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.

As a middle-aged guy with a moustache and NASCAR cap sidled up to the table where James H. Fetzer was sitting, I couldn't help thinking: "Here's the part where Fetzer gets punched." We were partway through a marathon lunch at the Giant Panda, an inexpensive Chinese joint located in a strip mall not far from downtown Duluth. For the better part of the previous two hours, Fetzer had been discussing his great passion of late—his conviction that the 9/11 attacks were not orchestrated by Osama bin Laden but by criminal elites in the Bush administration. Actually, "discussing" is not the best descriptor of Fetzer's rhetorical approach. Fetzer, a just-retired philosophy professor from the University of Minnesota Duluth, is a soliloquist by nature. And, aside from the occasional instances when he lowers his voice for effect, he speaks loudly. Very loudly. That's why I was worried about the guy in the NASCAR cap. Fetzer was thundering on about lies, hoaxes, and the U.S. government's secret role in the worst act of terrorism in the nation's history. I figured some red-blooded buffet patron in this working-class quarter of Duluth would take umbrage at such allegations. NASCAR guy seemed a likely candidate.

As it turned out, my stab at casual profiling proved utterly inaccurate. NASCAR guy wasn't indignant. Not at all. On the contrary, as he meekly explained, he once watched Fetzer on Duluth Public Access TV, lecturing about the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Paul Wellstone. Now he just wanted to shake the professor's hand. He proceeded to tell Fetzer that he, too, was skeptical of "the official story" about 9/11—especially the part about the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. At that, Fetzer beamed and nodded vigorously. In the truth movement (as the 9/11-was-an-inside-job crowd refers to itself), the collapse of the Twin Towers is considered among the most damning pieces of evidence. And while Fetzer sees plenty else to support the argument, he gets especially animated on the subject of the towers. In talking to NASCAR guy, he reiterated the talking points like an auctioneer with a full bladder. No modern steel-frame skyscraper has been toppled from fire alone. Airplane fuel does not burn hot enough to melt steel girders. Look how the buildings fell. Symmetrically. At a speed approaching free fall. Into their own footprints. It all points to one inescapable conclusion: The Twin Towers didn't collapse because they were struck by commercial airliners. They were "pulled"—in other words, taken out by controlled demolition.

After NASCAR guy left, Fetzer sipped on his green tea and his demeanor turned more contemplative. Of course, he conceded, there are unanswered questions about the Twin Towers. Who rigged the buildings with the explosive charges and how, exactly, they did it remains an open question. But like many of his allies in the truth movement, Fetzer favors the thermite hypothesis. It goes like this: In the weeks before 9/11, a team of secret agents slipped into the Towers undetected, thanks to a suspicious change in security protocols. The agents toted in multiple charges of an explosive agent called thermite, which they then furtively planted in the Towers. Now, it probably wasn't garden-variety thermite but rather thermate, a sulfur-enhanced version that burns much hotter. That's the only explanation Fetzer can find for the pools of molten steel said to have been found in the wreckage of the towers weeks after the attacks. And, he adds, it also explains World Trade Center 7. In Fetzer's opinion, the collapse of the blockish Building 7 is beyond suspicious. It was never even struck by an airplane and yet it collapses? Can you explain that?

When he watches the video of the attack on the World Trade Center, Fetzer says, it's just all very obvious. "How can anybody begin to look at this and not understand what's going on here?" he asks, almost plaintively. Of course, he knows a lot of people don't share his views. But he believes there is more skepticism afoot in the land than you probably think. In fact, it's hard to say. There has yet to be a major poll to gauge Americans' beliefs about whether the government was complicit in 9/11. That's a defect Fetzer hopes to remedy soon. One Zogby poll has demonstrated a widespread public belief that the government isn't being honest about 9/11. For Fetzer, that's encouraging—a toehold, at least. If "our paper of record, the New York Times" and the rest of the national media had not abdicated their responsibility to investigate 9/11, everyone would know the truth. That's why Fetzer has taken up the cause. Somebody has to.

Fetzer's efforts in this regard began in earnest in December, when he announced the founding of an organization called Scholars for 9/11 Truth. The group—which consists mainly of university professors, graduate students, and other academics—professes a simple goal: "exposing falsehoods and revealing truths behind 9/11." It has grown steadily since its inception and now boasts over 200 members, including one of the truth movement's leading eminences, Steven Jones. A physics professor at Brigham Young University, Jones authored a paper in which he argued that, in his scientific opinion, airplanes alone could not have felled the Twin Towers. A conservative Mormon and former Bush supporter, Jones quickly emerged as the leading champion of the controlled demolition hypothesis. So when Fetzer founded the Scholars for 9/11 Truth, he invited Jones to serve as co-chair. It's not just Jones and Fetzer who bring a patina of respectability to the Scholars. There are a number of notable members, including the former chief economist in Bush's Department of Labor (Morgan Reynolds), a past director of the Star Wars program under Ronald Reagan (Bob Bowman), and retired theologian David Ray Griffin, author of two of the seminal truth movement texts, The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions and The New Pearl Harbor.

"This thing has taken off like a bloody rocket. It's just been wonderful," Fetzer says. Indeed, since the founding of "the society," as he likes to refer to the Scholars, Fetzer has devoted most of his energy to spreading the awful gospel. He has held a press conference on the steps of a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. He has traveled to Hollywood to hobnob with West Coast skeptics. He has given speeches at a college in San Diego and a conference in Chicago. He has made—by his count—70 radio appearances. He even wrangled his way on to the FOX shout-fest Hannity & Colmes (where he spent most of his time scolding Alan Colmes and guest host Oliver North for the apparently slipshod research of their show's producers). And, naturally, he also turned his attentions to the internet.

Since its launch six months ago, scholarsfor911truth.org has attracted nearly half a million visitors. In Duluth, though, Fetzer owes his notoriety to an older friend of the dedicated conspiracy theorist, public access television. Earlier this year, the Duluth public access station dedicated an entire week to conspiracy theories. A three-part lecture Fetzer delivered at UMD in November—evidently the one NASCAR guy caught—was aired repeatedly. In that speech, Fetzer not only outlined the case for government involvement in 9/11, he also aired his views on the assassination of JFK (it was a government hit job, there were multiple shooters, the Zapruder film is a fake) and the death of Paul Wellstone (he was assassinated, probably at the behest of the Bush administration, likely with a sophisticated electromagnetic pulse weapon).

Despite the seeming lack of connections, Fetzer says his research on JFK and Wellstone has proved invaluable to his understanding of 9/11. "If you've ever worked your way through what's gone on in JFK, you've encountered almost every mode of deceit, deception, and fabrication the government is capable of displaying," he explains. "Therefore, when I got involved in 9/11 research, it was a relative piece of cake in terms of sorting things out. The evidence was so obvious. The inadequacies of the government account were so blatant."

In the course of our meal at the Giant Panda, Fetzer would be approached by one other admirer. He, too, had caught one of the professor's lectures on TV. Like NASCAR guy, he felt he had to talk to Fetzer. Such encounters, Fetzer says, are common. He attributes this to his memorable persona. "People hear me on the radio and they never forget. They never forget. It's just astonishing," he offers. Most of the time, people are polite and enthusiastic. Occasionally he is confronted by doubters and haters. When it happens, he pushes back with all the bombast he can muster. "You've got to be very aggressive and push it," he says, locking into me with laser eyes that suggest that I am about to hear one man's credo. "You have to be willing to take on all arguments and defeat them. Goddamit, I've done that forever with JFK and I'll do it for 9/11. Shy away from nothing. Confront everything."

Short and barrel-chested, Jim Fetzer carries himself like a big man. He has an erect posture, a purposeful stride, and a highly expressive face, which is topped by an unruly shock of gray hair. His eyebrows and sideburns are bushy. When he speaks, his eyes light up as if someone flipped a switch. Put another way, he looks the part of Radical College Professor. For most of his 65 years, though, Fetzer led a conventional, relatively quiet life. Born on December 6, 1940—or, as his father used to put it, a year and a day before Pearl Harbor—he grew up in southern California, where his father worked as an accountant in the Los Angeles County welfare office. He describes the California of his youth with a nostalgia common to people who lived there in the good old days. The Pasadena of Fetzer's boyhood was a paradise, but there was trouble in the Fetzer household. His first conscious memory is one of family strife. He remembers standing outside the family home in Altadena while his father and mother were inside having an argument. Just then, a fire engine passed by. It's the fire engine Fetzer recalls most vividly. He figures that's because it served as a distraction from the emotional conflict.

A few years later the Fetzers divorced, and young Jim moved with his brother, mother, and new stepfather to La Habra Heights. It was a remote spot and, Fetzer says, his mother soon succumbed to feelings of isolation. "My mother needed people. She was a very sociable person," Fetzer recalls. "I think she despaired that she made a mistake in divorcing my father." When Fetzer was 11, his mother committed suicide. He moved back to the home of his father, who had since remarried and started a new family. Though he is reluctant to talk about his mother's death in much detail, he says it rid him of illusions about mortality and made it easier for him to confront unpleasant truths. In other words, it paved the way for a career as a professional philosopher and skeptic.

In school, Fetzer did well, which he attributes to encouragement from his stepmother. He was active in an Episcopalian youth group (though, he says, never devout), won various prizes, and in 12th grade was admitted to Princeton University. For tuition, he signed up for the Navy Regular Program. After graduating with a philosophy degree in 1962, he went on to serve as an artillery officer in the Marines. While in the service, he eloped to Vegas with a high school sweetheart and fathered one son. Like most men of his generation, Fetzer seems proud of his military service. But he is cynical about his government's motives and actions. When he was stationed in Okinawa, Fetzer recalls, he and his fellow Marines were involved in an artillery drill at Mount Fuji. "We started lobbing shells all over the base of the sacred mountain. Off in the distance, you could see pilgrims making their trek. I turned to one of my fellow officers and said, 'Who says we're ugly Americans?'" Fetzer says. At the recollection of this witty remark, he lets loose a raucous laugh; like a sea lion, he's noisiest on the inhale.

When JFK was assassinated, Fetzer was stationed in Formosa. He remembers being awakened by an officer and told the news. A few hours later, he learned of the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald. He thought it was "pretty fast work," but didn't make much more of it. By his account, the young Fetzer was more interested in his own future than in politics or, for that matter, in looking deeply enough to find the hidden order in events. After he was discharged from the Marines in 1966, Fetzer enrolled at the University of Indiana to pursue a master's in the history and philosophy of science and prepared to take the world by storm. "By the time I got out of the Marine Corps, I was a devastating intellectual machine," he explains. "I had grad students who, when they knew I was going to critique their work, dropped out of the program."

But all was not well on the home front. After four years of marriage, Fetzer and his wife divorced. To put some space between them, he transferred to Columbia University for a year. Those were heady days on the Columbia campus. When the radical student group Students for a Democratic Society trashed a teacher placement office, Fetzer—concerned that the campus disruptions might hamper his career—aligned himself with an opposition group, Students for Columbia University. At one point, he says, he was involved in a melee in which he shouted down SDS leaders with a bullhorn. Only later did Fetzer come to suspect that some of his fellows with Students for Columbia University were probably agents provocateur—and, by extension, that he had been made a government dupe.

After the year at Columbia, Fetzer returned to Indiana, where he completed his Ph.D. In 1970, Fetzer landed a gig as an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, where he would remain for the next seven years and meet his current wife, Jan. In 1977, much to his dismay, he was denied tenure at Kentucky. Thus began a decade in the academic wilderness, a period during which he landed visiting or associate professorships at the University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, University of Cincinnati, and University of South Florida. During those years he also published prodigiously, authoring books and papers with mind-numbing titles such as "Scientific Knowledge: Causation, Explanation, and Corroboration, Dispositional Probabilities," and "Syntax, Semantics, and Ontology: A Probabilistic Causal Calculus." Such output would be the one constant in Fetzer's career. "I just know what I'm doing. I'm extremely efficient," he says of his writing habits. "I'll just sit down to write an article and it's done. My first book was 500 pages and I sat down and wrote that from first page to last page continuously. They didn't ask me to revise a comma."

After enduring 10 years without tenure, Fetzer was almost ready to abandon his academic ambitions. "If I thought there was anything in the world I could do better than being a professional philosopher—if this weren't in my blood—by God, I would have pursued those things," he says. His persistence finally paid off in 1987, when he was hired as a full professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. There, he continued to write papers and books in the esoteric fields of artificial intelligence and the cognitive sciences. He also became the first faculty member at UMD to be named a Distinguished McKnight Professor, which, in addition to putting another honorific in his title, garnered him a $100,000 research grant. Still, were it not for Oliver Stone, Fetzer probably would have remained an obscure figure outside his chosen discipline. In 1991, he watched Stone's film JFK and found himself transfixed. In a quixotic manner, Fetzer abruptly immersed himself in the peculiar and pugnacious world of JFK assassination research.

Over the following decade, Fetzer published dozens of articles attacking the Warren Commission Report, which he views as a flagrant whitewash, and floating his own theories about the assassination. He has edited three JFK-related anthologies, most recently one titled The Great Zapruder Film Hoax. In Fetzer's estimation, his work on "Jack" has been nothing short of revolutionary. "These books I have published are the most important in establishing the objective and scientific evidence of the existence of conspiracy and cover-up in the assassination of JFK. Bar none. No other books come close. Remotely. None. They're in a category by themselves," he says. "This shattered the whole goddamn cover-up!" Not surprisingly, Fetzer has become a familiar and controversial figure in the JFK research community. On occasion, he has been assailed, lambasted, and denounced by his fellow researchers. No Fetzer critic has been more dogged than a California-based private detective named Josiah "Tink" Thompson.

At first blush, you might think Tink Thompson and Jim Fetzer ought to be pals. Their shared contempt for the Warren Commission and otherwise similar life trajectories seem to provide grounds for friendship. They didn't. Thompson—like Fetzer, a former philosophy professor—rose to prominence in 1967 when he wrote Six Seconds in Dallas, one of the first Kennedy conspiracy books and to this day an influential tome among JFK researchers. Relying on frame-by-frame analysis of the Zapruder film, Thompson posited that there were at least three shooters at Dealey Plaza. Over the decades, Thompson, now a private detective, has participated in countless JFK conferences. It was at one such gathering in the early '90s that he met Jim Fetzer. Evidently, it was not especially memorable. "We spent some time one night talking about the academic world," Thompson recalls vaguely. "He seemed quite personable and genial."

After that first encounter, Fetzer stayed in touch with Thompson. Sometimes, Thompson says, Fetzer would share theories that—even in the world of assassination buffs—seemed off the wall. "The first thing he sent me was a rather confusing claim that William Greer, the driver of the presidential limousine, could be seen in the Zapruder film turning around 180 degrees, holding up a chrome colored revolver, and shooting the president in the head," Thompson remembers. "At that point, I knew I was dealing with someone with diminished experience in these matters." Despite what Tink Thompson thought of the professor from UMD, Fetzer soon established himself as a ubiquitous presence in the JFK world. He participated in the chat boards and attended conferences, sometimes serving as a moderator or organizer. Over the years, Thompson's disdain for Fetzer swelled.

In the highly contentious world of assassination research, Thompson says, Fetzer's bombastic approach and unconventional theories rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But the animosity between Fetzer and Thompson seems to have been largely driven by Fetzer's assertion that Thompson had been bamboozled by the Zapruder film—in Fetzer's words, "a phony strip of celluloid." No one likes being called a sucker, but in conspiracy circles, where the sum of one's endeavors is to uncover truths that all the suckers out there failed to see, it possesses a special bite.

After one nasty dust-up with Thompson, Fetzer found himself denounced in a written statement by a group of prominent JFK researchers. They called Fetzer's attacks "biased, prejudicial, counterproductive, and, finally, useless" and insisted that he apologize. The apology, says Thompson, never came. The last time he saw Fetzer was at a JFK conference in Dallas in 1998. Fetzer announced that he could prove that the Zapruder film was a fake and Thompson was itching to take him down. After he and a colleague had made their presentations, Thompson says, Fetzer stepped to the podium to present his arguments. There was supposed to be a question-and-answer session but, according to Thompson, instead Fetzer simply filibustered. "I remember him very red in the face trying to tell a Richard Pryor joke when the sponsor of the conference turned off the power to the microphone," Thompson recalls gleefully. "I think that's the last time I saw Fetzer, yapping into a dead mic." (For his part, Fetzer recalls the incident a little differently, though he does acknowledge having his power shut down for "taking too long to tell the joke, 'Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?'")

While they didn't meet again in the flesh, Thompson continued to spar with Fetzer on internet discussion forums. The brawling hasn't all been confined to JFK. Thompson is scornful of everything about Fetzer. His rhetorical approach. His emphasis on credentials and résumés. Even his philosophic writings. "They're dreck," Thompson says of Fetzer's numerous papers and books. "The usual sort of eminently forgettable pap which second-rate academics pump out for publication lists so deans, who never read anything, will say, 'Let's hire this guy.'" But Thompson says he is motivated mainly by Fetzer's periodic accusations that Thompson might be a spook. "When he said that, it really pissed me off," Thompson says. "So I figured, 'I'm not going to let this blowhard wander around the world and do this. I'm going to take a shot at him every chance I get.'" He has lived up to the vow. When Fetzer writes or edits a new book, Thompson can almost always be counted on to show up at Amazon.com with some vitriol.

For his part, Fetzer says he still suspects that Thompson is "working on the other side." "He's got a role to play, I'm telling you. He's got a role to play," Fetzer whispers when Thompson's name comes up in conversation. "If he's not an agent of disinformation, he's certainly acting as if he were." It's too bad, he adds, because he once admired Six Seconds in Dallas. Heck, he once admired Thompson. You can still hear it in his voice. "I thought it was a wonderful book," Fetzer says. "He was a philosopher. He was an instant hero, which is why it's so ironic that years and year later, he becomes my principal assailant."

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."

Jim Fetzer's labors notwithstanding, the idea that the U.S. government was an active participant in the 9/11 attacks strikes the vast majority of Americans as outlandish. Naturally, in his view, the media bears a large responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. But Fetzer thinks there is another dynamic at work, something rooted in psychology. "Confronting the idea that the American government has been practicing terrorism on the American people is very difficult to accept," he says. "I draw the parallel to the mother who discovers her husband is molesting her daughter."

This argument would be a little more persuasive were it not for some other inconvenient problems with the truth movement. As truth movement debunkers are fond of pointing out, many of the scandals that have plagued the Bush administration—the NSA wiretapping program, the secret prisons, the Plame affair, the rendition of terror suspects—have come to light because of leaks from within the government. And yet if you are to believe the avatars of the truth movement, a conspiracy that minimally involved hundreds of participants has yet to produce a single confession. It is a conundrum that neither Fetzer nor his allies can answer in a particularly satisfying way.

For that matter, you might wonder, if 9/11 was orchestrated by the government as a pretext for imperial expansion, why did the government identify 15 of the alleged hijackers as coming from Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally? Why not say they were from Iraq or Afghanistan, which were the presumptive objects of our imperial ambition? "That's an interesting question," Fetzer says. In addressing this thorny matter, he chooses to talk about Lee Harvey Oswald. "Why, in framing Oswald—when you can use any weapon in the world—do you use a piece-of-junk World War II Italian carbine, which wasn't even a high-velocity weapon?" he asks. "Why does the government do these sorts of things? Because they can get away with it. And one reason the government can have been emboldened to pull off such a giant hoax as 9/11 is because they got away with assassinating the president of the United States in broad daylight in a major American city in front of hundreds of witnesses."

To some, that logic may sound tortured. Yet 2006 has been a year of enormous progress for the 9/11 truth movement. In large part, that has been a demonstration of the efficacy of the internet as a tool to recruit believers. Web documentaries such as Loose Change and In Plane Sight have fueled enthusiasm for the inside-job hypothesis. Like Fetzer, the creators of Loose Change—a one-hour-long analysis of blurry photographic evidence from that day—aren't content to argue that the World Trade Center collapsed because of controlled demolition; they contend that no plane struck the Pentagon and that the whole story of Flight 93—the passenger revolt, "Let's roll," the crash over Shanksville—is nothing but a grand hoax. And what of the phone calls made by passengers? Fetzer believes those phone calls were probably made by government agents using voice synthesizers.

Though it's difficult to quantify, the number of 9/11 conspiracy theory sites on the internet seems to be growing rapidly. Believers are cropping up with increased frequency in the public domain. One day, they can be found bombarding C-SPAN talk shows. The next, they are chattering on late-night radio. And always, they are posting on internet chat boards.

Mark Fenster, a law professor who authored the book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, is not surprised by the surge in 9/11-related theories. "These kinds of traumatic events occur once in a generation," he observes. "This has the feel of a spectacular moment in history, much the way the Kennedy assassination did." In Fenster's view, conspiracy theories—even when they are utterly wrong in the particulars—often speak to broader truths. "Just because conspiracy theories are wrong does not mean they are not on to something," Fenster observes. "Specifically, they ideologically address real structural inequities, and constitute a response to a withering civil society." That sympathetic view, of course, is not shared by many other observers, who regard conspiracy advocates as cranks and crackpots whose fevered tales only serve to obscure genuinely important issues. That has been the standard line of response among most liberal journalists when confronted with 9/11 conspiracies.

Conspiracy theories, Christopher Hitchens once memorably wrote, are "the exhaust fumes of democracy." If that's true, it stands to reason that the rest of us probably ought to just ignore them. Fenster disagrees. But he acknowledges that the conspiracy mindset does promote a certain helplessness among adherents. "There's something incredibly debilitating about the suggestion that the political system is so corrupt that there is no real answer to it. All you're trying to do is invoke suspicion and agreement that something terrible has happened. What do you do next?" he asks. "In the end, I guess, the next step is to vote the bums out. But if you're so convinced that there is a huge conspiracy, then merely voting the bums out won't do anything."

In late April, about 30 people gathered in a windowless conference room in the basement of Tobie's Restaurant in Hinckley, a pit stop on I-35 about midway between the Twin Cities and Duluth. Fetzer had been invited to give what he refers to as his "three-parter"—a lecture in which he covers three outrages of modern times: the JFK assassination, the Wellstone assassination, and 9/11. Dressed in a sport coat, polo shirt, and khakis, Fetzer looked like a college professor as he stepped to the podium, which was adorned with a green Wellstone campaign placard and a framed portrait of JFK.

Behind him, a banner read, "Welcome Professor James Fetzer, Expert." With his UMD-issued laptop and computer projector, Fetzer began his presentation with a detailed multimedia critique of the Warren Commission's single-bullet theory. As he clicked through film footage and autopsy diagrams, Fetzer was a portrait of human confidence. "We have not only proven objectively and scientifically that the magic bullet is false," he announced, "we have been able to establish objectively that there had to have been at least six shots from three directions." He proceeded to outline his other critical findings:

• the Zapruder film was altered;

• another brain—not JFK's—was substituted during the autopsy;

• autopsy X-rays were manipulated;

• the Secret Service set up the hit;

• the FBI covered it up; and

• behind them all lurked the puppet masters Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover.

At the end of the JFK portion of the presentation, Fetzer took a few questions from the audience. A guy in a Green Bay Packers cap asked whether Fetzer thought Dealey Plaza was laid out by design like a Masonic sacrificial altar. At this, Fetzer paused and said he hadn't considered the matter. Another questioner began by offering his opinion that the Secret Service is not really an official agency of the U.S. government. Fetzer looked puzzled, before responding delicately: "That comes as news to me." Another questioner wanted to know if Fetzer thought JFK Jr. had also been assassinated. Fetzer politely stated that he hadn't investigated and didn't have much to say.

And so it went. After a full two hours had elapsed, Fetzer commenced part two of the lecture. With the image of the smoldering World Trade Center towers on the screen behind him, Fetzer cautioned the audience: "The government's account is just fine—as long as you're willing to believe impossible things." He made his customary case for controlled demolition of the WTC towers and then moved on to arguments that are, even in the truth movement, controversial. After reviewing the evidence, Fetzer announced, he found no reason to believe a jet airliner struck the Pentagon. Had a plane crashed there, you would surely see signs of damage on the lawn near the impact point. He power-pointed his way to a photograph of the Pentagon after the attack. The grass looked normal. Out came the well-oiled laugh line: "I expect to see Tiger Woods out there practicing his putting." The audience tittered.

He then discussed United Flight 93, which, it seems increasingly clear, did not crash over Shanksville, Pennsylvania. What happened to the flight, he acknowledged, remains a mystery even in the face of reports that it may have landed in Cleveland. He talked about the neo-con manifesto, Project for the New American Century. He played some of Loose Change. The Bali bombing, he surmised, might well have been a U.S. operation, and bore some of the hallmarks of a mini-nuke. He brought up anomalies in the photographs of the moon landing. "There are really serious questions," he offered almost offhandedly, "about whether we went to the moon."

Fetzer lobbed a few verbal grenades at the Bush administration. He exhorted his listeners to spread the word. Come election time, he warned, we must throw all the bums out. We might need to smash the electronic voting machines lest another election wind up stolen. "Something is terribly wrong," he said ominously. "If we don't wake up, all our liberties might be gone." He told the audience that he had become so alarmed that he "had come around" on the Second Amendment. "Every American family needs to be armed as citizen soldiers," he declared. "The threat is not illusory."

Three hours into the presentation, Fetzer had yet to address the third subject of his talk, Paul Wellstone. There just wouldn't be time. No matter. He gave out the address of his website (assassinationscience.com). Fetzer, who takes pride in his capacity to speak for hours on end, sounded as if he could have gone on for another three hours. His stamina seemed to simultaneously impress and overwhelm his Hinckley audience. Mike, a soft-spoken 48-year-old sheet metal worker from Mora who declined to give his last name, said he had heard Fetzer previously, probably on short wave. He learned of the presentation from a flyer posted at a local grocery. He would have liked more discussion of the WTC Building 7 but understood the time constraints. "It's a colossal issue," Mike allowed. "He could have spent four hours on Building 7 alone."

At the end of lecture, Wade Olson, a 30-year-old seasonal construction worker from the nearby hamlet of Sunrise, was singing Fetzer's praises. Then again, Olson has been impressed by Fetzer ever since his JFK presentation about a year ago. Since then, he's struck up a casual friendship with "the professor," as he refers to Fetzer. "Every time he talks, there's something new that comes up," Olson offered. He then began discussing his own latest passion: Elvis research. Olson, who wears his hair slicked back and sports latter-day-Elvis sideburns, is a big buff. Five years ago, he and his wife got married outside of Graceland. More recently, he explained, he traveled to Branson, Missouri, to meet with Bill Beeney, author of Final Proof: The King Is Alive and proprietor of the Elvis Is Alive Museum. Beeney—"one of the top three authorities"—was very persuasive, Olson said. "The guy was fascinating. I've spent enough time around people to know if he's a kook. He's not."

At that, two very young guys from Burkhardt, Wisconsin, entered our conversational clutch. They carried with them a stack of pamphlets, most of which were concerned with the alleged illegality of Internal Revenue Service practices. The guys from Burkhardt wouldn't identify themselves, but still wished to get the message out. "The country is under siege," one declared, by the continuing menace of international socialism. And what did they think of Fetzer's presentation? "I thought it was done very well," said the other. "But what he explained is nothing new to me."

A few days after his appearance in Hinckley, Fetzer drove down to the Twin Cities with his wife, Jan, to deliver a lecture at the University of St. Thomas. Before the talk, I met Fetzer at a Thai restaurant in St. Paul, where we were joined by Michael Cavlan, the Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate, and his campaign manager. As usual, Fetzer seemed to be in high spirits, laughing and joking before abruptly excusing himself from the table to do a last-minute radio interview. Radio is Fetzer's favorite medium—in his opinion, the last bastion of the free press—and he seldom shies from the opportunity to hit the airwaves. He'll stay up until the middle of the night, if it means a chance to appear on Coast to Coast.

While the rest of us ate our noodles and spicy chicken, Fetzer paced the sidewalk and barked into his cell phone. Cavlan and his campaign manager, both involved in a nascent local truth movement organization called MN9/11, talked some about their reservations about the "official story." Jan Fetzer was conspicuously mute on the topic of 9/11 and so, gradually, the conversation turned to the matter of the Fetzers' imminent move to Madison, Wisconsin. Jan explained that Jim, who turned 65 in December, decided last fall to retire from UMD. While they love Duluth, they want to be closer to their daughter, who works at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is expecting a child. Both Jan and Jim seem thrilled about the move. Jim says he is especially psyched about checking out Badgers football. He's already bought season tickets.

Fetzer returned to the table a hale and hearty fellow. Setting into his food with gusto, he reported that his interview had gone well. He thought it might spike up attendance at the lecture. He was right: The 3M auditorium at St. Thomas was packed that night. All the seats were filled, and likewise most of the aisles. The assembled group—a mix of students, antiwar folk, and aging lefties—bore little resemblance to the trucker-cap-and-camo element that had shown up in Hinckley. After an introduction and a lusty burst of applause, Fetzer took to the podium. He congratulated everyone who attended for their bravery. By their very appearance at the event, he noted they risked being placed under surveillance. (In fact, Fetzer is quite certain his activities have put him in government crosshairs. "I'm 100 percent certain that all my e-mails and phone calls—everything I'm doing—is under surveillance," he once told me. "I'm right on top of one of their lists.")

After an hour and a half passed, Fetzer had hit his customary points. He closed with a crescendo. "There is a cancer on our country," he declared. "We must excise it and restore democracy in America!" Half the assembled crowd rose to its feet in applause. When Fetzer began taking questions, a funny thing happened. In a room seemingly packed with believers, Fetzer had somehow managed to induce a strain of skepticism. So what do you think happened to the people on flights 93 and 77, one questioner asked. Fetzer answered that there were "many oddities." Another questioner wanted to know how such an enormous fraud could be kept secret. Wouldn't someone with a stricken conscience come forward? Fetzer talked about Joe Wilson, the administration's oil ambitions, and the Project for the New American Century. The questioner looked disappointed, grumbling to a companion: "He's not answering."

Another questioner wanted to know how long it would take to plan a "false-flag operation" like 9/11? Could Clinton have been involved? Fetzer didn't think so. A guy in a St. Paul Boat Club sweatshirt asked how an administration that has bungled so much could pull off such a grand conspiracy. Fetzer was left to muse that perhaps the administration is just better at scripting "short-term events" than long-term ones.

An utterly unimpressed postal worker who was sitting in the back of the room didn't even have a question. He simply took his time to declare that nothing would have been different had John Kerry or Al Gore become president. Fetzer was incensed. "I've heard your line before," he shouted accusingly. After a messy and noisy exchange, the moderator—St. Thomas geneticist turned peace activist Michael Andregg—felt compelled to scold both the postal worker and Fetzer. Once order was restored, Fetzer delivered a brief monologue on global warming and the prospect of planetary extinction.

After that, an earnest student took it upon himself to deliver a mini-lecture on the burning of the Reichstag (a classic false-flag operation) and the persecution of animal rights activists. Another wanted to know whether Fetzer thought there might be a connection between the murder of Michael Zebuhr—the graduate student shot to death in an apparent mugging in Uptown this spring—and Zebuhr's involvement with the Scholars. Fetzer responded that he had spoken with investigators and had concluded any connection was "unlikely." He added that he had to fend off accusations from a Frenchman that he—Jim Fetzer—might have been responsible for the killing. "There are some people," Fetzer said, "who aren't quite right in the head."

And so it went. After the lecture (which, as usual, ran overtime), Fetzer stepped into the crowded hallway. The hotheads and doubters dwindled away and soon Fetzer was surrounded by a throng of admirers. The philosopher, agitator, and prophet of doom looked utterly exhilarated. So, it seemed, did most of the crowd. Around the corner in the men's restroom, an older man ducked in to take a pee. As he positioned himself at the urinal, he spoke as loudly and emphatically as James H. Fetzer himself. "He's a brave man," he declared. "A brave man."

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