Three years ago, Richard Gage says, he was just a run-of-the mill architect, designing steel-frame buildings for clients in the San Francisco area. In March, 2006, that changed: While flipping through stations on his car radio, he caught an interview with David Ray Griffin, a retired philosophy and religion professor who calls the official account of the 9/11 attacks "one big lie."
Beginning that day, Gage became skeptical of the idea that "people living in Afghan caves" could possibly have brought down the World Trade Center. Spreading this skeptical point of view is now the man's full-time job.
As radical as Gage's theory may sound to readers, it's surprisingly popular. The "9/11 Truth Movement," as it is now commonly called, has millions of adherents across the world. Many believe that the World Trade Center was destroyed on Sept. 11 through controlled demolition set in motion by officials within America's own government and military.
In a 2006 Scripps Howard poll of 1,010 U.S. citizens, 36% of respondents said it was "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that the U.S. government was in on the 9/11 plot. According to another poll conducted in Canada, 39% of respondents said they either disagree, or are unsure, that Al Qaeda was responsible for 9/11.
What makes Gage stand out from the millions of students and young activists who comprise the bulk of the Truther community is that he is an architect - and a respectable-looking middle-aged one at that, complete with suit and tie, and receding hairline. His group, Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, even scored a booth at the upcoming American Institute of Architects conference from April 30 to May 2.
Last Saturday, I went to see Gage speak at a Montreal event hosted by the Mouvement montr?alais pour la v?rit? sur le 11 septembre, along with about 150 others (not a bad crowd, given the 10$ cover charge, and the fact it was a hockey night).
As part of my research for a book I'm writing on the Truther movement, I've gone to see a variety of events like this - but none of the speakers I've seen are as lucid as Gage.
Truthers often are prone to rambling: Your average speaker at a 9/11 Truth event, taking the podium with an overflowing sheaf of Internet print outs, might start his presentation on the mechanics of the WTC attacks, segue into a denunciation of George W. Bush's war crimes, and then veer into a lengthy disquisition on the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, before bringing the audience back to the Twin Towers. Not Gage: His singular focus - laboriously examined in a 527-slide PowerPoint presentation - is the sequence of events leading to the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. Expertise is critical to the mission of Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, he says. "We're building and technical professionals," Gage told the audience. 'We're not conspiracy theorists."
Much of Gage's 2-hour-plus presentation was dry and technical - including a long series of slides analyzing the chemical composition of the WTC debris (an inquiry central to his claim that the Twin Towers were brought down from within by a particular type of iron-oxide-based explosive). But he also has plenty of videos embedded in his slides. And this is where the crowd came alive.
In one particularly effective segment, he puts up shots of the localized fires that broke out in the lower floors of WTC Building 7 hours before it collapsed. Seconds later, he shows footage of Beijing's Mandarin Oriental hotel - which suffered an epic top-to-bottom conflagration in 2009 ... and remained standing.
It's a cinematic juxtaposition that plays to the Truthers' strongest card: Even architects and engineers who've never heard of Richard Gage will concede they aren't quite sure why WTC7, a fairly typical tube-frame structure located about a football field away from WTC1, would be struck down by localized fires and random debris.
As one would expect, it was a friendly crowd to begin with. (Who else besides a committed Truther, except possibly a journalist, or an exceptionally accommodating girlfriend, would spend their Saturday night in a community-centre auditorium listening to a man talk about thermite reactions and load factors?) Before beginning his presentation, Gage polled the crowd on their views. Five people - including me and my guest - said they believed the "official theory" of 9/11. Ten others said they were "unsure." Everyone else - 90% of the crowd - said the WTC came down through "controlled demolition."
The presentation only made the balance of opinion in the room more lopsided. There were emotional gasps and shouts when some dramatic bit of evidence was displayed. A couple sitting behind me seemed particularly moved. "How can those war criminals look at themselves in the mirror after what they've done," one exclaimed. (She wasn't talking about al-Qaeda.) Even my own guest, a conservative-minded woman who normally laughs off this sort of thing, seemed transfixed, falling silent at points where I expected she'd be chortling and eyeball-rolling.
During the Q&A, high passions caused the proceedings to turn somewhat nasty: When I took the mic and asked a question, the crowd began shouting me down. "Educate yourself," one audience member screamed after someone at the podium outed me as a National Post journalist. "Typical media bullshit," yelled another.
On the other hand, I protested, at least I'd shown up in the first place - the only working mainstream journalist (to my knowledge) in the room.
I'd hoped this would count for something: One of the Truthers' biggest complaints is that they are ignored by the mainstream media. You do sometimes see stray mentions of the movement in op-ed columns or on radio programs, but usually it's in the spirit of mockery or passing sarcasm. No major media outlet has done a truly comprehensive profile or investigation of the Truther movement - which is what led me to my book project in the first place.
Even if you are - like me - part of the majority that believes the "official theory" of 9/11, it's a mistake to ignore a movement as large and passionately championed as this one. Across North America (never mind Europe and North America), millions of people have decided that the leaders of the free world are actually murderers - or, at least, in league with murderers - who'd wantonly slaughter thousands of their own citizens as a means to advance a geopolitical agenda. Isn't that something that should interest us?
And the movement is attracting new recruits, too. Once he'd finished his lengthy presentation last Saturday, Gage conducted a second poll of the room. This time, when he asked how many people supported the "official theory," mine was the only hand raised. Shocked, I turned to the friend sitting beside me.
After three hours in a room with Richard Gage, she'd changed her vote to "not sure."