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The Truth About Truthers

Scenes from the fractured 9/11 activist movement.

Alyssa Grenning

Confession: Sometimes, late at night, I like to go online and argue with truthers. Or I used to. It would go like this:

Somebody posts a photo on a message board with a title like “Image of the Pentagon Impact area on 9/11. How the hell can anyone with a brain think this was caused by a Boeing 757?” I click. It’s a low-resolution ground-level shot of the smoking Pentagon. Using Photoshop, or MS Paint maybe, somebody has drawn a pair of circles — one around some flames on the left and another around a damaged piece of wall on the right. I go to the comments.

Ah, yes, there it is: the single missile theory.

The SMT is pretty simple: What if it wasn’t Flight 77 that hit the Pentagon, but a cruise missile (or, as per the most extreme iterations, a missile cloaked in a hologram to make it look like a plane)? No matter how wildly it swerves from most eyewitness accounts, not to mention the official account described in the 9/11 Commission Report, the SMT has likely persisted because (A) that hole in the wall looks kinda small and (B) unlike the attacks on the World Trade Center, no clear footage of the attack on the Pentagon has been released.

All we have is five frames from a parking lot security camera that seem to show the plane crossing the Pentagon lawn and exploding on the western wall. Other footage, from traffic cams and such, was supposedly confiscated by federal investigators soon after the attack and has not yet seen the light of day.

The SMT really bugs me. By the time the Pentagon was attacked, the perpetrators had already proven they could hijack planes and fly them into buildings. Why would they need a missile an hour later? I wrote something to that effect on the message board. Most people said they didn’t know. One person said this:

“I don’t think there were any planes. There is a video out there that compiles footage from all news broadcasts around the planet and surmises they were all off of one feed. Seriously, if there is no plane at the Pentagon or the field, then why would there be one at the WTC? It’s too easy, the people that were called in as ‘witnesses’ all worked for the networks and therefore are inherently biased based on the BS we are being fed.”

That’s one of the nagging little problems with the 9/11 Truth Movement. Just when you think you’ve found a starting point to discuss the issues, the rabbit hole goes even deeper. The answer is often a larger conspiracy.

The bigger problem with the 9/11 Truth Movement is that there’s no such thing as a unified, coherent 9/11 Truth Movement.

Alyssa Grenning

On Jan. 31, 2011, Jon Gold drove from his home in Plymouth Meeting to Washington, D.C., and handcuffed himself to the White House fence. He had a big, professionally made sign that read, “We were LIED to about 9/11.” Even though he’d hyped the stunt on his website for a month beforehand, his friend with a video camera was the only other activist to show up and support him. Police, park police and maybe even Secret Service did stop by at various times. He was eventually freed with bolt-cutters and arrested.

Gold is the kind of guy journalists like to call “a man without a country.” He believes his actual country has covered up the true nature of its biggest tragedy. And the people you’d think would be his people, the truthers, he wants nothing to do with.

One of the 260-plus videos Gold has uploaded onto his YouTube channel illustrates his feelings about most of his “fellow” activists. Circus music. A title card that says, “The following crap hurts the cause of 9/11 Justice.” Then a laundry list of the stuff that often gets his peers labeled as crackpots: missiles, holograms, CGI, mini-nukes, laser beams from space, chemtrails (more on those later), man-made earthquakes, UFOs, the Illuminati, the Jews, plane-swaps, hijackers who didn’t die, and about a dozen other things.

“It’s sad. There are people on the fringe, the authors, who constantly write books, who promote crappy information, and people who mean well pick up on this and they start pushing it.” This is Gold, when he and I meet up for coffee near South Street. “There was a time back in 2006 when we were very, I don’t know if you would say powerful, but we had a lot of members and the media started to focus on us. But who did they focus on? They focused on people like Kevin Barrett, who [says] Israel’s responsible for everything, you know? They focused on Webster Tarpley [a promoter of the “9/11 was an inside job” idea], who’s just a charlatan. They focused on the fringe.”

Gold laughs when I ask whether he ever finds himself arguing with that fringe.

“All the time. I call them out as often as possible because I want there to be clear evidence that I am not associated with those people.”

After Sept. 11, Gold got swept up in the “patriotic binge” — waving the flag, supporting the war. Some of that started to erode as he watched the news. He remembers CNN reporting Jan. 29, 2002, that President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney each separately asked Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to limit the scope of the post-9/11 investigation. Says Gold: “And I thought, why would the vice president and the president, of all people, not want to know exactly how and why this happened so as to make sure it could never happen again?”

Then there was the infamous Aug. 6, 2001, President’s Daily Brief, eventually made public, titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” “After that came out and I saw that we were being lied to, and then I saw how they were using the 9/11 attacks, I just — I was furious, and it was off to the races.”

He’s been at it for nearly a decade. “I’m very old-school 9/11 Truth, which means I support the families and I support the responders,” he says. That’s something you don’t hear in most truther rhetoric: mentions of the 2,977 who died, and their families, and the first responders, and their quest for health care. Gold helped fund the 2006 documentary 9/11: Press for Truth, in which the families of victims, like the Jersey Girls, express their frustration in getting answers from the government about who knew what ahead of time, which warnings we ignored, and why more wasn’t done that day. Gold also tends to cite mainstream sources, like FBI documents and news reports, on his website and at public appearances. He espouses no theory.

“I know more about 9/11 than probably most people on the planet, and I don’t know what happened that day, I don’t know who was ultimately responsible. But I look at 9/11 as a crime as opposed to an act of war, and as with every crime, there are suspects for that crime, and along with Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 19 hijackers, elements within our government and other governments had more than earned the title of suspect for the crime. More than earned.”

I’m on the second floor of an unmarked building in Northern Liberties watching a cartoon about the evils of the Federal Reserve Bank. There are about 20 of us, maybe fewer, sitting on couches. The plot revolves around a cool dude telling his clueless friend about how the Fed — depicted as a monstrous, black tentacled beast — is a privately owned and utterly unregulated money-sucker. The movie’s kinda funny and mostly pretty straightforward. There’s a lot of Google-able stuff about the gold standard. But it does take a dubious detour to explain how JFK got assassinated not long after announcing his intentions to end the Fed. During the quieter parts, we can hear the jubilant outbursts of a yoga class through the walls.

Not 9/11-related, as far as I know. Why am I here? Well, this is a public meeting by a group currently called Truth, Freedom, Prosperity, but they used to call themselves Philly 9/11 Truth, and they still list that as one of their concerns, along with financial and economic freedom, alternative energy technologies, “legalization of nature,” etc.

After the movie, organizer Michael Salvi, a friendly guy in a mock-Phillies T-shirt (“Liberty” in the team’s script on the front, “Ron Paul” on the back), leads an open forum discussion. A couple people discredit the JFK thing, there’s talk about what the average person can do about the Fed, somebody asks if he should buy gold for “when the whole thing comes crashing down.”

Then a guy in the front row tilts the discussion to numerology, the occult and, I think, the Illuminati. He points out, for reasons I don’t pick up on, that Oswald, Osama and Oslo all begin with the same two letters. He adds 9 and 1 and 1 and comes up with 11, an important number in occult circles. People let him speak, but the conversation quickly returns to financial talk. Jon Gold would not enjoy a meeting like this.

Alyssa Grenning

Salvi says he shows films that will stimulate conversation, and he’s not endorsing their messages 100 percent. As for 9/11, it’s still something he and the group are concerned with, but it’s on the backburner to the economy discussions.

“Some of the theories are really sexy. George Bush had full knowledge. This person was told to do this. This country was involved. It’s all very exciting and enticing, but I just don’t know,” he says. “The one thing that I can get behind is that aliens with missiles … ” He’s joking.

The bottom line for him is that the official story sounds fishy. “I certainly don’t believe the stories that 19 guys were able to get four planes with box cutters and took it over with these red bandannas on and crashed the planes into these buildings and everything but their passports burned up. Including the black box.”

In the lobby outside the screening room, I score a DVD on legalizing marijuana and some fliers: Better Living Through Alchemy, How Mind Control Works, The War on Consciousness, and a bunch about ending the Fed. Somehow I fail to pick up the paper on Satanism.

Knowing that people in the Truth movement are always getting dismissed as kooks, I ask Salvi about the fliers.

“It just kinda comes with the territory,” he says. He used to get nervous about bringing together such disparate opinions on touchy subjects, but he says things have never gotten too heated. The fliers are part of the group’s general air of open-mindedness.

“We have 700 members in our group. I’m less worried about offending the mass public by some perception. I’m more worried about offending the person who shows up at every meeting that we throw, at every event that we do, who’s been super supportive. And for me to turn around — and I may not know about what they do, and they’re super passionate — for me to just to tell them they can’t do it, it’s the exact opposite of freedom.”

Jon Gold and I are Facebook friends now, which means I’m only one degree of separation from well-known anti-war/anti-Bush activist Cindy Sheehan. She and Gold are real-life friends. They got arrested together at a protest in March of last year.

Gold’s always filling his Facebook wall with videos of congressional hearings, public statements, news reports, things like that. He posts a 2004 clip of Bush in the Rose Garden addressing the press after meeting with the 9/11 Commission. The point is to remind you that Bush and Cheney agreed to only meet with the commission together, in private, and not under oath.

“I’m glad I took the time,” Bush is shown saying. “This is an important commission, and it’s important that they ask the questions they ask so that they can help make recommendations necessary to better protect our homeland. It was — I enjoyed it.” Yes, Bush actually said he enjoyed it. It had been expected that the president would be grilled a little on why he didn’t react right away when the nation was under attack, and why no fighter jets were scrambled in time to intercept hijacked planes. The president, however, characterized the meeting as a “cordial conversation.”

Gold points me to the link and asks what I think of it. I tell him it reminded me how frustrating it was living in the Bush era. The supposed leader of the free world came off daily like a bumbling fool who thinks he’s slick. Gold doesn’t exactly see it that way.

“People often say incompetence, but these individuals weren’t incompetent. They came in office, they wanted to go to war. They did go to war. They wanted to make billions for their corporate friends, they did that. They wanted to expand executive power, they did that. They committed so many crimes during their eight years [in] office and remained Teflon-coated throughout,” says Gold. “There was no accountability at all.”

The 9/11 Commission Report was supposed to do that, but several things remain problematic, including its lack of reference to World Trade Center 7 (the third skyscraper to collapse that day) and apparent conflicts of interests on the board (including Bush’s national security strategist Philip Zelikow). That’s why so many people say they want a new investigation into 9/11. But does Gold think a fair shake is possible the next time around?

“It has to be away from the government. There has to be subpoena power, people have to be put under oath, which George Bush and Dick Cheney refused to do. I don’t know, maybe an international body of some kind. It can’t take place in D.C.”

A few weeks ago, Gold had told me to stay tuned, that on Aug. 11, something “huge” was going to happen. That gave me pause. Gold’s a gentle-giant type, built like a Mack truck but soft-spoken and calm. I briefly imagined him doing something dangerous, then dismissed it. He had been led from the White House fence to the police car like a diner whose table was ready.

The date came and I didn’t see anything on CNN, or MSNBC, or anywhere, but I didn’t really know what I was looking for, either.

Gold finally sends me a link to the Atlantic‘s blog:

“Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism czar, believes that former CIA director George Tenet and other top aides hid intelligence that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.”

Eventually I see the story a few other places, but it doesn’t earn a “breaking news” banner or make a ripple in the general consciousness.

“Does this happen a lot? Something that seems pretty huge and newsworthy doesn’t get coverage in the media?” I ask him.

“Happens too often,” he says. “The media loves to focus on the fringe, forget the family members asking questions, and ignore everything except the theories.”

That’s why there’s really no such thing as a solitary, unified 9/11 Truth Movement. Just a fractured bunch of people with wild theories on one side, a quest for answers on the other side, and a thousand points in between. “Even the [phrase] 9/11 Truth is, like, toxic,” says Gold. “I refer to myself now as an advocate for 9/11 justice as opposed to a 9/11 truther.”

Not sure what reverse numerology SEPTA was using when it decided to rename its regional rail lines, but I eventually find my way to a small town on the Main Line one rainy night, for a screening by a group that meets regularly to watch films about 9/11. On the way, I read Popular Mechanics ‘ 2005 article “Debunking the 9/11 Myths,” which I found online. Basically, the writers line up the dubious claims from conspiracy sites (mostly related to physics and engineering) and counter them with data and interviews. On the Pentagon’s tiny plane hole: “A crashing jet doesn’t punch a cartoon-like outline of itself into a reinforced concrete building.” It’s pretty convincing stuff.

The counterpoint is a group called Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, whose site is loaded with documents about thermite, thermate, nano-thermite — chemicals that can melt steel and which they say were found at Ground Zero. That’s what I’m hoping to see at this screening: the nitty-gritty conspiracy science, diagrams of WTC7, evidence of explosives, that sort of thing.

Sadly, for me, this group has many interests. The night I’m there, the feature is What in the World Are They Spraying?, a documentary about chemtrails. Not 9/11-related. See those planes painting neat-looking stripes of clouds in the sky? Those are poisonous chemtrails, supposedly, created to either reduce the population or kill off all crops that don’t use Monsanto-patented seeds.

In the lobby after the movie, I pick up a short stack of DVDs (WTC Twin Towers: Explosive Evidence, 9/11 Blueprint for Truth, Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, Terrorstorm, Nine Years of War Based on a Lie and more), a pile of reading material and a slap bracelet made for a bygone rally.

I meet up with some members of the group at a nearby restaurant. I tell them I’m a reporter, and they’re cool with it, but they balk at being recorded. They don’t even want me naming the restaurant in this article, even though it’s mentioned online, because, as one woman says, “Homeland Security is right down the road.” She gestures over her shoulder with her thumb. I look. I really don’t know the area.

So I scribble feverishly in my notebook as the conversation goes from chemtrails to the “Patriot Slavery Act” to the New World Order, mostly led by the charming lady with a book by her side called How Can I Share My Faith Without an Argument? She has no doubt 9/11 was “an inside job,” and points to the “teeny tiny” hole in the Pentagon and laughs at the idea that a passenger jet like Flight 77 could’ve caused it. I consider whipping out the Popular Mechanics article, but the conversation moves on to MK Ultra mind control and, eventually, how the state of Pennsylvania is exploding old ammunition in the Ramapo fault line in an effort to trigger a major earthquake. She read about it on online. She’s also a two-time Bush voter who now regrets it, and a birther.

It’s hard to tell how much everybody else at the table is on board with what she’s saying. The guy directly across from me is interested in End the Fed-type stuff, so we talk about that for a while. He recommends I check out conspiracy radio host Alex Jones. I tell him about a YouTube video that compiles a couple years’ worth of Jones’ various predictions — nuclear disasters, wars, assassinations — and none of them seem to come true. The guy says Jones is basically showing his listeners the cards that might be played by those in power.

Finally I catch the ear of a man we’ll call Mr. X, who may or may not be running the group. He’s sort of a truther guru. He points out how the FBI never actually charged Bin Laden with 9/11-related crimes. He talks about MI5 and MI6 and peer-reviewed papers by architects regarding the rate at which buildings fall during demolition. “Everything I’ve told you is the truth, but that doesn’t make it the truth,” he says. Also: “Authority isn’t truth. Truth is authority. See? Turned it around.”

Mr. X advises me not to believe anything I hear unless I do research, even if he’s the one saying it. “I could be lying to you,” he says, enough times to make me suspicious. “Everywhere around you is lies, Patrick. All around you.”

Jon Gold would probably call these people “the fringe.” They would probably say he’s blind to the big picture, or pretending to be, so as not to seem fringey. There would be no winner in an argument between the two sides. Is there room in any one political movement for such disparate factions?

My notebook full of sites to visit and books to look up, my head buzzing with self-perpetuating theories and unconfirmable factoids, I say goodbye and head out to the train station.

It’s suddenly nice out. No rain. Not a chemtrail in the sky. And that rumble underfoot isn’t a man-made earthquake, it’s my train.

( (@mission2denmark)