In Among the Truthers, his wide-ranging look at conspiracist thinking on everything from the 9/11 attacks to the causes of autism, journalist Jonathan Kay is less interested in what the conspiracies proclaim than in examining how modern society lost its “consensual view of reality.” As part of that effort, Kay considers the various paths individual conspiracists have followed, and in this excerpt relates his interactions with one very persuasive truther, a popular speaker on the 9/11 conspiracy convention circuit, in the grip of a mid-life crisis.
Of all the truther headliners I’ve seen, the very best is Richard Gage, a balding, mild-mannered, middle-aged architect who heads up a California-based group called Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth. I’ve heard Gage speak three times in three different cities. At each event, the response was rapturous. At a 2009 lecture in Montreal, his crowd sat mesmerized as he spoke for three straight hours—on a night when the Montreal Canadiens were contesting a playoff game, no less. At a speech in New York City a few months later, the audience burst into a spontaneous chant of “Ri-chard! Richard!” Blushing and grinning like an earnest, overgrown schoolboy, Gage blurted out: “Your enthusiasm knocks my socks off!”
His singular focus—laboriously examined in a 600-slide PowerPoint presentation he trots out at every opportunity—is the precise sequence of events leading to the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. Avoiding speculation on the Pentagon attacks and the machinations of the Bush White House is critical to the mission of Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, he says. “We’re building and technical professionals,” Gage tells his audiences. “We’re not conspiracy theorists.” Gage inevitably elicits emotional gasps and shouts with his slide show. In Montreal, a couple sitting behind me seemed particularly moved. “How can those murderers sleep at night after what they’ve done?” one exclaimed. (She wasn’t talking about al-Qaeda.) Even my own guest, a conservative-minded 65-year-old woman, seemed transfixed, falling silent at points where I expected she’d be chortling and rolling her eyes.
Before beginning his presentation in Montreal, Gage had polled the crowd on their views. Five people, including me and my guest, said they believed the “official theory” of 9/11. Ten others said they were “unsure.” Everyone else—about 200 people—said they believed the WTC came down through “controlled demolition.” Once Gage had finished, he conducted a second poll. This time, when he asked how many people supported the “official theory,” mine was the only hand raised. Shocked, I cast a glance at the friend sitting beside me.
After three hours in a room with Richard Gage, she’d changed her vote to “not sure.”
A few months later, when I sat down with Gage at a Starbucks in the upscale bedroom community of Lafayette, Calif., I wasn’t sure what to expect. Gage is affable and disarming when surrounded by admirers. But like many cultish true believers, he can become emotionally erratic when his views are probed. During our preceding email exchange, he’d interpreted one of my questions as an “indirect threat” on his life—and furiously threatened to cancel our interview.
But Gage arrived in a calm, friendly mood. After buying himself a soy latte, he sat with me on a bench outside the café for two hours, patiently describing his transformation from workaday commercial architect to 9/11 Truth evangelist. It was in March 2006 that his life changed, Gage tells me. He was in his car just after lunch, fighting traffic en route to a construction meeting. Bored, he flipped on KPFA 94.1 FM, a listener-supported station out of Berkeley—“to hear what the communists were talking about.”
Up to that point in life, Gage recalls, he’d been just your average workaday architect, with a wife, child, and a strong Republican voting record. “I believed strongly in America,” he tells me. “I believed everything was okay. When Colin Powell was giving his Iraq evidence at the United Nations [in March 2003], I was cheering him on. I wanted us to go to war in Iraq. I wanted to find the WMD. I was completely on board. I was the poster child for George W. Bush’s foreign policy.”
But all that would change.
The voice he heard on KPFA’s airwaves belonged to David Ray Griffin, a retired Claremont School of Theology professor who’s since become a full-time 9/11 Truth activist. “Griffin was logical and methodical—almost grandfatherly,” Gage remembers. “He was talking about the 118 [World Trade Center] first-responders—information that had just come out in 2005—who said they’d heard explosions and flashes of light, beams dripping with molten metal, all amid the collapse of 80,000 tons of structural steel. It hit me like a two-by-four. How come I’d never heard of any of this? I was shocked. I had to pull my car off the road to absorb it all. I knew I’d be late for the meeting. But I didn’t care.”
Within days, Gage was proselytizing the Truth to everyone who would listen—his family, his friends, even his architectural colleagues at the Walnut Creek, Calif., firm of Akol & Yoshii. He even began setting up booths at American Institute of Architects meetings, where he’d play video footage of the World Trade Center buildings coming down, and invite skeptical onlookers to sign his AE-911Truth petition, which demands a “truly independent investigation” of the 9/11 attacks. Catcalls and mockery were common, Gage remembers—but he didn’t care.
In 2007, Gage cut back on his day job—designing the Summerlin Center Mall in Las Vegas—so that he could spend more time on his activism. Then, in 2008, the project went bankrupt amid the nosediving real estate market, and Gage suddenly was unemployed. Looking back, he says, it was a blessing in disguise: “Making money for large corporations like General Growth was a lot less fulfilling than bringing the truth to people.” Since then, he’s become a full-time truther, just like Griffin, delivering 9/11 sermons at events across North America.
Gage will admit that he’s paid a price. Friends who failed to embrace his missionary zeal have drifted away. So has his wife, who he said had difficulty accepting his “dark” vision. Gage now lives by himself in a home office near Berkeley, paying his bills with the modest amounts he earns through donations. Yet when Gage discusses all this, he seems curiously upbeat—almost euphoric—like a Benedictine monk who’s happily renounced the material encumbrances of secular life. Although he doesn’t talk much about his world before 9/11 Truth, he clearly remembers it as empty and unsatisfying.
“I would rather die speaking the truth than live in a police state, which is what 9/11 set the groundwork for,” he tells me in a final, slightly manic flourish. “I can’t have my son—or grandchildren—ask me, ‘What did you do to stop it?’—and I say, ‘I tried to talk to some architects but they wouldn’t listen.’
“I’ve never been happier. I feel blessed, in fact. This is my destiny, my mission. I’ve lost my career. I’ve lost my marriage. I’ve lost my house. But I’m working with patriots, spreading the truth about what’s happened to their country. What more could I ask?”
Excerpted from Among the Truthers by Jonathan Kay, Copyright 2011, by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.