How 9/11 Truthers and Conspiracy Theorists Got a Foothold—Even in the Bay Area

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A protestor holds a sign claiming the 9/11 attacks were an inside job in Washington DC, Sept. 11, 2007. The epicenter of the so-called 'truther' movement is in San Francisco—an organization called Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

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ast month, Spike Lee came under fire for including the voices of 9/11 conspiracy theorists in his four-part HBO series, NYC Epicenters 9/11-2021½. Lee hastily edited his documentary after objections poured in from journalists who had seen previews, and who had expressed dismay at the inclusion of interviewees expressing the view that the official narrative of Sept. 11, 2001 was false. Chief among these interview subjects was Richard Gage, a San Francisco-based architect, and the founder of Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth.

Slate's Jeremy Stahl called Gage's segment, "surreal and demoralizing." Stahl noted that "Gage is responsible for peddling some of the most pernicious and long-running lies about the 9/11 attacks, which is why I was surprised that Lee, HBO, and WarnerMedia might be lending his group any amount of time." Stahl continued, "In terms of conveying facts, this is a bit like presenting COVID-19 vaccine skeptics in a debate alongside Anthony Fauci."

Gage has been at the helm of Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth since founding the group in 2006. Since that time, he has brought together a group of almost 3,500 architects and engineers who continue to argue publicly that planes alone could not have been responsible for the collapse of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers and Tower 7.

Under pressure, Lee removed the 30-minute segment from Episode 4 that gave voice to Gage, alongside other 9/11 conspiracy theorists. (Lee did not take the time, however, to cut a moment in Episode 3 in which a flight attendant who knew the crew of United 93—the plane that crashed in Shanksville—expressed his belief that the plane was shot down.) Also cut from Episode 4 was Shyam Sunder, who led a three-year, $16 million investigation for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Sunder was originally seen explaining how the commercial flights did, in fact, bring down the three World Trade Center structures. He got cut when the truthers did.

In his Vanity Fair review of the series, Jordan Hoffman asserted that both sides of the conversation had not been equally represented in the original episode anyway. "The initial cut of Epicenters didn’t merely touch upon conspiracy mongers and so-called 9/11 truthers—it exalted them." Hoffman reported, "In the original version of the film, we see footage of buildings on fire that don’t come down, then controlled implosions that, on the surface, certainly look similar to what happened at the World Trade Center. It all zooms by rather quickly, but the images are striking ... There’s no mention, meanwhile, that journalists have been debunking 9/11 conspiracies since at least 2005."

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wenty years after the tragedy, there is a broad sense that 9/11 conspiracies are as nonsensical and absurd as QAnon narratives about Satanic politicians and cannibalistic pedophiles. That one of the key leaders in the truther movement is from the Bay Area might come as a surprise to many who currently live here. Especially after the Bay's Area's COVID response solidified the region's reputation for well-informed and rational responses to crises. What many have forgotten, however, is the atmosphere that originally gave birth to 9/11 conspiracies in the first place.

September 11, 2001 was the first major event in American history to have its narrative guided by the internet in addition to mainstream news coverage. Social media as we know it today may not have existed, but people found new and creative ways to freak each other out online. At one point, eBay even had to ban any and all sales of items that sellers claimed came from the World Trade Center rubble.

The September 11 Archive has emails on its website that capture the uniquely strange mood of the time. In some of those messages, internet sleuths shared photos of the attack's aftermath, claiming to see the faces of both Satan and Osama Bin Laden in the smoke pouring from the towers. One of the most infamous pictures was taken by then-Associated Press photographer Mark D. Phillips. His website still features what he refers to as his "Satan in the Smoke" image and claims it was "one of the first electronic viral images." A similar image by Carmen Taylor was also shared widely.

False stories and conspiracies spread with such ubiquity in the weeks after the attacks that, on Sept. 28, 2001, the San Francisco Examiner felt the need to post an entire column debunking them. Among other things, the paper clarified that a commuter train was not buried in the World Trade Center subway station, and that a rescue worker did not survive an 82-story fall by clinging to debris. The Examiner also confirmed that a photo of a man purportedly standing on the North tower's observation deck, as a plane approached behind him, was a total fabrication. It was easy to debunk—the North tower didn't even have an observation deck. The spread of these rumors via email and hastily made websites was a precursor to the memes and falsehoods we see spread on social media today.

A man stands on the World Trade Center's observation deck with New York City's skyline behind him. In the left of the photo is an approaching commercial airplane.
This image, dubbed "Tourist Guy" by the internet, was purported to have been taken on 9/11. It was a fake. That didn't stop it making the rounds online in the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks. (Wikipedia/ "Tourist Guy")

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an Francisco, like major cities all over the country, was immediately on edge following 9/11. In the two days after the attacks, there were 30 bomb scares in San Francisco alone, including at several mosques and the Embarcadero Center. The crisis was unlike anything most Americans had ever experienced and the public response was often deeply irrational as a result. As Spike Lee notes in his HBO series, in the year that followed 9/11, five California-based Muslim, Sikh and Christian men lost their lives in hate crimes that targeted just about anyone with brown skin. Similar attacks occurred around the country.

All of this was taking place less than a year after the agonizing—and contested—election that saw Bush elected over Al Gore, who had won the popular vote. After the 9/11 attacks, and subsequent racial profiling and wars, the political splits that had formed in the aftermath of the 2000 election became even more pronounced. On one side, there was a flag-waving fervor that bordered on the jingoistic. On the other, there was a deep sense of suspicion that bordered on outright paranoia. That mood was aggravated further in 2004 with the release of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary.

Moore's film began with the assertion that George W. Bush stole the 2000 election. It then made business links between the Bush and Bin Laden families, before breaking down the various ways members of the Bush administration financially benefited from the wars that followed Sept. 11. The film pointed to the tragedy in New York as an excuse to invade Iraq and, additionally, to violate American civil liberties with the Patriot Act. Moore's weren't brand new concepts, but putting them all together in one film gave conspiracy theorists a compact list of motives to point to when trying to argue that "9/11 was an inside job."

Fahrenheit 9/11 was not a movie that existed on the margins. It is, to this day, the largest grossing documentary of all time. It won the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes, and the Best Documentary prize at the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. And while it didn't question whether or not those planes could have brought down the World Trade Center, it did tell America, in no uncertain terms, not to trust the government. It told viewers that their worst suspicions about the Bush administration were true. And it primed audiences for a conspiracy movie that emerged online less than a year later, that would prove to be a major foundation for the truther movement.

Loose Change—a film that was made by three young men with $6,000—reached four million people in four months. It attempted to prove that the three World Trade Center buildings were brought down by controlled demolitions, not planes (among many other theories) and it was treated by a great many viewers as a serious piece of filmmaking. A May 2006 article in Vanity Fair wondered aloud if Loose Change was "the first internet blockbuster." The magazine also made links between the film's success and polls that claimed: "42% of Americans now believe that 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.'" One New York Times/CBS News poll from that year found that 53% of respondents thought "the Bush administration was hiding something."

Those conspiratorial notions were, at the time, fairly mainstream. And that was reflected all over the Bay Area by a sudden preponderance of flyers, bumper stickers and stenciled messages that declared that "9/11 was an inside job." That narrative was further pushed by a 2004 book by California-based scholar David Ray Griffin. Richard Gage has cited Griffin's The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11 as a key inspiration.

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his, then, was the atmosphere in which Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth sprang up in San Francisco. It was born from a terrifying and uncertain period in which indulging and exploring conspiracy theories helped Americans wrestle back a sense of control. But as Spike Lee just discovered, most Americans who lived through 9/11 and the fraught years that followed are now desperate to move on. Many of the Gen Z teens who grew up in the shadow of 9/11 treat truther narratives as far more worthy of mockery than serious analysis. And in 2021, when election disinformation can inspire a violent raid on the nation's capitol, conspiracy theories seem the almost exclusive domain of dangerous fringe groups.

That one of the biggest truther organizations in America sprang up out of San Francisco does, on some level, reflect the independent spirit and suspicious minds that have always had a niche in the city. But more than that, organizations like Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth are an echo of the rabbit hole America fell into after Sept. 11, 2001. They are a bygone reflection of our nation as it tried desperately to make sense out of an event that inherently couldn't be made sense of. And they are a time capsule of how traumatized people tried to regain a sense of their own power during a period where many felt powerless.

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Spike Lee, ultimately, was right to remove those outdated conspiratorial narratives from NYC Epicenters. But the truthers themselves should not be erased from history. They remain a reminder to us all of what mass trauma can do to a national psyche.