David Hammond is articulate, well-educated and seemingly thoughtful. He is also paranoid. And the harder he works to convince others that the U.S. government orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the more paranoid he becomes.
"Thing is, I've received e-mails," he says, without further explanation. "And I accept the fact that my phone is probably tapped. I have to think very carefully about what I get behind in a public way."
In Madison, like numerous other places, the 9/11 Truth Movement has coalesced into a semi-coherent, loosely organized army of "truthers." Some of them see the events of 9/11 as part of a much broader conspiracy, a 2,000-year quest for world domination by an elite cabal that has moved through the ages largely unnoticed. Until now.
For Hammond, 36, a Madison-based freelance writer, the realization that 9/11 attacks were an inside job has brought with it a sense of obligation. As one of the few who know the truth, his duty is to enlighten others.
"I'm pissed!" exclaims Hammond. "And I'm not going to stand for it. I'm on the frontlines every chance I get. I've already sent an e-mail to my entire extended family and everyone else in my e-mail contacts saying, Hey, look!'"
In Wisconsin, the 9/11 conspiracy movement has burst into public view in recent weeks due largely to an angry backlash against one of its most prominent proponents.
Dr. Kevin Barrett, a Madison resident and lecturer at the UW-Madison, has come under fire from politicians and conservative commentators. State Rep. Steve Naas (R-Whitewater) has called for Barrett's dismissal, as has Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Green. Even Gov. Jim Doyle has questioned his fitness to teach. But the UW, after an extended review, has affirmed its decision to let Barrett teach an introductory Islamic studies course this fall.
The controversy has thrust the soft-spoken Barrett into the limelight, including an appearance this week on Fox News' prime-time "Hannity & Colmes" program. ("I don't think this [teaching] is a proper forum for guys who hold extremist views like yourself," asserted Sean Hannity. Retorted Barrett, "No, you?? guys are extremists. Fox News is the biggest bunch of extremists on the planet.")
Barrett's critics accuse him of using state money to indoctrinate students and advance a personal agenda. Barrett, who plans to devote two class weeks to 9/11, including the official version, calmly disagrees: "I believe that those issues are of vital importance and obvious relevance to a class on Islam in an American university, and need to be aired, even if succinctly."
The attacks of 9/11, truthers say, were planned by high-ranking U.S. government officials. Their goal: to arouse fear and the kind of nationalist sentiment necessary to justify a preemptive war and ensure continued high levels of military spending.
Truthers believe the World Trade Center was felled by a controlled demolition, not jumbo jets; that the Pentagon was hit by a missile; and that United Flight 93, which "allegedly" crashed in Pennsylvania, either never existed or landed safely elsewhere. Beyond this, the details become muddied in a mind-boggling matrix of wild speculation, logical fallacy, runaway rhetoric and, for good measure, a smattering of facts.
Normally such a movement would be fated to orbit cyberspace's outer ring. But an expanding coterie of scholars, former bureaucrats, diplomats, scientists and celebrities have lent the movement unusual gravity. Among the truth groups are 100 Prominent Americans (including historian Howard Zinn and actor Ed Asner), Scholars for 9/11 Truth and 9/11Truth.org.
"It was not a foreign terror attack," says Barrett, 47, who speaks fluent Arabic and French and holds a doctorate in African language and literature. "There is no evidence whatsoever that there was any radical Muslim involvement at all. The thing about the 9/11 Truth Movement is that you can no longer marginalize it by saying that nobody with credentials is involved. You've now got long list of credentialed people."
In 2004, Barrett formed the ecumenical Muslim, Jewish, Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth, which brings together the planet's three great religions in a mutual quest. Barrett is an incessant e-mailer, sending updates, news reports and related miscellany. He edits the group's newsletter, which goes out to more than 1,000 people.
Truthers tend to believe that an epic showdown between good and evil is under way, with civilization teetering on the cusp of disaster. This grim prognostication is tempered by optimism that the movement will usher in a new age of enlightenment.
"I believed 9/11 was a moment that was going to unify us," says Hammond, still struggling to make sense of this new world order. "But I had no idea how wrong I had to be before I would be right."
In early June, Scholars for 9/11 Truth brought the movement to Chicago, where more than 650 people turned out for three days of presentations. Among the speakers was Morgan Reynolds, former chief economist with the U.S. Department of Labor during President George Bush's first term. Reynolds believes the government for which he once worked hired actors to play the parts of Flight 93 passengers reporting a skyjacking in progress back to family members back home.
Scholars for 9/11 Truth was founded in January by a band of academics including physicist Steven Jones from Brigham Young University and philosopher David Griffin. It now has more than 200 members, mostly academics from lower-tier universities.
The scruffy, amiable Barrett is the group's Muslim scholar. His faith in the movement, like a cleric's in his God, is unflinching. Barrett and Hammond hold similar views, but Barrett's strong academic background has fine-tuned his brain's deductive circuitry. When he latched onto the truth movement in early 2004, Barrett wasn't yet 100% convinced blame rested on the government.
"It was hard to tell until the 9/11 Commission report came out," says Barrett, who sees this report as being, in essence, a confession. "Any reasonable person can't emerge with any conclusion except that this was an inside job from the get-go, and that the report was an outrageous, insane cover-up."
The 9/11 Commission report, published in July 2004, was an all-around disappointment. The commission did not question the president or vice president, nor did it fault a single government official for intelligence lapses. The report, including 28 blacked-out pages, offered little closure and merely fattened the pickings for demagogues, opportunists and quacks.
Others draw less incendiary conclusions. John Nichols, associate editor of The Capital Times and a political writer for The Nation, has followed George W. Bush's career since he was governor of Texas and written a decidedly unflattering book about Dick Cheney. He says neither has the intellectual capacity or political cunning to pull off a crime of 9/11's magnitude. Still, he laments "the poor scope and quality of official inquiries regarding 9/11."
According to Nichols, "The incidents of 9/11, which have served as an excuse for radically altering U.S. foreign and domestic policies, need to be more fully investigated and explained." The goal of this exercise is to "give the people all the information that is available and to invite them to hold their political leaders to account."
Allen Ruff, a local historian and activist, says 9/11 can be explained "by the colossal reality that lots of people dropped the ball." A manager at Rainbow Books, Ruff has been critical of Barrett's theories, some of which he pegs as anti-Semitic.
"There are some real questions out there that should be explored further," reflects Ruff. "But I've also made a distinction between that and some of the folks who've latched onto this movement, their political agendas, motivations and views of the world."
Ruff, an ethnic Jew, and Barrett, a religious Muslim, have in recent years exchanged heated words, at times coming close to blows. When Ruff denied Barrett's request that Rainbow Books carry David Griffin's book 9/11: The New Pearl Harbor, Barrett purportedly accused Ruff of being part of a local Jewish conspiracy to suppress the truth.
Barrett has also accused local journalists of pro-Zionist biases and branding them as Islamophobes. After Barrett expressed his views about Jewish control of American media on a WORT program in January, the show's host, Esty Dinur, suggested, on air, that Barrett was an anti-Semite. Barrett fired off a series of accusatory e-mails, saying "Israeli involvement in 9/11 is well-documented."
As Barrett sees it, his critics on the left are tone deaf to the "radical separation between the actual state of affairs and what we believe in our culture." He says those involved in the 9/11 Truth Movement "have seen what any reasonable person should see: That the official story of 9/11 is preposterous."
On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, David Hammond went to James Madison Park. There he took solace in knowing that his girlfriend's father had escaped the towers but wept to receive word that a friend of his hadn't.
In the beginning, Hammond honored all of the patriotic protocols, like ribbon bearing and flag waving. He mourned for the nearly 3,000 people killed that day, even joining his fevered countrymen in calling for the swift punishment of the villains, who he believed to be Muslim terrorists.
But at some point everything began to unravel. And what emerged from the tangles was an even darker, scarier world.
The first thing to arouse Hammond's doubts were photos of the Pentagon crash site. "I remember thinking: That doesn't look like a plane hit it, not at all. Where's the wreckage?" he recalls. It also fueled his skepticism that "no skyscraper in history has ever fallen because of a fire, except three of them, all on 9/11." These observations led him to seek out other evidence until the truth became clear.
A native of Oshkosh who earned his B.A. in English from UW-Madison, Hammond is plain in that middle-American way, with cropped blond hair, T-shirt, blue jeans and a nice tan. He has an answer for everything, which he delivers clearly and concisely. He's obviously given this subject a lot of thought.
Like Barrett, Hammond believes that modern human history, dating back to the Roman Empire, has been dominated by an elite lineage known as the Illuminati. George W. Bush is said to be a direct descendant of this lineage, which in recent decades has done much of its dirty work through the CIA. If a global terror network exists, Hammond is certain the CIA bankrolls it.
"The CIA has radical Muslims on its payroll," he says. "And there's no question that Osama bin Laden has worked for the CIA on and off for years."
Further, according to Hammond, the CIA has had to stop those who've stumbled too close to the truth. The anthrax attacks in October 2001 were a CIA message to media and Democrats to let it alone. Those who ignored the warning, he believes, like Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone and British defense expert Dr. David Kelly, were eliminated. (Wellstone died in a plane crash, Kelly by his own hand - allegedly.)
Even cult-journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who, the official story goes, blew his own brains out, was actually assassinated by the CIA to prevent his publishing a book exposing those responsible for 9/11.
"If you look at the history of the CIA," Hammond explains, "its history is getting rid of people who don't agree with its agenda."
But if he and Barrett are camped on truth's frontier, armed with proof and awaiting America's great rebirth, why have their lives been spared so far? "They can't kill everybody," Hammond answers quickly, as though it's as obvious as the truth itself. "There's strength in numbers."
In a 1995 New Yorker article entitled, "The Road to Paranoia," the late Michael Kelly focused on a particularly American form of conspiracy mongering.
"The American model," he wrote, "in contrast to its European antecedents, has never been primarily about conspiracies of race or religion or class but rather, about the betrayal in the central faith and promise of America - the ideal of democracy."
There's no doubting the betrayal both Hammond and Barrett feel, as both aim to reinstate the virtues on which the country was founded.
"Look back at the incident that started the Mexican War," says Barrett. "The U.S. basically staged a fake Mexican attack on the U.S. Then, in 1896, the Spanish-American War was launched after an alleged attack on the U.S.S. Maine."
Nearly all of America's epochal moments are still debated, from the attack on Pearl Harbor (what did FDR know and when did he know it?) to the assassination of JFK. Those who believe the worst about their government are not always wrong. The U.S. did, for instance, essentially fabricate a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, which it then used to escalate the nation's involvement in Vietnam.
Fast-forward to the 1991 Gulf War, provoked by Iraq's invasion of oil-rich Kuwait. Barrett claims the invasion was actually a fiction staged by an American public relations firm to justify Bush Sr.'s desire to go to war against former Cold War ally Saddam Hussein.
John Nichols approvingly cites Thomas Jefferson's admonition that governments should never be completely trusted, saying it's healthy to impart this wisdom every now and again. But at what point does this wisdom make what historian Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid leap into fantasy"?
In a 1964 thesis, Hofstadter described this tendency as "the paranoid style of American politics." He pegged numerous defining qualities shared by political paranoiacs from the anti-Masonic movement of the 1820s to the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. By and large, he argued, conspiracists feel dispossessed.
"America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion," he wrote. "The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms - he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization."
Despite claims to the contrary, the 9/11 Truth Movement is not different from other conspiracy movements. Its goal is to flush the system of those who've led the country astray and steer America back onto the right path. Ruff speculates that many Americans have underdeveloped ideas about the inner workings of government, leading them to infer that a powerful few wield near supernatural influence on the world.
But Barrett suggests it's beneficial to move beyond an "Us vs. Them" bipolarity and focus on how making America a better place.
"The key thing here is not here is reality' and ‘here is the lie they told,' but the potential to make the world better," he says. "I honestly believe if we can expose 9/11 truth in an intense and shocking way, we can turn history in a more positive direction."
While preparing this report, I spoke to at least 20 people who told me they believed the government was on some level to blame for 9/11. Aside from Hammond and Barrett, none wanted to go on record, most often for fear of coming off as a weirdo. One, a Union Cab driver, said, "I wouldn't feel right talking about this in the press."
Interesting, because their views are hardly unique. A Zogby poll taken in May showed that 42% of Americans are skeptical of the official narrative regarding the events of 9/11.
Loose Change, a crude documentary pieced together by a 22-year-old laptop revolutionary in New York City, attempts to build a forensic case against the official 9/11 story. The film is a hodgepodge of grainy images, scattered media reports and eyewitness testimonies. Hammond and a fellow Madison truther nonetheless intend to make 20,000 copies of Loose Change and hand them out, free of charge, in downtown Madison.
"I've looked at it extremely rationally," says Hammond. "What's happening is that truth is rising to the surface. Awareness, consciousness and truth: That's our weapon. Evil, lies and deception: That's the weapon of the cabal that did this. The focus needs to be peaceful revolution, and on the systems, laws and structures that we have in place."
The irony of punishing these all-powerful criminals through the very channels they've so meticulously corrupted isn't lost on 9/11 Truth-sayers, but they believe it's within the realm of possibility.
On July 1, Scholars for 9/11 Truth kicked off a 70-city tour to gather signatures to petition the government to release certain information regarding the 9/11 attacks. Prominent truthers - Barrett among them - are hitting the lecture circuits with their rabble-rousing rhetoric.
Does Barrett believe there is even a teensy-weensy chance he's wrong? This he rejects as too outlandish.
"It is inconceivable that anyone could read the [9/11 Commission's] report, alongside David Griffin's critique, and accept the report as a trustworthy account of 9/11," he says. "I am convinced that any reasonable person who takes the time to read Griffin's critique, and look into the background sources and context, will agree, and admit that a prima facie case for 'an inside job' exists."
Barrett: "The official story of 9/11 is preposterous."
Hammond: "I'm pissed! And I'm not going to stand for it."
Sidebar: The truthers vs. the official story
The following are central theories of the 9/11 Truth Movement, which accuses the U.S. government of masterminding the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
World Trade Center
The truthers say the Twin Towers were felled by explosives planted by covert operatives. Because jet fuel doesn't reach steel-melting temperatures, they claim planes alone couldn't have caused a pancake-style collapse at near free-fall speed.
Rebuttal: Jet fuel does reach temperatures that seriously compromise steel's structural integrity, and at least one expert familiar with the towers' structure tried to warn officials about imminent collapse after the planes struck.
The Pentagon's impact zone was intact in areas where American Flight 77's wings should've broken through the wall. The circular damage area, according to skeptics, is consistent with a cruise missile strike, which some witnesses claim to have seen fired by a military jet.
Rebuttal: The Pentagon recently released photos of what it said was the 757 striking the building. But the grainy time-lapse images only fueled speculation of another cover-up.
United Flight 93
The 9/11 Truth Movement says the minimal debris left after this plane purportedly crashed in a field outside of Shanksville, Pa., did not resemble a jumbo jet. It also claims cell-phone calls made by passengers were impossible at commercial cruising altitude and were instead created using voice-morphing technology.
Rebuttal: Flight 93 was not at cruising altitude for most of its flight, and most of the calls were made from air phones.
The Illuminati, or "enlightened ones," are believed to be an elite lineage that has, throughout modern civilization, implemented new world orders at will. That the Bush family is descended from Illuminati lineage is a popular belief among conspiracy buffs.
Rebuttal: The people who think this are wrong.