The Man Who Thought He Knew Too Much

The Zapruder film? It was faked. The Wellstone crash? It was a hit. 9/11? An inside job. Tumbling down the rabbit hole with professional philosopher Jim Fetzer.

The acrimony between Fetzer and Thompson moved into a new phase thanks to a former St. Louis County prosecutor named Thomas Bieter. Fetzer and Bieter were once friends. They shared pizza and beer on weekends when the wives were out of town. They went to the same parties. They liked to talk philosophy. The two met in 1988, not along after Fetzer landed at University of Minnesota Duluth. At the time, Bieter—who had attended UMD off and on since 1975—was teaching a philosophy of law course. While Bieter and Fetzer shared some broad intellectual interests, they were worlds apart politically. Bieter, who describes himself as a conservative Republican, says that didn't matter at first because he and Fetzer seldom talked about politics. He does recall one awkward dinner when the topic of the JFK assassination was broached. "I asked him a question and he took off and went on and on, talked about the CIA and the FBI and the Mafia," Bieter recalls. He remembers being taken aback by Fetzer's fervor and, afterward, was careful in his choice of subjects with Fetzer.

Following the presidential election in 2000, that became more difficult. Bieter, who enrolled in a class taught by Fetzer, says he was appalled by his friend's high-octane Bush-bashing. Then came the death of Paul Wellstone. In the wake of the fatal plane crash, Fetzer penned a series of columns for the Weekly Reader, a Duluth newspaper, in which he argued that Wellstone had been terminated by an out-of-control Republican cabal under the direction of Karl Rove. (Later, he would co-author a book, American Assassination: The Strange Death of Senator Paul Wellstone, in which he elaborated on those contentions.) Aghast, Bieter decided a response was in order. He composed a satirical piece for the Reader, claiming that Wellstone was in fact assassinated by the Lesbian Avengers. "A month or so later, Fetzer and I had pizza together," Bieter recalls. "We were talking and I brought up my letter. He got very angry and urged me to read his articles."

Not long after, Bieter decided to start an internet forum that would examine the issue of the Wellstone assassination—and his soon-to-be ex-friend's incendiary claims. He dubbed it, provocatively enough, "Fetzerclaimsdebunk." At first, Bieter says, his goals were mainly intellectual. He says wanted to debate the value of "jurisprudential" modes of analysis versus scientific ones. The launch of the discussion group quickly spelled the end of the friendship. As the forum became ever more acrimonious, it attracted some of Fetzer's old foes—including Josiah Thompson, who says he couldn't resist joining the fray. "I find Fetzer's approach to be purely pernicious," Thompson explains. "I just enjoy puncturing pomposity. The man just pisses me off." Thompson's attacks on Fetzer were often ferocious and Fetzer responded in kind. He titled one retort to Thompson, "Proof he is a liar, a hoax, and a fraud (not necessarily in that order)."

As with Thompson, the name-calling between Bieter and Fetzer was unbridled. Of Bieter, Fetzer wrote: "It becomes increasingly apparent that this man is a mental mediocrity with no character or discernible virtue. He has disgraced himself in public and continues to display this juvenile and vindictive personality... One of us should see a shrink, but it ain't me." For Bieter, the dispute turned acutely personal after Fetzer posted about the circumstances surrounding Bieter's retirement from the law practice, hastened by allegations of malpractice and sexual harassment. (The sexual harrassment charge was ultimately dropped.) As it happens, Fetzer himself had been the target of a similar claim; at the end of the 2004 academic year, Fetzer was suspended for several weeks for a purported incident of sexual harassment. (Fetzer admitted that he had a conflict with a female staff member at UMD, but denied there was a sexual component.) Given the increasing hostilities, it was no surprise that Bieter aired the charge on the discussion board.

The acrimony ultimately wound up in the courts. After unsuccessfully pressing the St. Louis County attorney's office to have Fetzer charged with criminal libel for his Wellstone allegations, Bieter filed a civil defamation suit against Fetzer. That lawsuit, which also named UMD and the school's chancellor as defendants, was dismissed by a trial court and then an appeals court. After that, Bieter abandoned the legal route. "I sued everybody in sight, which was a mistake," Bieter says now. Still, Bieter has maintained the fetzerclaimsdebunk site. And while he occasionally takes a break from the forum, Fetzer routinely wades into the fray to defend himself. He has a boxer's pride in his willingness to engage his opponents. "There's been 2,000 attacks on me and I've rebutted every one," Fetzer says of Bieter's forum. "I haven't seen where they've laid a glove on me."

Sometimes, Fetzer says, he has no choice but to reiterate his past arguments. "Most of my life is spent trying to find new ways to say things I've said before that make them even more interesting and penetrating," he offers. He pronounces these efforts a rousing success. "I've put them in their place so many times," he says of his critics. And as he sees it, his long-running battles over Wellstone and JFK have helped to prepare him for his role as spokesman for the truth movement. "I know a whole lot about how these games are played," he says. "When I come into this 9/11 thing, see, I am not just a formidable foe on my own. I have this wealth of experience. The others don't know diddly shit about disinformation. But, man, I've lived through it."

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