by R.V. Scheide & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & n Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four jetliners, crashing two planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon. The fourth jet smashed into the ground in Pennsylvania after passengers overpowered the hijackers and the plane plunged out of control. By the end of the day, the Twin Towers, along with one other building -- Building 7 -- in the WTC complex, had collapsed, the Pentagon was in flames, and more than 3,000 Americans had been killed in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Three days later, the FBI released the names and photographs of 19 Middle Eastern men, the alleged perpetrators of the attack. They were said to belong to Al Qaeda, a terrorist organization headed by Osama bin Laden that also has been accused of bombing two U.S. embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.

That at least was the government's official version of events, and what most Americans have accepted as 9/11's official story. However, an increasing number of skeptics now challenge the official story. They're part of what's become known as the 9/11 Truth movement, a nationwide collection of concerned citizens who, provoked by the government's failure to mount any sort of meaningful investigation, have begun investigating on their own. The movement's theories about what really happened range from alleged criminal incompetence on behalf of the Bush administration to the virtually unthinkable notion that rogue elements of the U.S. government planned and executed the attack, including blowing up the World Trade Center. Could it really be possible that a small cadre of neoconservatives conspired to create a "new Pearl Harbor"?

That depends on how far you're willing to go.

Sacramento's David Kimball is willing to go all the way. He believes that the latter is not only possible, but also the most likely explanation for what happened on 9/11. Kimball, 62, a former hippie who still sports long hair tied back in a ponytail and a Fu Manchu moustache, is a fervent member of the 9/11 Truth movement. He's a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union and belongs to several peace activist groups.

"Once you go down the rabbit hole and start looking into these things, you develop a certain worldview," says Kimball. Indeed, in the world perceived by Kimball, nothing is as it seems, reality itself is suspect, created by government propagandists and their mass-media enablers. It's Chomsky on steroids, the manufacture of consent as well as cover for a vast, hidden-in-plain-sight criminal enterprise bent on establishing a new world order. "You have to put yourself in the mind of the criminal," he says, noting that he spent his boyhood reading Sherlock Holmes novels. "When you do, you find out what these criminal bastards are up to."

Destroying the Evidence & r & It's not unusual for such mysterious national tragedies, like the Kennedy assassination, to morph into complex conspiracy theories, according to University of California-Davis history professor Kathryn Olmstead, an expert on the history of the CIA and the FBI who is currently working on a book entitled Governing Conspiracies: Conspiracy Theories About the Government, From WWI to 9/11. Like many of her academic colleagues, Olmstead doesn't put a lot of stock in the truth movement's theories.

"This was an intelligence failure, but lots of times in American history, people think it was a deliberate plot when there are people who benefited," she says. "Generally, the government tries to move along and pretend all the questions have been answered. People prefer to pretend there is some sort of conspiracy behind it. You see this time and again. During the McCarthy era, the Truman administration claimed [communist infiltrators] had all been caught. Still, there was this idea that everyone had not been caught. There's the same sense with the 9/11 Commission, that the government did not go far enough."

That's a sentiment shared by an increasing number of Americans, according to a Zogby Poll taken in May. The survey of 1,200 people found that 42 percent agreed that the government commission which investigated the attack was "covering up." Fully 45 percent said the attacks should be reinvestigated.

Reopening the investigation is the goal of the 9/11 Truth movement, a possibility that may be realized if control of Congress shifts from Republicans to Democrats in this fall's midterm election. If that comes to pass and even the mildest of the movement's theories is proved correct, the results may be akin to turning over an old, rotten log in the forest: Americans might not like what they find.

Like Kimball, James Israel, publisher of California's Comic Press News, a monthly compendium of political cartoons gathered from across the country, finds the government's explanation lacking. Israel belongs to a growing number of everyday citizens who've taken an interest in the controversy. "You look at the official investigations, and it's just so full of holes," he says. "None of the facts support the government's thesis. Either the government's theory is wrong, or the laws of physics were suspended on 9/11 at that particular locale."

The government's initial investigation was conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which determined that the twin towers and Building 7 collapsed because of what structural engineers call pancaking. Fire weakened steel beams in the buildings, causing one floor to collapse upon another and then another, setting off a chain reaction similar to a cascading row of dominos. A 2005 follow-up study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) reached the same conclusion.

However, critics point out that FEMA's initial investigation was hampered by the removal of almost all of the debris from the site of the attack -- in essence, the evidence of the largest mass murder in U.S. history -- by cleanup crews under the direction of then New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, making any meaningful study virtually impossible. Both The New York Times and Fire Engineering magazine complained about the removal of the evidence, which is a federal crime, to no avail. Additionally, FEMA provided no explanation for the collapse of Building 7, concluding that "the specifics of the fires in WTC 7 and how they caused the building to collapse remains unknown at this time. Although the total diesel fuel on the premises contained massive potential energy, the best hypothesis [fire/damage-caused collapse] has only a low probability of occurrence. Further research, investigation, and analyses are needed to resolve this issue."

Yet no further investigation has been forthcoming. As both Kimball and Israel point out, FEMA spent only $600,000 on its study of the damage caused by the terrorist attack on the WTC, compared with the $40 million special prosecutor Ken Starr spent investigating former President Clinton's tryst with an intern.

The Bush administration stonewalled a more thorough governmental investigation for more than a year before finally giving in to public pressure brought by the "Jersey Girls" -- four 9/11 widows. By the time the 9/11 Commission was formed, the evidence was long gone -- most of the steel beams were melted down and recycled -- forcing the commission to accept FEMA's incomplete findings. Incredibly, the collapse of Building 7 is not mentioned at all in the commission's report. The building's unexplained collapse has become the focal point of the 9/11 Truth movement.

"Building 7 is the big smoking gun," Kimball says. "All you need to know is that Building 7 was not hit by a plane. It was hit on one side by a little bit of debris."

What Happened to WTC 7? & r & The 47-story skyscraper known as Building 7 is the only steel-framed building ever known to collapse because of fire alone. Many demolition experts have commented that its symmetrical collapse at near free-fall speed looks exactly like a controlled demolition. With the exception of the NIST study -- which reached no definitive conclusion -- no structural engineers have offered an explanation for the building's collapse.

If fire didn't bring down Building 7, what did? Last fall, Brigham Young University physicist Steven E. Jones proposed a compelling theory that made national news and revived the then-flagging 9/11 Truth movement: Building 7, he argues, was brought down by pre-positioned thermite explosives in a controlled demolition. Jones' theories have been shunned by most academics, including those at his own university, but he appears to have few qualms about putting his reputation on the line.

He became suspicious after viewing video of the building's rapid, symmetrical collapse. The 47-story building was totally leveled in less than seven seconds, roughly the same amount of time a tennis ball dropped from its roof would take to hit the ground. This is physically impossible, according to Jones, since the ball encounters only wind resistance, while the building was propped up by a massive steel frame.

"The Second Law of Thermodynamics implies that the likelihood of complete and symmetrical collapse due to random fires as in the 'official' theory is small, since asymmetrical failure is so much more likely," Jones writes in a detailed, peer-reviewed report that can be read in full at "On the other hand, a major goal of controlled demolition using explosives is the complete and symmetrical collapse of buildings."

Jones notes that many of the telltale signs of a controlled demolition are present in the video of Building 7's collapse. Puffs of smoke ejecting out of the space between each floor, "squibs" in the vernacular of demolition experts, can be seen an instant before the buildings crumples. Engineers told The New York Times that steel beams in the building had evaporated; several eyewitnesses reported seeing molten metal in the aftermath of the collapse. Neither can be explained by the relatively low temperature caused by the small fires in the building. Both are signatures of thermite explosives. Still, Jones is careful to point out that he's merely offering one possible explanation.

"Further investigation and analyses are needed, including consideration of the controlled-demolition hypothesis which is neglected in all of the government reports," he writes. "Note that the 9/11 Commission report does not even mention the collapse of WTC 7 on 9/11."

Olmstead has not yet read the commission's final report in detail and could not comment directly on it. However, she said the government's reluctance to investigate itself often provides fertile ground for conspiracy theorists.

"There's this historical impulse for people to believe that the government can't be trusted to investigate themselves," she says. "The commonality between conspiracy theorists is that they're always looking for connections, and they're inclined not to trust authority. They want to find the truth for themselves."

Sometimes, they're even successful, Olmstead says, noting that scandals such as Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair began as conspiracy theories until they were proved correct, at which point they became genuine conspiracies.

"A conspiracy theory is a theory people have about a conspiracy that hasn't been proved yet," she says, adding, "9/11 researchers at this point just have theories."

As far at the 9/11 Truth movement is concerned, that may be the understatement of the year.

Conspiracy Nation & r & Countless theories have sprung from the ashes of Building 7. Once the possibility of Building's 7 alleged controlled demolition is accepted, the leap to the controlled demolition of the twin towers is not hard to make. From there, anything goes, as long as it can be linked together by chance events, government malfeasance or both:

Some theorists believe that Flight 93, the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, was actually shot down by a U.S. military jet, a theory bolstered by the jet's debris field, which is spread out over a large area.

Considerable mystery surrounds Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon after executing a spiraling 270-degree turn from an altitude of 5,000 feet, pulling out of the dive at the last second. Many professional pilots doubt that the alleged hijacker, a poor pilot whose only experience handling large aircraft was on a flight simulator, could execute the maneuver. In addition, the hole in the Pentagon appears to be too small to have been made by a Boeing 767, and very little debris from the plane has been found, giving rise to speculation that the building may have been struck by a cruise missile rather than a jetliner. Although even many within the 9/11 Truth movement discredit the theory, it continues to hold the public's fascination.

The most widely accepted theory holds that the Bush administration, either through incompetence or a limited level of complicity, allowed 9/11 to happen. Evidence commonly cited for this theory includes the repeated warnings of an impending attack that were ignored by the Bush administration as well as the Federal Aviation Administration's destruction of tapes of air-traffic-controller conversations recorded during the hijackings.

"We all have different takes on it, and there's plenty of room for disagreement," Kimball says. "Building 7, the way it came down, we agree on. All the rest we can speculate about."

One of the movement's leading speculators is David Ray Griffin, professor emeritus of philosophy of religion and theology at the Claremont School of Theology and author of The New Pearl Harbor and The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions. Like Jones, Griffin thinks that Building 7 and the Twin Towers were brought down by controlled demolition, a belief that has earned him the scorn of most academicians.

Nevertheless, Griffin persuasively connects the dots, citing scores of suspicious coincidences sourced from the official record. Perhaps the most astounding coincidence he reveals concerns who might have had potential access to the towers to plant explosives:

"Agents of the Bush-Cheney administration ... could have gotten such access, given the fact that Marvin Bush and Wirt Walker III -- the president's brother and cousin, respectively -- were principals of the company in charge of security for the WTC."

From there, Griffin piles on the coincidences, all of which are footnoted with traceable sources. For example, on the weekend before 9/11, security systems in both towers were temporarily shut down -- for the first time ever -- for a telecommunications upgrade, providing ample opportunity to wire the buildings with explosives. The fact that several of the 19 alleged suicide terrorists have been discovered alive and well in the Middle East has led to the theory that the jetliners may have been controlled by radio signals from the CIA's New York City headquarters, which just happened to be located in Building 7. The thermite explosives could have been set off from this location as well, suggests Griffin, necessitating the building's later demolition to destroy the evidence.

Still, as the Zogby Poll indicated, such increasingly far-fetched theories are resonating with the public. The "it wasn't a plane that hit the Pentagon" theory recently made the rounds of talk-radio shows nationwide after the government released more video of a blurry, unidentified flying object striking the Pentagon.

People are more willing to buy into conspiracy theories, Olmstead says, since it was revealed that the Bush administration doctored intelligence reports to gain support for the Iraq invasion. "Since there's documented evidence that people lied about Iraq, they backtrack and think that they're lying about 9/11," she says.

A Simpler Explanation & r & Of course, not everyone buys into 9/11 conspiracy theories, particularly professional scientists and engineers familiar with the subject. Mike Taylor, a UC Davis structural-engineering professor emeritus, agreed with Olmstead that energy shouldn't be wasted chasing down such theories.

"As an engineer, I feel that this is probably a waste of your time," Taylor writes via e-mail. "If [BYU] Professor Jones feels that the official report is in serious error he should write his own report so that it may be studied by others. Only after independent engineers (more than one) agree that serious issues exist need any further steps be taken."

Few spent more time at Ground Zero during the immediate aftermath of the attacks than UC Davis professor emeritus Thomas Cahill. Trained in nuclear and atomic physics at the UCLA, Cahill now specializes in the transport of aerosols and their radiative effects in the atmosphere. He has performed the most definitive studies to date on the pollutants that smoldered up out of Ground Zero's rubble piles and into the lungs of cleanup workers. He has no love lost for the federal government.

"There were difficulties in getting information on 9/11," says Cahill, who arrived at the scene on October 2, 2001. "Stuff would appear on a Web site, then disappear. They didn't measure the temperature of the piles or set up video cameras to track the removal of material. There was wild, gross, criminal incompetence. I'm quite furious inside."

Cahill is particularly angry about the treatment of the 10,000 workers who helped clean up the area. Since the cleanup was completed, 4,500 workers have become sick because of pollutants inhaled during the cleanup; 800 workers have gone on permanent disability. Several people have died. Cahill said the illnesses and deaths might have been avoided if the White House hadn't covered up the hazards caused by the smoldering debris piles.

"The EPA reported that the fire posed no hazard, the air is safe to breathe, the water is safe to drink," Cahill says. But there was a caveat in the EPA's report. "It read something like, 'However, our measurements raised concerns about people working on the pile and in the vicinity of Water St.' The White House removed that statement."

Nevertheless, despite being angry about his own experiences with the government, Cahill is inclined to support the government's official 9/11 story, if only because it provides the simplest explanation.

"I live by Occam's razor," he says. "The simplest explanation is the best. I have been in contact with the people with the thermite theories, and I'm not convinced. The idea that the building was brought down by thermite ... there was plenty of energy in the building to bring it down. If you do an inventory of the building, there's an incredible amount of combustible material. The plane comes in, lets in large amounts of oxygen, and you get intense heat. At 600 degrees C to 1,000 C, the steel starts to bend.

"The buildings were extremely vulnerable to fire," he continues. "The information to me seems to be very clear: A lot of energy and very poor design were responsible for the collapse."

Cahill arrived at Ground Zero weeks after the reports of molten metal at the scene, but his extensive research on why the rubble piles smoldered so long was of interest to controlled-demolition theorists, who believed molten steel in the bottom of the piles provided the heat source. Such was not the case, Cahill says. Instead, fuel oil from the WTC's generators seeped into the ground, ignited and slowly consumed the debris stacked on top of it. As the piles were peeled open, oxygen stoked the underground fire, which burned for weeks.

Cahill agrees that the collapse of Building 7 hasn't been fully explained, but he refused to accept the thermite hypothesis.

"I don't blame people for being interested in these things," he says. "It's the only building ever brought down by fire. Are there strange things going on? Is it unique? Yeah. Am I convinced it was thermite? No."

He also refuses to believe that the shoddy investigation and the destruction of so much evidence prove the government's complicity in the attack.

"I think that the buck stops with the Bush administration," he says. "I think a decision was made at the highest levels of the White House to somehow eradicate a symbol of national shame and get back to normal as quickly as possible."

Enter the New Normal & r & The nation never did return to normal. Instead, it entered the "new normal" of the Patriot Act, pre-emptive war and Abu Ghraib. It's a decline that's been illustrated monthly in Israel's Comic Press News, and he believes reopening the 9/11 investigation could go a long way toward restoring the country's eroded democratic values.

"I think more and more people are becoming aware, and I hope the whole thing opens up so we can't ignore it anymore," he says. "It could help the country immensely to open their eyes and realize they've been hoodwinked on all these other things."

Cahill doesn't necessarily disagree with that, but he thinks a new investigation is unlikely.

"I can almost guarantee everybody wants it to go away," he says.

David Kimball often wears a button that quotes Einstein: "The important thing is to not stop questioning." But questioning the official 9/11 story in public can be hazardous to one's career, as author Webster Griffin Tarpley reports in "9/11 Synthetic Terror." After 9/11, two editors at local newspapers in Texas and Oregon were sacked after daring to question the Bush administration's role during the attacks. Larger publications such as The New York Times, home of weapons-of-mass-destruction fabricator Judith Miller, toed the government line, despite the paper's own reports contradicting the official story.

Just as Jones and Griffin have been assailed by their colleagues, politicians who have dared to question the official story have run afoul of the establishment, Tarpley asserts. After then-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), pushed for an in-depth probe of the 9/11 intelligence failures, he became the subject of a corruption investigation that destroyed his re-election campaign. The investigation was dropped shortly after the election. Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean received similar treatment after criticizing the Bush administration's obsession for secrecy in a radio interview in December 2002. The media turned against Dean, and the onetime frontrunner lost the Iowa primary.

Coincidence or clampdown? Israel thinks it's the latter.

"I'm amazed that they've been able to convince the country of this ruse and be so successful," he says. "The way they got away with it was with the assistance of the media. If the mass media had reported this, they wouldn't have gotten away with it. Instead, they turned a blind eye."

For his part, Kimball intends to keep preaching the 9/11 Truth gospel. He's convinced the country has reached a tipping point and that a new investigation will soon be forthcoming, perhaps after the midterm elections.

"Do people gather in rooms and conspire things?" he asks. "Of course they do. Look at Enron, Iran-Contra, the Gulf of Tonkin. These are all conspiracies. Why are we taking this as a nation, these blatant obstructions of justice right in our faces?"

R.V. Scheide writes for the Sacramento News & amp; Review, where this article first appeared.

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