I Was A Professional 9/11 Truther (And I Gave It Up)
September 11 was a horrific tragedy that affected us all. In its wake, some folks couldn't help but wonder, "What has the world come to?" Others asked, "What can we do to feel safe again?" But a brave few stood up and demanded to know, "How can I make this about me?" Enter the 9/11 Truther movement, which instantly transformed the latter from hapless bystanders to crusading heroes for justice. We sat down with Charles Veitch, who got on the Truther bandwagon early and became one of its most popular advocates ... only to turn away from the whole ridiculous conspiracy in the most public way possible. Here's his story.
Becoming A Believer Is All In The Timing
What would it take for you to start believing in conspiracy theories? It may be simpler than you think ...
"It was 2006, and I'd been out clubbing with a friend of mine," Charlie explained. "We were doing ecstasy, and we were off our heads." Instead of stumbling back home and watching the hell out of some infomercials like the rest of us, a friend invited him to instead watch Terrorstorm: A History of Government Sponsored Terror -- in which melted waxwork impersonator Alex Jones alleges that every major terrorist attack in the past several decades was committed by the government in order to rob people of their rights. It's a rather crazy idea, but that's the sort of thing that happens when your movie stars George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Hitler.
This isn't even factoring in Charlie Sheen.
That's the great thing about using videos to promote conspiracy theories: As long as you have enough skill in the edit suite, you can manipulate any fact you like into supporting your insane agenda.
"I was instantly emotionally convinced," Charlie says. "A lot of these conspiracy things, they get you right in the gut. It was the way he does his messiah-like horses of darkness routine and cuts it with scenes of dying children. I took it hook, line, and sinker."
Hopefully, all that distracts you from his track record of actually getting anything right.
In a parallel universe, his interest might have been briefly sparked, only to wane as soon as his brain was working normally again. But no, those conspiratorial ramblings triggered something within Charlie.
It's Surprisingly Easy To Become A Conspiracy Theory Celebrity
After watching Terrorstorm, Charlie hit the streets with his video camera in search of some love from the internet. "By finding conspiracy theories, it was almost like I'd found religion. I've always been an outsider, a lone wolf. I wanted someone to accept me. I was emotionally needing a group."
We've found that to be a consistent theme for this kind of thing.
He found almost instant acclaim. His previous experience in the world of finance marked him as an intellectual go-getter, while his boisterous personality kept people entertained. "I'm very extroverted, very loudmouthed ... anything to do with narcissism, attention-seeking, that was my bag. Most people in the conspiracy world are shy and withdrawn." It didn't take long for him to get noticed. His big break came when a video of him being manhandled by police was featured on Alex Jones' website, Infowars.
And it was on. The gig brought with it acclaim and travel ... but not money. "I had nothing but a very open donation button on my website, and also on my YouTube videos, just saying, 'Please donate to the cause. We need money to pay for websites, plane tickets, etc.' I managed to live on the breadline ... I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I was a true-believing hippie. I wasn't interested in the money at all."
All Conspiracy Theories Eventually Slide Into Full-Blown Madness
Charlie's journey into the seedy underbelly of conspiracy started with the idea that the 9/11 attacks were a controlled demolition. But his belief system got more and more complex from there, eventually focusing heavily on the machinations of big business and the elite classes. "When you're deep in the world, you believe you're Neo from The Matrix. At the time, I thought it was upper echelons of the business world, combined with upper echelons of what Margaret Thatcher would describe as the 'permanent power elite,' which were extracting all the goodness out of life, all the money, all the happiness."
Evidently, unlimited money and prestige gets so boring that the elite need to form shadow societies to fill the day.
And as with all conspiracy theories, this eventually collapsed into a dwarf star of insanity. After he was arrested for "conspiracy to make a nuisance" by the Metropolitan Police (conveniently, after he published a blog post about Prince William and Kate Middleton's then-upcoming wedding), Charlie recorded this video:
The Illuminati? Concentration camps? Osama bin Laden? Breast implants? We've come a loooong way from "controlled demolitions." In a study carried out by the University of Kent, researchers found that believing in a single conspiracy theory means you'll eventually come to believe in others ... even if they contradict each other.
That said, Charlie eventually found his line in the sand. He thought that David Icke's theory that an elite cadre of reptilian aliens rule over the world was utter nonsense. Which is, of course, exactly what the Reptites want you to think.
All The Experts In The World Don't Compare To A Grieving Mother
Charlie's antics eventually got him noticed by the BBC. "They sent me a message on my YouTube channel. I was giving a talk at this amazing festival called Sunrise -- acid and mushrooms and hippie music. The BBC came into this festival when we're all tripping balls on acid and interviewed me. I must've said the right things."
Or as right as you can get through a haze of Phish covers and heavy hallucinogens.
"Right" in this case meant "entertainingly crazy." The next thing Charlie knew, he was being whisked away to New York City to participate in a reality show called Conspiracy Road Trip, wherein a group of conspiracy theorists discussed their beliefs with a panel of experts, with the expectation that all of that crazy would be unpacked and seen for what it was. However, he was convinced that he'd destroy those experts (he was delusional, remember). "I was so arrogant, I thought I'd be able to joust with all the top experts in their fields. I thought I could hold my own with all these heavyweights. I thought it would triple my viewership, change my life, that I'd be the next Alex Jones overnight."
It didn't turn out like that.
"The first day, we were in NYC. We went to the architecture firm that built the WTC, and we got to study and analyze the actual original blueprints. And I questioned one of the older partners -- 'I've seen all these documentaries, I know you designed this building to withstand an airplane hitting it.' He was very patient with me. 'Charlie, it was designed to take an empty airliner, circling in the air, maybe hits it at 150 knots. No architect can make a stop a fully-loaded airliner going near the speed of sound.' And then the next day, we met this demolitions expert who explained to us in no uncertain terms how much equipment, machinery it would take to demolish a building like the WTC. The next day, we went to a flight school in NJ and found out just how easy it is to control an aircraft."
Though some of the visual aids left a bit to be desired.
For Charlie, the worst moment was meeting Alice Hoagland, whose son, Mark Bingham, perished aboard Flight 93.
"I cracked and broke down in tears. It was the true human emotion of a mother who lost her kid that changed me. The others believed it was a fake recording and that she was in on it. It was the monstrous ugliness of the other theorists which set me on edge. I'm made to believe they're all a part of the 10,000-man-strong Illuminati? I said to the producers on day five, 'I've changed my mind.'"
Charlie didn't keep this revelation to himself. He announced it via YouTube to all his fans. "I felt that the truth movement deserved some truth, and if I'd uncovered the truth, they should know. And on a subconscious level, I think I wanted to fuck off the whole movement and call them liars and bloody brainwashers."
Luckily, YouTube is and always has been a bastion of politeness and reason.
Once You Come To Your Senses, Be Prepared For Serious Backlash
It took less than 24 hours for the first death threat to arrive. "It was a YouTube channel called 'Kill Charlie Veitch' -- a very strongly-worded message how they were going to come and slit my throat."
Unsurprisingly, the conspiracy community fell back on conspiracies to explain Charlie's sudden change of heart. He received countless accusations that he'd been "converted" by the BBC using neuron-linguistic programming, hypnotized, or placed under mind control. The craziest one, however, suggested that he was a secret plant inside the movement with the mission to make true believers seem weak and dangerous and foolish. As though "looking foolish" is something that they need help with.
As though a group who threatened murder over hypno-mind-control claims could ever be seen as silly or dangerous.
Then one day, Charlie's website was hacked and an email sent to his 15,000 followers (and mother) "admitting" that he was a pedophile. "They Photoshopped pictures of my nephew and niece onto pornography and sent it to my mother. To me, the worst thing they did was make my mother burst into tears. It shows the deep-seated mentality in how a lot of conspiracy theory activists are driven by resentment, envy, a jealous hatred of anything successful or happy. I got bullied slightly at school, and when you enter the conspiracy world, suddenly this is your own chance to get back at the jocks, etc. When I came out with my own version of the truth movement ... for that, I had to pay the price for my heresy, which was an attempt to destroy my life."
It's not a one-off thing. After Gene Rosen sheltered children from Sandy Hook in his home, conspiracy theorists descended on him with death threats and allegations of being a government plant or -- of course -- having "pedo undertones." Luckily, the shitstorm does blow itself out eventually. Take Charlie, for instance. It pretty much came to an end in April 2015. Four years after he disavowed the movement.
You Become Part Of The Conspiracy
Charlie was one of five truthers whom the BBC flew out to NYC. Of those, he was the only one who had a change of heart. This conviction is something that he attributes to the cult-like nature of conspiracy theorists. "After I changed my mind, a lot of people thought I'd become a drone. It's so sad, growing up and leaving a cult -- and it is a cult. They call themselves a truth movement as a way to hoodwink you. Anything that calls itself 'truth' or a 'truth movement' is probably lies."
Particularly "truth" that accepts "neuron-linguistic programming" before admitting that a 200-ton plane might fuck up a building.
In renouncing the truth movement, Charlie was not only tearing down their beliefs, but also insulting their intelligence and threatening the livelihoods of the conspiracy media. He had to be stopped, hence the harassment and abuse. They didn't try to put him on trial, at least. " 2012, I went to a festival called Secret Garden Parties. I was invited to speak at a camp, called 'Conspiracy Camp' ... I thought it was self-referentially ironic, but I was wrong. It descended into some sort of kangaroo court, a witch trial. I gave my 20-minute talk on why I changed my mind. They had people in the audience interrogating me. 'What about you being a child molester?' 'What about your girlfriend leaving you?' 'What about the BBC paying you?'"
Yes, Charlie's leaving a conspiracy theory movement birthed its own conspiracy theory movement.
Empathy Is the Only Way To Break Out
So what's the key to stopping conspiracy theorists? It's like a wise dog once said: "Empathy, empathy, put yourself in place of me." It was his conversation with Mark Bingham's grieving mother (and his disgust at how his fellow conspiracy theorists were treating her with utter contempt) which pushed Charlie back into sanity.
There's a belief that fighting conspiracy theories is a simple matter of bludgeoning people over the head with facts and waiting for everything to sink in. But that's like arguing that Christianity will eventually defeat atheism by finding the right combination of Bible verses. Every one of us has near-constant access to the greatest information archive in history, and conspiracy theories are flourishing like never before.
It probably doesn't help when that same archive will happily spit out thousands of pages supporting whatever nonsense you want to believe.
During his time on Conspiracy Road Trip, Charlie also met the husband of a stewardess who served aboard Flight 77. He showed him that conspiracies aren't merely harmless entertainment, the digital equivalent of people-watching. They hurt people. "He sat me down next to her memorial, this limestone water feature in the grounds of the Pentagon ... and he took me aside for 20 minutes. He told me how much he loved his wife, how helpful the CIA and the FBI were ... and I told him what people believed in terms of the conspiracy, and he was so sad."
Some conversations should never have to happen at a memorial.
"What the conspiracy theory world does ... they really hurt victims of terrorist incidents. Say your wife's been killed by terrorists, and then the government and their agencies do everything they can to help you, to find the perpetrators ... and then for people to say that the very people who want to help you are the people who killed your wife. I wouldn't be able to cope with that."
It's only when Charlie met the people behind the tragedy that he understood them as grieving, hurt human beings, not soulless monsters.
Soulless monsters don't respond to conspiracy theories about their dead children with big comforting hugs.
"I don't know how much money the BBC spent. A lot of money ... and that's what it took to change my mind. I had to have a massive media organization cherry pick me, take me to the CIA, to the Pentagon, speak to the architects. There were five of us, and I was the only one who changed my mind. Even if you take someone around the world and tell them the truth, only about 20 percent of people will change their minds."
The other 80 percent will go straight to the comments section. Have fun!
With special thanks to Charlie Veitch. Adam can be found on Twitter or contacted via email.
Robert Evans has a book where he experiments on himself with ancient drugs; you can buy it now.
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