Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Film | Government

March 18, 2005

The Conspiracy Convention

Looking for answers at a Sept. 11 film screening

David Downs

World Trade Center tower No. 6 implodes on the screen like the Dunes in Las Vegas. Right into its own footprint, like it was supposed to. At least that's what 450 conspiracy theorists from across the region think. They've gathered at the Grand Lakes Theater in downtown Oakland on a recent night to swap stories, watch the "The Great Conspiracy: The 9-11 News Report You Never Saw," and talk to producer Barrie Zwicker.

The West Coast tour of "The Great Conspiracy" began in Menlo Park, and is now passing through Oakland and San Francisco. It's the first major showing for the independently released film that is one of the top Sept. 11 Conspiracy Theory movies on the circuit.

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David Downs


Among its main talking points: the lack of scrambled jet fighters to shoot down hijacked planes; President Bush's verbal slipups, which, the theory goes, point to foreknowledge; war games that Vice-President Cheney ordered on the day of Sept. 11; the 9/11 Commission's late formation and crappy investigation; and the curious case of Tower 6's implosion. "Notice how it falls in at the speed of gravity," says Zwicker, an independent documentary producer from Canada. Towering above the crowd, the producer is balding, white-haired, and in his 50s. So is almost everyone watching him.

The 50-minute video is basically a shot of Zwicker talking like a newscaster, intercut with stock footage of the war and Bush administration officials. Zwicker talks of Cheney and oil. The crowd cheers when Zwicker says we should indict Bush. They snicker knowingly at the Gulf of Tonkin footage and Nixon references.

The crowd is essentially from the boomer generation, the ones raised in the American Dream before it turned hellish. None seem to be doing too well for themselves. Out front before the show, the line was full of guys who looked wrinkled and fearful, with many dressed in green camo fatigues, hiking boots, jeans, and windbreakers. Most were pissed-off that I was blasting away with a camera, except for the dudes in the World Trade Center costumes, who posed for pictures.

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Mike Stroud and Sheldon Norberg—a pair of 30-year-old Northern California conspiracy theorists—heard about the big premiere and decided to come in their Halloween costumes: two ten-foot tall, grey, duct-taped boxes with model airplanes slamming into them and red plastic sheeting fraying outward for fire. "Bush Did It," one reads. "Bush Lied," reads the other. "I was just arguing about whether it was a cruise missile or a bomb that blew up the Pentagon," Stroud says through a dark screen in the lower facade of the West Tower. He holds a white pamphlet he just received from the cruise-missile faction. There are lots of conspiracy-theory sects, Stroud says. "Everyone thinks the government did it. But the details are debatable."

Inside the lobby, near the popcorn stand, crowded tables of hate for Bush and Cheney bring in revenue for a traveling pack of hucksters. There's an entire shadow economy of paranoia: conspiracy books and audio tapes, CDs, stand-up cardboard ads for domestic regime change, bumper stickers, pins, posters, and more bumper stickers. Surprisingly unkooky booth operator John Buchanon gives me three books. "There's a big schism in the conspiracy-theory movement," he says. "There's so many wacky ideas are out there. No unity. Half are just blatant allegations and the other half is what I call the evidentiary movement, and Barry Zwicker is a founding member. He's very careful. It's about raising more questions than answers."

Zwicker takes questions from the remaining 50 people who stay after his movie. Some ask him if his radical views attract hate mail and threats. But it seems it's just the conspiracy theorists who are paying attention. Zwicker claims the only mail he gets is from Americans thanking him for his work. "They're the most compassionate, caring, hard-thinking people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting," he says.

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Judging from those in attendance, conspiracy theorists look and talk like your stereotypical leftists. Lots of dreadlocks and little noticeable bling. They care about the environment and the underprivileged. They would buy the world a Coke if they could afford it and if Coke wasn't part of the Evil Empire. Of course, this compassion doesn't extend to Bush, Cheney, and Co., who instead get all-consuming hatred.

As for Zwicker's claim that his fellow travelers are critical thinkers: Almost all of them say they believe what they believe because of evidence, but mostly it's because there's no contrary evidence, and many troubling but unrelated shards. Shrinks will tell you that a conspiracy theory is a way to order a chaotic world: a faith system. An institutional failure to protect people like JFK, Vietnam draftees, and Sept. 11 victims, creates in conspiracy theorists a sense of powerlessness about the institutions which they count on to be powerful and effective. Some of us need to believe in the authority of institutions so badly that we'd rather believe the government is powerfully against us than admit that sometimes it is powerless.

There is no room in a conspiracy theory for randomness, dumb luck, and isolated ill will; no room for abject failures of the armed forces and intelligence agencies, nor for failure of the legislative powers to investigate. Instead, they all must be in on it. It's all part of a plan. While many of those I met weren't religious, a belief in a Larger Plan was ubiquitous.

As I looked around at the screening, I thought: These people are scared because they are old, lower middle-class, and slipping. They have had their health benefits cut, their pensions slashed, and their Social Security targeted. They have bought the Ticket and the Ride sucks. So someone must be held responsible. I think that no one that night talked to me about their real fears. It was all couched in how they feared what Bush was doing to America, how he was creating a culture of manufactured fear. They all claimed their biggest fear was Bush sowing fear in people who fear the wrong things.

Except for one guy. An aneurysm has put him in a recent coma for two months, and as a result he is disabled and on so many meds that he has jitters and speaks in fragments. Avon is 45 years old, lives in Oakland, and looks like he's 6-foot-4, 260 pounds; he's as gentle as a bear on Thorazine.

Earnest eyes stare out from behind Avon's Coke-bottle glasses, and his hand swallows mine during our shake. He came with his mother—whom he lives with—and her lesbian partner. He couldn't work after he was disabled by the aneurysm. He has seen Michael Moore's movie and thought it was good. He always suspected something was fishy about Sept. 11, but he didn't learn anything new tonight. "They were preaching to the choir," he tells me.

I asked him what he truly fears. His car getting broken into or getting towed? Crime? The government coming to take him away? He takes a breath. "I'm going to be single for the rest of my life," he says, "and that scares the hell out of me. I am resigning myself to it. But it still scares the hell out of me." We smoke Avon's Pall Malls and watch the nearby freeway. I think of Tower 6. How we're all imploding, and looking to place blame.


Related on the Web

•Official site for The Great Conspiracy


•A sympathetic profile of Zwicker appeared in the Toronto Star in May 2003

David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.







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Article by David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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