Jonathan Kay: 9/11 truther Richard Gage is a preacher to a dying breed
Ask Richard Gage how he came to become obsessed with what he calls the “truth” about 9/11, and you hear what sounds an awful lot like a story of religious conversion.
It was March 2006, and the mild-mannered California architect was driving down the Pacific Coast Highway on his way to a construction meeting. Bored, he flipped on KPFA 94.1 FM, a listener-supported “free-speech” station out of Berkeley — “to hear what the communists were talking about,” as he later told me in a 2009 interview.
Up to that point in his life, Gage had been a staunch “Ronald Reagan Republican” (his words) and an Iraq War supporter. But what he heard on KPFA’s airwaves blew his mind.
“[The speaker] was talking about the 118 [World Trade Center] first-responders — information that had just come out in 2005 — who said they’d heard explosions and flashes of light, beams dripping with molten metal, all amid the collapse of 80,000 tons of structural steel,” he told me. “It hit me like a two-by-four. How come I’d never heard of any of this? I was shocked. I had to pull my car to the side of the road to absorb it all. I knew I’d be late for the meeting. But I didn’t care.”
Shortly thereafter, Richard Gage quit his job and moved out of his family home. His non-Truther friends thought he was acting weird, but it didn’t bother him: Gage now had a new life, traveling around the world as a sort of itinerant 9/11 Truther Extraordinaire, telling audiences large and small that we need a “new investigation” into the Sept. 11 attacks.
Gage’s stock presentation goes on for hours, and features hundreds of detailed PowerPoint slides. All point toward the same conspiratorial-minded conclusion: The WTC towers were brought down by “internal demolition” — an inside job, in other words. I’ve personally sat through that same presentation three times — in New York, Toronto and Montreal (as well as the above-referenced interview I did with him for my 2011 book on conspiracy theories, Among the Truthers.)
The 9/11 “Truth” movement has hatched plenty of stars, of course — including hysterical radio host and internet sensation Alex Jones. But thanks to his professional training as an architect, Gage has always stood out as pre-eminent. Jones and other hotheads supplied the late-night AM Radio call-in-show rhetoric about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney engineering 9/11 as a pretext to steal the world’s oil supply on orders from the Illuminati and the Rothschilds or what not. But Gage was the guy with the pocket protector who operated the conspiracists’ back office — the researcher who ticked off the Truther talking points about the melting point of steel and the structural integrity of modern skyscrapers.
This month, Gage is back in Canada as part of an 18-city “ReThink911” tour, delivering an updated version of that same stock presentation. (The tour coincides with a paid video-ad campaign in Toronto’s subway system, featuring footage of the collapse of WTC building 7, a favourite subject for all 9/11 Truthers.) Thursday night brought him to the University of Toronto’s Innis College, and he was in fine form.
Gage’s audience was the usual mix of graying hippies, student radicals and unclassifiable oddballs. One man declared that’s he’d come because he wanted to hear a “scientist” talk about 9/11 instead of “conspiracy theorists.” A female audience member, when asked by a National Post reporter what she thought happened on 9/11, declared “I just think [Bush and Cheney] are warmongers,” and compared 9/11 to the Gulf of Tonkin. A man wearing a fedora and mismatched clothes told the same reporter he’d spent “5,000 to 6,000” hours investigating 9/11, and that the FBI had followed him and his friend while they were in the United States. (His two friends declined the opportunity to be interviewed, on the claim that the National Post is funded by “the CIA.” If only.)
All of these people seemed extremely impressed with Gage. When he’d finished his presentation, Gage asked audience members to put up their hand if they now believed that the World Trade Center was destroyed through “controlled demolition” instead of crashed airplanes. It was hard to spot anyone who didn’t have their arm raised.
Then they gave him a standing ovation.
When you experience Gage’s slideshow (which I must admit, is quite mesmerizing) and observe the audience’s rapturous reaction, it is easy to imagine that he is proselytizing some vigorous new creed. It’s easy to forget that, in fact, 9/11 Trutherism has been on the decline for years now.
Conspiracism in general isn’t going anywhere, of course. But based on my own (admittedly unscientific) ongoing study of conspiracist web sites and chat forums, 9/11 Trutherism in particular has been on the downswing since George W. Bush left office. In left-wing conspiracist circles, it has been replaced by a mish-mash of phobias surrounding Wi-Fi, GMOs and other modern technologies. On the right, it’s been replaced by Obama Birtherism, and bizarre theories about how Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon attack were “false flag” operations hatched by gun-control fanatics. Alex Jones (who once claimed he’d predicted 9/11) rarely talks about the 9/11 attacks anymore. Compared to everybody else, Gage has become something of a one-issue dinosaur.
What put the 9/11 Truth movement into its tailspin? For the scientifically minded, the fateful day came in November, 2008, when the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) delivered its definitive report on the collapse of WTC 7 — to complement the equally definitive reports NIST delivered on the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2005. Needless to say, the investigators found no trace of internal demolition.
But the larger factor likely was something completely unrelated to 9/11: the election of Barack Obama in the 2008 U.S. Presidential election. Even the most hard-boiled Truther had difficulty explaining why a newly elected left-wing Democratic president was not using his considerable executive powers to unearth the mass murder perpetrated by his Republic predecessor. Once revealed, Bush’s complicity in 9/11 surely would have utterly destroyed the GOP brand for a generation — perhaps forever.
And, indeed, some 9/11 Truthers did try to go double or nothing, arguing that Obama and Bush answered to the same dark master. When I interviewed Alex Jones, for instance, he tried to convince me that there is no real difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to the larger plot to enslave Americans: “They answer to the same people. The president is nothing more than a pitch man — a Madison Avenue front.” But the idea of Obama and Bush being in league together is so weird that it has stretched the credulity of even the most committed conspiracy theorists.
What made 9/11 conspiracy theories attractive, for a time, was that Dick Cheney was easily vilified into a protagonist’s role in an imaginary 9/11 plot. Even many of those who approve of the Iraq War and Cheney’s other self-declared master-strokes must concede that there was something vaguely sinister-seeming about his role in the Bush White House — especially when it came to his ties to the oil industry, and the (litigated) battle he waged to keep his meetings with oil execs hidden. As for Bush himself, most 9/11 conspiracy theories present him as a sort of perfect dupe, whose presidency was exploited by Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the other ruthless vulcans in his midst. It all made for great pulp fiction.
Obama never fit that cackling Monty Burns mould: The idea of him scheming to enslave the world and siphon off its oil never fit his more subdued, academic personality. In fact, when you study the conspiracy theories that anti-Obama militants have concocted over the last six years, it’s interesting to note that they all involve passive sins of omission. Obama, it is alleged, is letting jihadis impose “stealth shariah” on the United States. Obama is allegedly abandoning Israel so that the Jewish State would be destroyed by the Iranians. Obama allegedly permitted the United States to fall into economic crisis so that he might have an excuse to impose socialist stimulus policies and (according to the most fevered sources) completely destroy global capitalism.
Flying planes into the World Trade Center and then blowing up the buildings with hidden bombs would be very evil. But it also would be very bold. It would require an alpha male, in other words. (All conspiracy theories revolve around men — the community is quite sexist that way.) Obama, for all his shariah-loving, Islamist, Kenyan-born, communist, Israel-hating bona fides, is more in the beta category — which is why the rise of the Birthers inevitably brought about the descent of the Truthers.
But don’t tell Richard Gage. His next appearance is Sunday in London, Ont. Last I checked, tickets were still available.
With files from Kelsey Rolfe