In May Beck invited Versailles, Missouri, conspiracy theorist Dave vonKleist to appear on his program via satellite. vonKleist doesn't believe the government's version of what happened on September 11, 2001. In particular, he doubts that American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon. A missile maybe but not a passenger jet.
Beck wasn't so sure. "That's either a plane or a naked Michael Moore headed for the buffet," he said after examining a frame from a United States Department of Defense video that seems to show a jet roaring straight at the Pentagon.
"It's something, there's no doubt about it," vonKleist responded. "But the question is: Is that Flight 77? According to military experts that have seen our video, it is absolutely not."
"So if it's not a plane, what is it, exactly?" Beck countered.
"I don't know. I didn't say it was a 757 that hit the Pentagon. That was the mainstream media."
"Let me ask you this," said Beck, after a few minutes of fruitless back-and-forth between the two men. "What's in Area 51? Is it aliens, or is it office supplies?" Beck was referring to a military-controlled, 60-square-mile area in southern Nevada that's long been a focus for UFO buffs.
"Actually, I hear there's a whole host of Elvis impersonators there that fly around in black helicopters," said vonKleist, before adding: "You're doing the same thing so many talk-show hosts do. You ignore the message by attacking the messenger."
Beck shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. "You seem like a reasonable human being," he said. "I just do not believe this at all. I think you are a nut job, but, strangely enough, a serious nut job. Dave, I thank you very much."
The fight over what really happened on September 11 is being fought on the Internet and on cable news, mostly between the uninformed and the uncredible. Rampant conspiracy mongering has made the 9/11 debate this generation's Kennedy assassination. Think the Twin Towers fell because a couple of planes hit them? Hogwash! It was a controlled demolition! Osama bin Laden engineered the affair because he hates America? Baloney! Try Dick Cheney! United Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field after its passengers fought off the hijackers? Nonsense! The flight landed safely in Cleveland!
A recent survey by the respected polling firm Zogby International found that more than two in five Americans believe the American government and the 9-11 Commission were complicit in a cover-up. A pair of recent national conventions drew Trekkie-size crowds. Despite its counterintuitive claims, the "9/11 truth movement" is enjoying its day in the sun. And here in Missouri, the debate rages as loudly as anywhere in the nation. Maybe louder.
"[Support] seems to be progressing almost logarithmically," says Steve Cassilly, a Webster Groves activist who believes George W. Bush, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were complicit in the attacks. Cassilly, the younger brother of City Museum co-founder Bob Cassilly, supports his cause by pulling a giant wooden float on his bicycle through parades. The float directs people to 911truth.org and to Cassilly's own Web site, 911busters.com.
911truth.org's media coordinator is Michael Berger, a resident of Imperial, Missouri. He says the site's traffic has jumped fivefold since January, to about 12,000 visitors per day. In recent months he's been interviewed by MSNBC, CNN and ABC World News Tonight. Berger sold his Ste. Genevieve recycling plant three years ago to concentrate on his own 9/11 investigation. Since then, he says, he's put 100 hours a week into projects like making a feature film and establishing a political action committee.
None of these Missouri activists know anyone who perished on 9/11. The chances that they'll force a new government investigation seem slim to none. Yet, in delving deep into the dark, violent and haunting question of what happened on a September morning nearly five years ago, they may have well found what they were put on earth to do.
Soap, Selenium and Sinister Suspicions
Dave vonKleist lives a comfortable life on the lunatic fringe. He owns 40 acres and a log home on the outskirts of tiny Versailles, 50 miles west of Jefferson City. Nestled in the Ozarks, near trailer parks and cows, he shares the space with his wife, Joyce Riley; two dogs, Freedom and Liberty; and five cats, Patriot, Victory, Groucho, Spanky and Braveheart.
vonKleist is 53 and looks like the late Jerry Orbach, the wisecracking detective on TV's Law & Order. In his eternal quest to expose the government's lies and mainstream media's irresponsible credulity, he and Riley get up at the crack of dawn every morning to host their conspiracy-flavored radio show, The Power Hour. Broadcast from vonKleist and Riley's basement studio via shortwave radio, the Internet and a handful of traditional stations, the show reaches a half-million people, according to its hosts.
This morning, vonKleist and Riley are focused on something called the National Animal Identification System, which they say will eventually require all farm animals to be tagged with microchips for government surveillance. After taking a call from a worried Ohio longhorn rancher, vonKleist, a former professional musician, pulls his acoustic guitar up close to the microphone and performs his latest anti-government anthem.
If you think chipping animals is what we have to do
Then we're not very far from chipping me and chipping you
If you still just don't get it, and you think there's no harm
Well, then, think of Nazis putting tattooed numbers on your arm
What about my privacy?
What about my right to life and liberty?
"None of the media will cover these songs because they're so truthful," says Riley. "But everyone's requesting them for their grassroots meetings."
Riley and vonKleist have the easy rapport of a couple who agree on almost everything. Much like staunch liberals or conservatives, they have supreme confidence in their beliefs, and they have little trouble laughing off dissenters.
Eleven years ago they were both divorcees with their own AM radio shows. Living in Waterbury, Connecticut, vonKleist fell in love with the dusky voice he heard discussing Gulf War syndrome in Houston, Texas.
"She was quoting from document after document after document basically blowing me away," vonKleist remembers. "I fell in love with her, and the cause, and that's why we ended up joining together and getting married."
The couple decided to move to Missouri after reading a book called Strategic Relocation: North American Guide to Safe Places, which says that Versailles is excellently positioned in terms of its isolation and good water supply. Nowadays Riley, a former military nurse, focuses on veterans' issues, while vonKleist's passion is 9/11. 911 in Plane Site, the DVD that he produced, wrote and narrated, has sold around 50,000 copies, he says.
The feature film, made with a $10,000 budget, is slickly edited, with plenty of ominous music. In it, vonKleist sits before a wall of televisions, showing photos and video clips to bolster his belief that the hole in the Pentagon was too small to have been caused by a 757. The World Trade Center collapse, he speculates, may have been caused by missiles attached to the planes implying that the planes weren't passenger jets, and that the attack wasn't orchestrated by terrorists. (vonKleist says he's not a conspiracy theorist and therefore has no theory about who might have done it, or why.)
Along with Loose Change, a movie directed by upstate New York's Dylan Avery, 911 in Plane Site has emerged as one of the most popular 9/11 deconstructionist films. A Google search turns up nearly 100,000 mentions of the documentary, not to mention countless criticisms, including a rebuttal in the March issue of Popular Mechanics.
The success of the film has helped support vonKleist and Riley's radio show, which doesn't accept commercial advertising. In addition to selling the $20 DVDs, they also peddle books, health foods and herbal supplements everything from "Oil of Rosemary Memory Powder" to "Nuke Protect," capsules containing potassium iodide and selenium meant to protect against radiation.
They call their apothecary/anarchist bookstore The Power Mall and run it out of a converted barn a few steps away from their house. The operation employs six people, making it perhaps one of Versailles' biggest industries, at least since the local pencil factory closed down in December.
Their all-time best-selling product is Miracle 2 Soap, a liquid cleanser that can be used as an insect repellent, a bathroom scrub or for body rashes related to your Gulf War ailments. The Power Mall sells countless gallons of the green liquid every year, says Riley. It's the soap that bought their house.
The Tipping Point
William Rodriquez is a jet-setting conspiracy theorist. In June, this frequent guest on The Power Hour attended the International Islamic Fair, a products-and-networking bazaar held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He screened 911 in Plane Site and other 9/11 films before a group of dignitaries that included former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
"They were like, 'Oh My God,'" recalls Rodriquez, a former World Trade Center janitor who says he was among the last survivors pulled from the wreckage. "The Malaysian mindset was changed forever about 9/11. I meet with prime ministers all the time. I met with the second man in power in [Venezuela's] Hugo Chavez government. I showed him In Plane Site, too."
After Kuala Lumpur, Rodriquez attended a 9/11 conference at a Los Angeles Sheraton. There, 1,200 people discussed who may have engineered the attacks (the U.S. government, or Big Oil) and why (as smokescreen to take our rights away, or for cash). Rodriquez says he spoke at length with actors Charlie Sheen and Esai Morales, who expressed interest in taking his life story to the big screen.
Sheen, star of the CBS series Two and a Half Men, made his support for the movement known in March, speaking on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' radio show in Austin, Texas. "There was a feeling that it just didn't look like any commercial jetliner I've flown on any time in my life," Sheen said on the show. "And then when the buildings came down later that day, I said to my brother, 'Call me insane, but did it sort of look like those buildings came down in a controlled demolition?'"
Media outlets normally dedicated to Brangelina were all over the story, and Sheen's comments represented a sort of tipping point for the movement. In May 911truth.org commissioned a Zogby poll asking 1,200 people if they thought the U.S. government and the 9-11 Commission "concealed or refused to investigate critical evidence that contradicts their official explanation of the September 11th attacks." Forty-eight percent disagreed, 42 percent agreed, and 10 percent were unsure. In reply to another poll question, 45 percent of respondents thought Congress or an international tribunal should reinvestigate the attacks.
Not everyone, however, finds these polls significant.
"You could ask the general population if they think the government has been fully forthcoming on any subject in the world, and 30 percent of them would say no," says Washington University political science professor Gary Miller, an expert in public administration. Conspiracies, he notes, are darned hard to pull off.
"I can't think of a case where people were really manipulating far-flung agents in a way that's consistent with most conspiracy theorists, although I don't think the door's closed on the Kennedy assassination," Miller says. "Thirty years after World War II, it did not become obvious that there [was] a conspiracy of American industrialists who wanted a war to happen."
Mike Williams, founder of 911myths.com, a site dedicated to debunking the debunkers, says that conspiracy theories are annoyingly trendy. "Fifty years ago, most people believed the government," he says. "It's now switched to a situation where most people disbelieve the government, automatically. Instead of swallowing the 9-11 Commission report, they're going onto a conspiracy theory Web site and swallowing that instead. But that's still not critical thinking."
Donald Stahl, a roly-poly retired social worker from Florissant, hosts a monthly 9/11 meet-up that draws a small crowd of free-thinking souls. Stahl says he wasn't a conspiracy hunter the first 60 years of his life, but 911 in Plane Site spurred him to action a couple of years back. He began manufacturing and distributing packs of "credibility cards" metal ring-bound flip-books with pictures of smoldering buildings, the "real" Osama and George W. Bush flipping off the camera.
"I'm very doubtful that Flight 77 hit the Pentagon," he says over dinner at MoKaBe's coffeehouse on South Grand. "Say this sandwich is the Pentagon. If you're a suicide bomber, why would you go all the way around it? You're much more likely to hit the ground."
Michael Berger shows up at the coffeehouse a bit later. Two years ago he founded this group in conjunction with one dedicated to impeaching Bush but a year ago he turned over his hosting duties to Stahl after getting too busy with other 9/11 activities.
Missouri is home to some of the nation's most prominent 9/11 truth-seekers. But they are far from unified in their thinking. Berger was barely seated before he began lambasting Stahl's premise that a jet did not hit the Pentagon.
"Why would you say that when there are so many eyewitnesses?" Berger asks. "It wouldn't surprise me if the Pentagon released a video of 77 hitting the building. We know they have the video. They took it from the Sheraton and from the Citgo gas station."
Stahl tries to argue, but before long he resigns himself to eating his Pentagon sandwich with his head bowed.
Like most people who believe their efforts are necessary to save mankind, the 40-year-old Berger is almost unbearably intense. With his pressed suits and wavy brown hair, he looks convivial enough, but be warned: He will monologue you until the cows come home.
"I'm absolutely certain that the government is listening to our conversation right now," he says in a recent phone interview. "They can be listening to millions of conversations at once with eavesdropping technology. It's Big Brother. It's all your worst fears confirmed. We know that NSA [the National Security Agency] has offices in AT&T's corporate office in St. Louis. We know that the government spies on dissidents, on anybody who disagrees with the status quo. They did this in the '60s to members of the civil rights movement, to the women's rights movement."
Berger's home and headquarters are a pretty ranch house in Imperial that he shares with his wife. The home sits on a hill and borders a ravine. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff shouldn't bother dropping by, however. Berger's important papers, photographs and other evidence against the government are stashed in secret locations, he says.
"Not to sound paranoid, but what if something were to ever happen to me?" he muses. "Somebody breaks into my house, or I get into a really strange car accident one day. There are people who have [the] information that know to go public with it. We're working on an investigation and, at least for me, the object is not just awareness. I fully intend that one day we're going to prosecute the people who did this."
So far, Berger says he's dug up dirt on malfunctioning firefighter radios which he claims New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani knew didn't work and the impact of toxic dust in the air after the towers collapsed. Soon after the attacks, he says, the Environmental Protection Agency wrongly told people the air near Ground Zero was safe to breathe. "Hundreds of the volunteers who worked at Ground Zero are dying of cancer. All the search dogs are dead." In June the New York Times reported that 200 people rallied at Ground Zero to make the same case.
Berger spends the bulk of his time working on his film, Improbable Collapse, which he hopes to finish in coming months and screen around the country in theaters, schools and libraries. The documentary features interviews with eyewitnesses, researchers and Steven Jones, a Brigham Young University physicist, who speaks to Berger's belief that the World Trade Center towers were brought down by controlled demolition. In particular, the film dissects the collapse of 7 World Trade Center, a 47-story office building in the shadows of the Twin Towers that wasn't hit by a plane.
Berger gathered much of the footage during the ten trips he's made to New York City in the past two years. He believes his film will be more accurate and digestible than vonKleist's, whom he calls a "disinformation agent" and accuses of setting the movement back with lunatic theories. ("Who's the gatekeeper of what is 'on message'?" responds vonKleist, who does not know Berger personally. "The only way this movement is going to be able to get anywhere is to leave your ego and your pride out of it.")
Having sold his 38,000-square-foot recycling plant, Berger still earns a diminishing income by brokering plastic. But he estimates that he's spent $50,000 of his own cash on the cause and could run out of money soon.
"I can't afford to keep doing this," he says, standing a few feet away from an overflowing box of 911truth.org T-shirts he's trying to sell. "Unless I get some people to donate to my investigation."
Boats Against the Current
Michael Berger doesn't know anyone who died on September 11, 2001. But his family knows tragedy. His Dutch grandfather was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp. "The Red Cross said he died of tuberculosis," Berger notes, "but that story was untrue. They had no way of knowing how he died."
Separated from her mother during World War II, Berger's mom escaped persecution by hiding at a Catholic girls' home in Amsterdam. She came to America by boat when she was 21 and met Berger's father at a singles' dance in Brooklyn, the city where Berger was born. The family later moved to Long Island.
Though his father, an attorney, was obsessed with the Watergate hearings, Berger describes his adolescence as a fog of ignorant bliss. "I believed what I was taught," he says. "That the media was free and independent and a check against corrupt government. That we were a functioning democracy."
A straight-A student in high school, Berger majored in sociology at Washington University. His thinking was influenced by psychology professor Richard De Charms and his theory of "personal causation," a concept that addresses the question of how educators can best teach people to motivate themselves. "It directly reflects what I'm doing with 9/11," Berger says, "because we're living in a time when people feel essentially powerless."
His crusade, he explains, was inspired by a cable news interview three years ago with a pair of women who lost their husbands in the Twin Towers. "I was sitting there in tears. I couldn't believe these families had to fight for an investigation. The Pearl Harbor and space-shuttle-disaster investigations, and the Warren Commission, they were launched right away."
Berger adds: "I was making over $150,000 a year. I was living a pretty good life. But if I can't live in a country where I'm free to state my beliefs, where I'm free from government invasion into my personal life, then that goes against everything I was taught growing up about what it is to be an American."
vonKleist's interest in activism was sparked when he was very young. Raised in the 1960s by divorced parents, he split time between his Air Force pilot father's military bases around the nation and his mother's Greenwich Village apartment. Though his uncle, grandfather and stepmother were also military, vonKleist was never tempted to enlist. "In New York City, the Vietnam protests were just beyond your wildest imagination," he says. "The last thing I wanted to do was go off to a war. My mother was ready to take me north of the border if they called my number."
He and his pals spent hours discussing the government's official explanation of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.'s killings. But it was the assassination of John Lennon that really fired him up. "All the puzzle pieces fit: why the powers-that-be really didn't like John Lennon, why they had to take him out. He was in the process of coming out of his self-imposed five-year hiatus. He was ready to get back to singing about what was important to the culture."
Though he still has family living in New York, vonKleist, like Berger, doesn't know anyone who died on 9/11. And he doesn't think that matters. "Does somebody have to have a personal connection to care about 3,000 innocent people being murdered on worldwide television?" he asks.
Most people see the events of 9/11 as unthinkable acts of geopolitical terrorism, but to vonKleist and Berger, the attacks weren't especially shocking or even particularly relevant, historically speaking. They were simply vivid examples of how the world really works when one stops being naive.
It would be more jarring if the men's beliefs gained mass acceptance. If that happened, vonKleist would have to give up his radio show, and Berger would once again have to boss people around at the recycling plant.
They would have won the good fight, but really, what kind of life is that? What if