you want to say to the whole world,' " Avery remembers. He set out to write a fictional story about discovering that 9-11 was an inside job. "Upon researching the movie, I began to think maybe it was true," he says.
The movement's momentum picked up in 2004 as George W. Bush sought re-election, the 9-11 Commission finished its work, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology issued preliminary findings on the building collapses. Members petitioned New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer to convene a grand jury on the attacks. New figures emerged, like Kevin Ryan, a scientist at the testing firm that certified the steel used in the twin towers, who was fired after he wrote a letter to NIST faulting its findings, and William Rodriguez, a janitor at the twin towers credited with saving lives on 9-11.
Rodriguez has filed a federal RICO suit against Bush, the president's father and three brothers, the Republican National Committee, Alan Greenspan, Halliburton, several voting-machine companies, and others. He claims that the president and his administration participated in "approval and sponsorship of the 9-11 attacks, kidnapping, arson, murder, treason" in order to "obtain a 'blank check' to conduct wars of aggression, to consolidate economic and political power."
"The guilt of the defendants," the suit alleges, "is compellingly suggested by their myriad lies, their thwarting of any proper investigation, and their stonewalling and failure to truly cooperate even with the . . . Commission 'investigation.' "
It is a matter of public record that the government did not always voluntarily tell the whole truth about 9-11. In the first days after the tragedy, the EPA said the air was safe (see "Truth Out," page 32). The Bush administration claimed there had been no warnings of the attacks. A congressional inquiry was prevented from discussing information the intelligence community provided to the White House. The White House resisted forming an independent commission, stalled on releasing documents, delayed in allowing Condoleezza Rice to testify in public, and agreed to let the president meet with the commission only on the conditions that there be no oath administered, no formal transcript made, and that Vice President Dick Cheney be at his side. Several members of the commission had to recuse themselves from parts of the probe because their government or private-sector careers posed conflicts. And in its final report, the commission punted on such questions as where the money for the attacks originated, dubbing that issue "of little practical significance."
The long list of obfuscations and obstructions has helped the Truth movement attract sympathizers who don't buy the idea that the attacks were planned by the government. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia has taken up some of the movement's themes. Actor Ed Begley Jr. co-hosted a September 11, 2004, Truth event in New York because of his environmental concerns. "As to the other more fantastic theories about the events of 9-11, I don't care to comment, other than to say that they have raised some very interesting questions that I would love to see answered," Begley tells the Voice in an e-mail.
Another environmental activist, Jenna Orkin, also admires aspects of the movement but distances herself from others. "I think it's terribly important," she says, "to distinguish between the legitimate questions and the wackinessand the wackiness has contaminated the legitimate questions in a very destructive way."
Drawing that line has split the movement. Many Truth activists now dismiss the "pod theory" and its cousin "the flash," which contend that the planes that struck the towers had unusual shapes on their undersides that may have fired missiles. More maligned is the idea that no planes hit the towersthat what we saw were drones or holograms. Even the no-planes-at-the- Pentagon theory divides Truth-ers.
Some alternative theorists avoid events involving the American Free Press, which has reported several of the vital pieces of the Truth story but has links to the neo-Nazi Barnes Review. And almost no one wants to talk about Jimmy Walter, whose money (he offered $1 million for proof that the towers fell because of the fires) helps but whose advocacy of a "no-punishment" society doesn't. The disputes aren't always friendly. VonKleist, a chief proponent of the pod theory, says the movement "has been heavily infiltrated." And Hufschmid labels most of the movement "part of the criminal movement that did the attack in the first place."
Internecine feuds are not uncommon among people who believe in conspiracies. Yet dubbing Truth movement members "conspiracy theorists" is inaccurate for two reasons. First, there's no doubt that 9-11 was a conspiracythe question is whether it was among Muslim terrorists or others. Second, many Truth-ers deny having any theory at all. They resist efforts to construct an alternative story of the crime.
"I cannot explain it. That is not my duty," says former German cabinet minister Andreas von B a leader of the 9-11 skeptics in Europe, in a recent Dutch documentary. VonKleist takes the same line. He doesn't theorize anything, he says. "I'm simply asking questions."
That sounds fair at first, only it isn't. The movement's questions imply a different version of the story, and the true test is whether that alternative is more or less plausible that the official one. By saying they're only checking facts, the Truth activists avoid having to address the weaknesses in their own yarn. Why do the "booms" at the trade center come several minutes before the "demolition"? Why would the government destroy WTC7 when no one knew or cared about it? What happened to the people on the planes?
Some skeptics, however, aren't shy. Fringe pol Lyndon LaRouche thinks the attacks were "an attempted military coup d'état." Hufschmid says the Arab terrorists were patsies of several governments, including the U.S. and possibly Britain, France, Canada, and Israel. Ruppert, an adherent of the theory that oil reserves have peaked and that the petroleum-based economy is in great peril, postulates that 9-11 was a desperate effort by a couple dozen elites from the Clinton and Bush administrations to cling to dwindling energy supplies. His version stresses the links between the CIA and Wall Street and drug money, suspicion of the Secret Service, and a plot to rid the world of 4 billion people in order to reduce demand for petroleum.
For passengers detraining at the PATH station and climbing the stairs to ground zero on a typical Saturday, the 9-11 Truth movement is hard to miss. There at the exit stand Jamieson, Rudkowski, and a few compatriots holding a large banner declaring "9/11 Was an Inside Job." Pamphlets are handed out, and some of the vital books of the Truth movement are at the ready if a passerby wishes to debate, which happens a couple times each week. A woman is labeling as "bullshit" the idea that the entire government was behind the plot. Jamieson shakes his head. "Not the entire government," he says. "Just a small faction."
It's cold, and some passersby laugh. It has not been easy, Rudkowski says, but he sees progress. "At first my family thought I was an idiot," he recalls. "Now they're just scared." Avery and vonKleist say they've each distributed some 50,000 copies of their respective movies, but the total number of people who've seen the films must be far larger, given how often they have been shown to groups small and large. At ground zero, in the church basement, and in interviews, Truth movement members are optimistic their crusade will go far. What is clear is that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for many of them to turn back. Once you believe that official sources cannot be trusted because they are part of the conspiracy, it becomes very difficult to accept any evidence to the contrary.
Take the August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Brief: By forcing its release, the 9-11 Commission showed the world that the president knew something about heightened threats. But to Alex Jones, the anti-government radio host who thinks the FBI plotted the 1993 Trade Center bombing, the PDB episode was just a ploy to make the commission appear independent. When the Voice mentioned to Avery that a key firefighter witness denied ever saying there were "bombs" in the towers, and that San Francisco mayor Willie Brown's "foreknowledge" of the attack seemed to have been limited to something the State Department posted on its website, the director was unfazed. "It's just one piece of evidence," he said about the Brown warning.
He's not alone. Although the Truth movement is quick to seize upon shifts in the government's story, its own version has changed multiple times. Meyssan first said a truck bomb hit the Pentagon, then suggested a drone aircraft or cruise missile did. At first, skeptics said there was too little damage to the interior rings of the Pentagon for the building to have been struck by a 757; now, some say there was too much. The number of hijackers who are supposedly alive has risen and fallen over the years.
The key to understanding the Truth movement is to realize that its members do not lack faith in all institutions of the U.S. government. On the contrary, their theories rely on a healthy respect for the power and competence of air defense units, FBI agents, high-rise building designers, and others.
Why would Bush mistakenly say he'd seen the first plane strike on TV? How could the FBI miss so many leads? Is it plausible that the CIA ignored all those warnings? And after the purported multiple failures of the FAA and NORAD on 9-11, how come no one was fired?
It's odd. For a group of people who harbor so many doubts about the intentions of their own and other governments, the media, and fellow citizens, much of the Truth movement does not suspect for a moment that our defense spending has been a rip-off, that the FBI is a clumsy bureaucracy, that our spy agencies are deaf and dumb, and that our skyscrapers are not 100 percent safe. They do not seem worried that they could be unwitting partners in a more mundane conspiracy to obscure the limits of security and science. To the lies of the Bush administration, many in the Truth movement reply with stunning and familiar certainty. "I can't jump back to the other side," says Avery. "I know that what I'm doing is right."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.