Monday, November 23, 2009

Truth Comes to Aotearoa

But now the Falling Man is falling through more than the blank blue sky. He is falling through the vast spaces of memory and picking up speed.

Tom Junod, 'The Falling Man'

I had some misgivings about attending the presentation given at Te Papa last Saturday by Richard Gage, founder of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth. In the first instance I was reluctant to engage, to be counted amongst those present. I also doubted that a live performance by a Truther would be much more revealing or informative than the materials regularly dumped on the Web by the movement. But Matthew Dentith was going, so at least I might get to meet him, and at the last minute curiosity got the better of me. What would it be like to see Richard Gage in action? Would he maintain in front of a large and receptive audience the patina of reasonableness of his media performances, or would he crack at least a little bit and give us a glimpse of the seething madness within?

If anything, I was the one who cracked: I simply wasn't prepared for how genuinely upsetting the experience would turn out to be. My half-formed thoughts were that these weren't Holocaust deniers, and that I could handle a two-hour slideshow on the 'controlled demolition hypothesis' just fine. It would be all about the manner in which the buildings came down, nothing to get terribly worked up about. But of course I didn't get into my topic because I enjoy seeing memory being torn to shreds, and moreover this particular story had plenty of people still in it: quite literally embedded in the buildings, scattered amongst the evidence that Mr. Gage rattled at us in order to prove his theory: namely, that the Twin Towers and World Trace Centre Building 7 didn't come down as a result of the attacks and the subsequent fires, but rather by means of controlled demolition, with bombs that had been planted months in advance at the behest of the US government.

In an important respect, what I witnessed on the day was a most interesting - if decidedly chilling - experiment in the psychology of mass persuasion. At the beginning of his presentation, Gage took an informal poll of where his audience stood on the issue, and besides the undecideds and those who agreed with him already, 29 people in the theatre (out of about 300) sided with the official explanation of the cause of the collapses. A far smaller sample than in the population at large, one hopes, but still amounting to a sizeable percentage of individuals not yet convinced by the Truthers’ argument. At the end of the presentation, this number had gone down to three, and that’s including Matthew and myself. So what happened during those two hours?

What happened is that a man took the stage, unopposed. And make no mistake, Richard Gage is not a brilliant man, nor is he especially well spoken; besides, his arguments are dishonest, logically flawed and more often than not downright laughable. But he had our attention, a compelling story to tell and visual aids, and that was enough. This should really make us question the role of our national museum in providing that pulpit, but that’s an issue that I’ll get to at the end. That substantial and measurable swing in opinion in however small a sample - in effect a manipulation of memory and understanding - needs to be accounted for.

So, is it possible that people were convinced because there is merit in Gage’s argument? Not really. His contention rests on two main tenets: that the collapse of the three buildings exhibits all the characteristics of a controlled demolition (this is also the only area in which Gage can claim any expertise), and the discovery in some of the materials in the rubble of 'nanothermite', a highly explosive material supposedly developed by the Pentagon at the end of the last century. This nanothermite is in fact the only piece of ostensibly hard evidence provided during the presentation, and we might as well deal with it first: in fact, no such material was found. Some minuscule paint chips handed in by the public almost six years after the event and tested by a, shall we say, less-than-independent group of scientists were found to include traces that reminded the researchers themselves of nanothermite thought to have been produced at the Livermore Labs and elsewhere. So, no real evidence that the stuff was there. What we do have in fact is some pretty strong evidence that it wasn’t: seismographs that didn’t register the explosions claimed by Gage immediately prior to the buildings collapsing, and the rather elementary observation that the several tonnes of highly explosive powder that supposedly laced the buildings weren’t set off in the massive fires that followed the plane hits.

What about the fact that the buildings crumbled the way that they did? Again, I can think of steel-reinforced buildings that collapsed upon their footprint in a matter of seconds no later than last April. Should it make us conclude that the earthquake at L’Aquila was a massive insurance fraud perpetrated with high-tech explosives? Hardly. But to the extent that I’m willing to give Gage some due, it is this: if in fact the Twin Towers weren’t supposed to come down in that manner, not even after a plane hit them - just like the building at Via Campo di Fossa 6 b in L’Aquila that the Italian authorities are investigating wasn’t supposed to implode during an earthquake of that magnitude - and there are deficiencies in the design and responsibilities that the official reports haven’t adequately pursued, it sounds just like the thing that a concerned group of architects and engineers might want to publicly address.

But clearly this is not the case here. While earlier that day Gage had done his level best to engage Kim Hill in a radio interview on the 'evidence' alone, claiming ‘we don’t speculate, we’re technical building professionals,’ most of his presentation consisted in fact of a broad range of wild speculations. And the pieces of evidence thus accumulated - in a process of painstaking selection to suit the hypothesis that would be familiar to anybody who’s read Foucault’s Pendulum - collectively implicate in the conspiracy and the subsequent cover-up the following organizations (at my own and likely very incomplete count): the CIA, the Pentagon, the United States Government, all major media as far afield as the BBC, the owner and insurer of the WTC, ACE elevators and the security company responsible for monitoring the coming and goings at the buildings, plus - in an accessory capacity - the boards of the major banks, military contractors, oil firms and really anybody who stood to make money and gain influence from the economic destabilisation that occurred and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There’s a question here that I don’t hear enough from the debunkers, who in the main tend to engage the Truthers, as I just have, on their so-called evidence. And the question is: why? Why would the conspirators bother to demolish the three buildings - thereby multiplying exponentially the number of co-conspirators, and the chances of getting caught - instead of just leaving them ravaged and unsalvageable, to be finished off by the municipality at a later stage? Or, if they felt that they had to in order to perfect their shock and awe design, why demolish them in a controlled manner? Why not plant explosives designed to make them fall more like a structural engineer would expect them to, slowly and ungracefully, not to mention no doubt more destructively?

To understand what might be going on here, and get to the part where I describe the effect that Gage’s presentation had on me, I have to reproduce the image below, and engage in a questionable act of manipulation of my own. If you saw this photograph in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, you're unlikely to have forgotten it, even though it was subsequently banished from the media in America and overseas under circumstances explored by Tom Junod in a remarkable piece for The Esquire and then by Henry Singer in his documentary The Falling Man

Image by Richard Drew.
What is it that is so arresting about this photograph, what does it capture that we didn't already know, that we couldn't process solely through the horrific reports that some of the victims - believed to be as many as two hundred - were driven to jump off the towers? I think it is its impossibly orderly, self-contained narrative, that cries against the furious anguish of that moment, producing a dissonance that is both aesthetic and affective: we see beauty where we cannot bear to see it, defiance where there was none. For the image isn't real. Writes Junod:
Photographs lie. Even great photographs. Especially great photographs. The Falling Man in Richard Drew's picture fell in the manner suggested by the photograph for only a fraction of a second, and then kept falling. The photograph functioned as a study of doomed verticality, a fantasia of straight lines, with a human being slivered at the center, like a spike. In truth, however, the Falling Man fell with neither the precision of an arrow nor the grace of an Olympic diver. He fell like everyone else, like all the other jumpers -- trying to hold on to the life he was leaving, which is to say that he fell desperately, inelegantly. In Drew's famous photograph, his humanity is in accord with the lines of the buildings. In the rest of the sequence -- the eleven outtakes -- his humanity stands apart. He is not augmented by aesthetics; he is merely human, and his humanity, startled and in some cases horizontal, obliterates everything else in the frame.

This is the breakdown of the Baudrillardian hyperreality: where a society develops instruments of representation that are just too powerful, and in that excess, in that surplus capacity for knowledge and understanding, finds itself unable to formulate definitive statements about the real.

Naomi Mandel has called the Holocaust ‘the most thoroughly documented atrocity in human history’, but the extent of this documentation hasn’t thwarted the Deniers, and neither has the picture-perfect record of that September morning of eight years ago prevented the Truthers from exercising their right to construct their own reality - a reality that the vast majority of the people in the room at Te Papa found compelling enough to say yes, this is what actually happened. For there is always an interstice, a space of dissonance, like the unbearably graceful pose of the man in freefall, or the far too orderly manner in which the buildings came down: just like in a controlled demolition, as if it had been staged.

That is the area - is it even gray? - occupied by the Truthers. And here I am, engaging with it, dissecting it, but I can tell you that my reaction on the day was of revulsion, and to be perfectly honest I left the museum quite shaken. There was a point, perhaps halfway through the talk, when Gage’s arguments ceased to be just grotesque and stupid, and struck me as something altogether darker. Weren’t they after all human remains, fragments of bone propelled onto the roofs of buildings several hundred meters away, which he was talking about with scarcely concealed glee, adding them to the ledger of his ‘incontrovertible truths’?

The activism of the Truthers is supposed to be motivated by a sense of justice denied, a monstrous crime gone unpunished, but there was no compassion in Gage’s voice and gestures. I compared it in my head to Marco Paolini’s impassioned ‘civil oration’ dedicated to the victims of the Vajont Dam tragedy, another crime with a similar human toll but far more mundane causes - incompetence and greed. Paolini’s too is an indictment, it too relies on data and numbers and argumentation, but it is also capable of conveying pity and a profound sense of human pain and loss. In his harrowing reconstruction of those final moments, in the tearful description of the wall of wind that preceded the arrival of the water, tearing the clothes off the people madly attempting to flee, is the naked commitment of the chronicler who undertakes to tell the whole story and be a servant to memory.

At quite the opposite pole stands Richard Gage, in whom I saw another Friedrich Sieburg: a technician who taught himself to ignore anyone’s truth but his own, another pseudo-historian with an agenda. I have no doubt that if he had come to New Zealand to argue that the Holocaust never happened, the doors of our national museum would have remained firmly shut. But are the Truthers all that different? Isn’t theirs too in fact a logic of hatred - for what else but hatred can lead to such dazzling incomprehension? If I am right - and even as I write these last few lines I struggle to make my mind up conclusively on this - then it would explain how I felt on the day that sense of being party to something so insidious, dangerous and wrong. And if you agree, perhaps you’ll join me in letting the museum know how you feel.

Tom Junod. 'The Falling Man'. The Esquire, September 2003.
Naomi Mandel, ‘Rethinking ‘‘After Auschwitz’’: Against a Rhetoric of the Unspeakable in Holocaust Writing.’ In
boundary 2 (2001), pp. 203-228. The quotation in the post is from page 205.
The Falling Man (dir. Henry Singer, USA 2006).

With thanks to Matthew Dentith who helped me confirm some of the details of the presentation.

To lodge a complaint with Te Papa about this event, you can email events manager Mere Boynton or write to her at

Te Papa Tongarewa
PO Box 467