What If . . .

A cadre of Missourians stand at the vanguard of the 9/11 "truth movement." Just don't call them conspiracy theorists.

Glenn Beck, a host on CNN Headline News, likes to arch his eyebrows condescendingly and pepper his speech with lots of sarcasm and "air quotes" — especially when talking to people he considers crackpots.

In May Beck invited Versailles, Missouri, conspiracy theorist Dave vonKleist to appear on his program via satellite. vonKleist doesn't believe the government's version of what happened on September 11, 2001. In particular, he doubts that American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon. A missile — maybe — but not a passenger jet.

Beck wasn't so sure. "That's either a plane or a naked Michael Moore headed for the buffet," he said after examining a frame from a United States Department of Defense video that seems to show a jet roaring straight at the Pentagon.

Jennifer Silverberg

"It's something, there's no doubt about it," vonKleist responded. "But the question is: Is that Flight 77? According to military experts that have seen our video, it is absolutely not."

"So if it's not a plane, what is it, exactly?" Beck countered.

"I don't know. I didn't say it was a 757 that hit the Pentagon. That was the mainstream media."

"Let me ask you this," said Beck, after a few minutes of fruitless back-and-forth between the two men. "What's in Area 51? Is it aliens, or is it office supplies?" Beck was referring to a military-controlled, 60-square-mile area in southern Nevada that's long been a focus for UFO buffs.

"Actually, I hear there's a whole host of Elvis impersonators there that fly around in black helicopters," said vonKleist, before adding: "You're doing the same thing so many talk-show hosts do. You ignore the message by attacking the messenger."

Beck shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. "You seem like a reasonable human being," he said. "I just do not believe this at all. I think you are a nut job, but, strangely enough, a serious nut job. Dave, I thank you very much."

The fight over what really happened on September 11 is being fought on the Internet and on cable news, mostly between the uninformed and the uncredible. Rampant conspiracy mongering has made the 9/11 debate this generation's Kennedy assassination. Think the Twin Towers fell because a couple of planes hit them? Hogwash! It was a controlled demolition! Osama bin Laden engineered the affair because he hates America? Baloney! Try Dick Cheney! United Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field after its passengers fought off the hijackers? Nonsense! The flight landed safely in Cleveland!

A recent survey by the respected polling firm Zogby International found that more than two in five Americans believe the American government and the 9-11 Commission were complicit in a cover-up. A pair of recent national conventions drew Trekkie-size crowds. Despite its counterintuitive claims, the "9/11 truth movement" is enjoying its day in the sun. And here in Missouri, the debate rages as loudly as anywhere in the nation. Maybe louder.

"[Support] seems to be progressing almost logarithmically," says Steve Cassilly, a Webster Groves activist who believes George W. Bush, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were complicit in the attacks. Cassilly, the younger brother of City Museum co-founder Bob Cassilly, supports his cause by pulling a giant wooden float on his bicycle through parades. The float directs people to 911truth.org and to Cassilly's own Web site, 911busters.com.

911truth.org's media coordinator is Michael Berger, a resident of Imperial, Missouri. He says the site's traffic has jumped fivefold since January, to about 12,000 visitors per day. In recent months he's been interviewed by MSNBC, CNN and ABC World News Tonight. Berger sold his Ste. Genevieve recycling plant three years ago to concentrate on his own 9/11 investigation. Since then, he says, he's put 100 hours a week into projects like making a feature film and establishing a political action committee.

None of these Missouri activists know anyone who perished on 9/11. The chances that they'll force a new government investigation seem slim to none. Yet, in delving deep into the dark, violent and haunting question of what happened on a September morning nearly five years ago, they may have well found what they were put on earth to do.

Soap, Selenium and Sinister Suspicions

Dave vonKleist lives a comfortable life on the lunatic fringe. He owns 40 acres and a log home on the outskirts of tiny Versailles, 50 miles west of Jefferson City. Nestled in the Ozarks, near trailer parks and cows, he shares the space with his wife, Joyce Riley; two dogs, Freedom and Liberty; and five cats, Patriot, Victory, Groucho, Spanky and Braveheart.

vonKleist is 53 and looks like the late Jerry Orbach, the wisecracking detective on TV's Law & Order. In his eternal quest to expose the government's lies and mainstream media's irresponsible credulity, he and Riley get up at the crack of dawn every morning to host their conspiracy-flavored radio show, The Power Hour. Broadcast from vonKleist and Riley's basement studio via shortwave radio, the Internet and a handful of traditional stations, the show reaches a half-million people, according to its hosts.

This morning, vonKleist and Riley are focused on something called the National Animal Identification System, which they say will eventually require all farm animals to be tagged with microchips for government surveillance. After taking a call from a worried Ohio longhorn rancher, vonKleist, a former professional musician, pulls his acoustic guitar up close to the microphone and performs his latest anti-government anthem.

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