What If . . .

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

Berger gathered much of the footage during the ten trips he's made to New York City in the past two years. He believes his film will be more accurate and digestible than vonKleist's, whom he calls a "disinformation agent" and accuses of setting the movement back with lunatic theories. ("Who's the gatekeeper of what is 'on message'?" responds vonKleist, who does not know Berger personally. "The only way this movement is going to be able to get anywhere is to leave your ego and your pride out of it.")

Having sold his 38,000-square-foot recycling plant, Berger still earns a diminishing income by brokering plastic. But he estimates that he's spent $50,000 of his own cash on the cause and could run out of money soon.

"I can't afford to keep doing this," he says, standing a few feet away from an overflowing box of 911truth.org T-shirts he's trying to sell. "Unless I get some people to donate to my investigation."

Riley and vonKleist have collected documentation by the 
Jennifer Silverberg
Riley and vonKleist have collected documentation by the boxful.

Boats Against the Current

Michael Berger doesn't know anyone who died on September 11, 2001. But his family knows tragedy. His Dutch grandfather was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp. "The Red Cross said he died of tuberculosis," Berger notes, "but that story was untrue. They had no way of knowing how he died."

Separated from her mother during World War II, Berger's mom escaped persecution by hiding at a Catholic girls' home in Amsterdam. She came to America by boat when she was 21 and met Berger's father at a singles' dance in Brooklyn, the city where Berger was born. The family later moved to Long Island.

Though his father, an attorney, was obsessed with the Watergate hearings, Berger describes his adolescence as a fog of ignorant bliss. "I believed what I was taught," he says. "That the media was free and independent and a check against corrupt government. That we were a functioning democracy."

A straight-A student in high school, Berger majored in sociology at Washington University. His thinking was influenced by psychology professor Richard De Charms and his theory of "personal causation," a concept that addresses the question of how educators can best teach people to motivate themselves. "It directly reflects what I'm doing with 9/11," Berger says, "because we're living in a time when people feel essentially powerless."

His crusade, he explains, was inspired by a cable news interview three years ago with a pair of women who lost their husbands in the Twin Towers. "I was sitting there in tears. I couldn't believe these families had to fight for an investigation. The Pearl Harbor and space-shuttle-disaster investigations, and the Warren Commission, they were launched right away."

Berger adds: "I was making over $150,000 a year. I was living a pretty good life. But if I can't live in a country where I'm free to state my beliefs, where I'm free from government invasion into my personal life, then that goes against everything I was taught growing up about what it is to be an American."

vonKleist's interest in activism was sparked when he was very young. Raised in the 1960s by divorced parents, he split time between his Air Force pilot father's military bases around the nation and his mother's Greenwich Village apartment. Though his uncle, grandfather and stepmother were also military, vonKleist was never tempted to enlist. "In New York City, the Vietnam protests were just beyond your wildest imagination," he says. "The last thing I wanted to do was go off to a war. My mother was ready to take me north of the border if they called my number."

He and his pals spent hours discussing the government's official explanation of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.'s killings. But it was the assassination of John Lennon that really fired him up. "All the puzzle pieces fit: why the powers-that-be really didn't like John Lennon, why they had to take him out. He was in the process of coming out of his self-imposed five-year hiatus. He was ready to get back to singing about what was important to the culture."

Though he still has family living in New York, vonKleist, like Berger, doesn't know anyone who died on 9/11. And he doesn't think that matters. "Does somebody have to have a personal connection to care about 3,000 innocent people being murdered on worldwide television?" he asks.

Most people see the events of 9/11 as unthinkable acts of geopolitical terrorism, but to vonKleist and Berger, the attacks weren't especially shocking — or even particularly relevant, historically speaking. They were simply vivid examples of how the world really works when one stops being naive.

It would be more jarring if the men's beliefs gained mass acceptance. If that happened, vonKleist would have to give up his radio show, and Berger would once again have to boss people around at the recycling plant.

They would have won the good fight, but really, what kind of life is that? What if

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