Welcome to Orange County, the world capital of dark disbelief.
For Costa Mesa resident Dan Noël, it was the sort of opportunity most members of the 9/11 Truth movement might only dream about.
Noël was in the lobby of a Redlands auditorium where former Sen. Bob Kerrey, one of the co-chairs of the presidential commission on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, had just finished a speech in the fall of 2009. Noël, a stocky 51-year-old electrical engineer who sports serious-looking Swifty Lazar glasses and still retains the accent of his native Belgium, spends most of his time these days trying to convince Americans that the government’s explanation of Sept. 11—specifically, the 43-volume report on the World Trade Center’s twin towers’ collapse from the National Institute of Standards and Technology—is a sham.
It was one thing to organize meet-up groups, hand out literature, and hang banners from freeway overpasses, but quite another to confront face-to-face a man whom he sees as “most likely an agent in the cover-up” of the most nefarious crime in American history. How would Kerrey, the famously blunt, irascible former Navy Seal, react? “I was giving him an opportunity to slap me in the face and tell me off,” Noël recalls.
As it turned out, when Noël asked what Kerrey would have him say to those who can’t understand why the commission could miss what “truthers” see as the patently obvious real explanation of the tragic event, the former Nebraska senator turned out to be surprisingly affable—especially for someone who essentially was being accused of incompetence and treason. “We explicitly identified things that needed further investigation,” the former senator responded, in a moment immortalized on YouTube. “We should never be seen as answering all the questions.” Kerrey even graciously accepted both Noël’s card and a postcard-sized primer on the Sept. 11 demolition theory, which his questioner described as “something any high school kid could understand.” We may never know whether Kerrey read the flier, but Noël returned to Costa Mesa ecstatic.
“It was the first time that a 9/11 commissioner didn’t deny the reality of the controlled demolition,” he says. “Basically I was offering to him, ‘You and I know they were demolished.’ I didn’t say that explicitly, but he knew.”
And in the often-murky realm of Orange County conspiracism, such inferences easily can become articles of faith.
Noël is hardly the only one in Orange County who suspects that the official story is a lie, and that people in high places are involved in dark, secret crimes. The 9/11 Truth movement is just one of many groups within the local conspiracy subculture that hold meetings at local restaurants, confront public officials, and stage rallies when they’re not trading incriminating documents and photographs, or analyzing the arcane nuances of alleged wrongdoing via the Internet. The most conspicuous contingent, perhaps, are the “birthers,” led by dentist-attorney-cable-TV celebrity Orly Taitz of Laguna Niguel, who charges that President Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate is a fake and that his hold on power is illegitimate. But others have comparably passionate beliefs—that the Federal Reserve System is a scam, that military aircraft are testing chemical warfare agents in the skies, that legally mandated vaccinations are spreading autism, or that fluoridation of drinking water is a hidden hazard. Some are “oath keepers,” eager to enlist pledges from law enforcement officers that they will refuse to obey any future orders to suppress citizens’ constitutional liberties.
“We come from all walks,” says Judy Rice, a sixtysomething grandmother and retired counselor who heads the Freedom Forum of Orange County, a group whose first-Wednesday-of-the-month gatherings at a Huntington Beach Denny’s provide a speaking platform for various conspiracists. Her group is sponsored by L.A.-based Freedom Force International, whose website warns of an incipient takeover by “collectivists” who would impose “controlled elections, controlled media, controlled education, the elimination of free speech, disarmament of the population, fiat money, a cartelized healthcare system, military imperialism, and global government.”
“They’re all attempting to wake themselves up,” Rice says. “Some are scared and don’t know what to do. But if you get actively involved in something, you get with like-minded people, hand out literature, or just wave a flag—I think it helps to allay some of those fears.”
Americans have long been a suspicious lot, dating back to the days when rebellious colonists hinted that King George III was the Antichrist, based in part on the numerical conversion of Greek and Hebrew translations of the phrase “royal supremacy in Great Britain,” which ominously totaled 666. Fear of conspiracies, from the Freemasons to fluoridation, is woven deeply into the American identity.
Nowhere is that particular American trait more apparent than in Orange County. How many other places have had a community college board trustee offer to teach a seminar with a guest speaker espousing the theory that Israeli intelligence agents helped assassinate JFK, as Steven J. Frogue did in the 1990s? More recently, how many have elected an official such as former Orange Unified School District trustee Steve Rocco, who alleged that the county was secretly controlled by “The Partnership,” a dark alliance that included a supermarket chain and a sausage manufacturer, and who operated a website devoted to the theory that comedian Andy Kaufman had faked his 1984 death from lung cancer?
We certainly have the history. In the 1950s and ’60s, the county was the epicenter of Red Scare paranoia, a place where Walter Knott printed tracts at the Berry Farm, the John Birch Society found eager recruits, and the Anticommunist School of Orange County conducted classes on how to spot the Fifth Columnists seemingly lurking behind every palm tree. It’s no coincidence that just across the county line in Long Beach, Gary Allen penned the 1971 polemic “None Dare Call It Conspiracy”—with a preface by the late Orange County Rep. John Schmitz—which argued that American society was secretly controlled by a clique of “insiders” whose socialist agenda actually was a smokescreen for further enriching the Kennedys and Rockefellers. Conservative conspiracism still flourishes here today, as evidenced by the meteoric rise of Taitz, who has received national media attention with her unsuccessful legal battle to prove that Obama is ineligible for office because his birth certificate is a forgery. (According to a recent court filing, she also alleges that Obama has used a stolen Social Security number issued in Connecticut to a person born in 1890.) Fountain Valley’s Shoreline Baptist Church recently hosted a talk on prophecy by Paul McGuire, a Los Angeles-based apocalyptic radio evangelist who warns that Obamacare secretly may include a plan to implant microchips in America’s children by 2013.
Perhaps it’s a sign of Orange County’s increasing diversity that the latest generation of conspiracists spans the ideological, political, and cultural spectrum.
The Freedom Forum, for example, also has welcomed left-leaning speakers such as Noël, who in a previous life was an active opponent of the death penalty. And there still are anti-fluoridation holdouts who fear the chemical is being added to our water supply for some malevolent purpose, rather than to prevent cavities. Some local conspiracists seem to defy ideological labels. Witness Ken Adachi, a Costa Mesa man whose website, www.educate-yourself.org, is a font of information on subjects ranging from suppression of alternative cures by federal regulators to the Illuminati and government attempts to develop mind-control technology.
Lefties’ and righties’ suspicions seem to converge on the subject of “chemtrails”—which the U.S. Air Force says are trails of water vapor left by aircraft, but which some conspiracists suspect are part of a secret government weather modification effort, or worse. Among the wary is YouTube user “Transporter 108,” who describes himself as a 32-year-old Newport Beach man. For the past two years, he has posted numerous videos of suspicious-looking streaks over Irvine, Costa Mesa, and Laguna Hills. (He lists his occupation as “exposing the truth.”) Theories already are rampant about the Nov. 8 mystery missile contrail that a KCBS news chopper caught on tape.
These harbingers of suspicion on the left, right, and middle have something in common: They’re all disillusioned with elected government, long-trusted institutions, and most of all, mainstream newspapers and television news.
“That’s a big part of it,” says Judy Rice of the Freedom Forum of Orange County. “Most people I know think the national media have been bought and paid for, that they’re pretty much repeating what they’re told. I know they’ve refused to interview people, or slung mud at them, and twisted the truth.”
Scholars and social scientists have spent considerable time during the past few decades pondering and probing why people develop conspiratorial explanations for events.
Rutgers University sociologist Ted Goertzel questioned several hundred subjects for a 1994 study of allegations ranging from flying saucer cover-ups to the charge that the government was deliberately infecting African-Americans with HIV. He discovered that minorities and younger people are most likely to believe in conspiracies, and that their belief in conspiracies correlates with feelings that their lives are getting worse and public officials are uninterested in their plight. They also are generally distrustful and worried about losing their jobs.
Others look for an explanation of how the brain assimilates and uses information. Psychologist and science historian Michael Shermer says that, in some ways, humans are hard-wired to see plots, even where they don’t exist. “We are pattern-seeking animals,” says Shermer, who founded Skeptic magazine, writes a column for Scientific American, and is the author of the 1998 book “Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions.” “We generate beliefs based on patterns we believe we see in the world. That’s called association learning, and it’s mostly a useful thing.”
The problem, he says, is that we feel compelled to put the pieces together even when they don’t fit. This was borne out by a recent experiment by University of Texas business school researchers Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky, in which they asked subjects to spot links among a series of deliberately dissimilar images. They found that subjects saw patterns where none actually existed, in an effort to regain a sense of control.
Shermer says this tendency is exacerbated by big events such as the 1963 Kennedy assassination or the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “There’s a cognitive dissonance going on between the size of the event and the size of the cause,” he says. “A big event should have a big cause. But that’s not the way it usually works. Kennedy was assassinated by a lone nut. Princess Di was killed in an alcohol-related car accident, like thousands of other people. You tell me: How could 19 nobodies with box cutters bring down the most powerful nation in the world? But that’s exactly how it did happen.”
Elaborate conspiracies don’t occur as often as the public suspects, Shermer says, because history tells us that the more sprawling the plot, the more likely it is to run into glitches or be exposed by a blabbermouth. “Look at the Lincoln assassination conspiracy,” he says. “They did get Lincoln, but their grand scheme was to assassinate his entire Cabinet. Instead, that plan completely fell apart.”
He also points to the example of the Serbian nationalists who plotted to assassinate Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 by throwing a bomb at his car—and then screwed up by missing him. They eventually succeeded only because Gavrilo Princip, one of the conspirators, gave up and wandered off to get a sandwich. Princip happened to be outside a café when Archduke Ferdinand’s driver, who had made a wrong turn, pulled up next to him. “On the spur of the moment,” Shermer says, “[Princip] just decided to walk up and shoot Franz Ferdinand.”
But coincidence and randomness have no place in the conspiracy universe. Craig Ranke, a San Juan Capi-
strano software salesman who, along with friend and coworker Aldo Marquis of Mission Viejo, formed the Citizen Investigation Team to probe the 2001 attack on the Pentagon, insists: “There is a predominance of conspiracy theories because there are a lot of conspiracies.”
Ranke and Marquis are examples of a new breed of ordinary Joes who take advantage of increasingly cheap tools such as digital cameras, powerful laptops, and easy-to-use video editing software to turn the Internet into a global megaphone for their suspicions. The two have created several long-form videos, including the 81-minute “National Security Alert,” their most recent effort, which attacks the Sept. 11 narrative created by government investigators and mainstream journalists. In that video, they use simulations and interviews with a handful of witnesses to argue that American Airlines Flight 77 never actually struck the Pentagon, and that the jetliner—or another aircraft—actually approached from a different direction and flew over the building instead of hitting it. The carnage seen that day instead was caused by “a false flag/black operation involving a carefully planned and skillfully executed deception.”
Though Ranke says he sent the pair’s videos to mainstream media outlets, they’ve received no coverage (save for a scathing takedown by OC Weekly reporter Nick Schou, whom they subsequently accused of “dismissing evidence implicating high crimes of the U.S. government with a hand wave.”)
No matter. Ranke and Marquis distribute their videos for free on the Web, and recently returned from an overseas tour in which they gave screenings in France, Belgium, and the U.K. Their website lists a number of blurbs from conspiracist luminaries such as actor and left-wing political activist Ed Asner, who called it “reasoned and methodical.” Says Ranke: “For the most part, we get accolades.”
But not all of his truther compatriots are as complimentary as Asner, especially given the many witnesses who watched the plane hit the Pentagon. On the prominent 9/11 Reports blog, Erik Larson writes that he does not believe CIT’s flyover theory: “The witness statements used by CIT are inconclusive, as they are in some cases inconsistent with undisputed facts, with CIT’s interpretation, and with other witness statements.”
But don’t take his word for it—watch the video and make up your own mind.
Dan Noël was taking a walk after religious services in 2006 when a friend told him the inside-job alternative version of the Sept. 11 attacks. “I listened to him politely, but I thought it was nonsense,” Noël recalls. “I’m an engineer, so I asked some pointed questions, and the more he answered, the more I thought it was crazy.”
Nevertheless, Noël looked for articles to read, and he began attending truther events. “Some of us wake up quickly, but others, like me, take a long time,” he says. He got involved with Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, a group founded by San Francisco architect Richard Gage, which suspects that the World Trade Center was destroyed by a controlled demolition. About the same time he also experienced a religious awakening, and began to follow the teachings of a Vietnamese Buddhist master named Luong Minh Dang, who conducted spiritual healing sessions via cell phone from Australia. Those twin sources of enlightenment gradually transformed Noël, so that he developed an equally devout, though seemingly contradictory, faith in the rigidly absolute truth of physics and the shaman’s malleable consciousness.
Noël, who is married with two teenage sons, gradually began spending less time doing electrical engineering consulting work—“There’s not much these days because of the economy,” he explains—and devoting more time to the truthers’ Rashamon-like reinterpretation of documentary evidence of the World Trade Center attack, including network news video footage of the buildings’ collapse and the analyses compiled by the 9/11 Commission. (One of the ironies of the truther movement: Most of their information comes from the same sources they suspect of participating in the supposed cover-up.) Today, Noël derides those official investigations as “not just erroneous, but frauds.”
Technical experts on the other side vehemently disagree with just about everything Noël and other truthers say. A key point of the controlled-demolition scenario, for example, is that 7 World Trade Center, the 47-story structure across the street from the twin towers, also collapsed, even though it was not struck by an aircraft. A 2007 article in the engineering publication Structure, however, uses a computer simulation to show how flaming pieces of the twin towers caused a fire in the smaller building, which in turn caused the failure of a single column that triggered the collapse.
In one sense, Noël is right when he observes that you don’t have to be an engineer to grasp the truth about Sept. 11. What you need, perhaps, is a graduate-level course on Jacques Derrida, the French deconstructionist philosopher who taught that there was no absolute truth, only subjective dichotomies, and that some points were “undecidables” that support neither side’s view.
These days, when Noël isn’t giving talks at Denny’s or helping organize street-corner banner campaigns, he works on his new project—www.global-platonic-theater.com, an increasingly massive “master’s course” for those who believe that Sept. 11 was an inside job and want to explore why. This is where he weaves conspiracism with mysticism to reveal an even more shocking revelation: “The U.S. Department of Defense built, prior to 9/11, a unit of parapsychology for the express purpose of harassing through sorcery—aka witchcraft or black magic—individuals who may betray the 9/11 censorship and other dissidents.”
This secret black-arts program uses “immoral spiritual healers” who use computers, satellites, and other technology to attack truthers’ bodies. “The victim perceives the spell as some sudden discomfort, and perhaps a disease with unusual symptoms that have appeared with no warning … from mental unease to amplification of existing pains, symptoms of a heart attack, physical incapacitation, and even death.”
“I don’t make a big deal out if it, because some people might find it spooky,” Noël says. “It’s not needed to get into the 9/11 rabbit hole.”
All the same, it fits into the conspiracists’ underlying epiphany—that virtually everything we have been taught about the nature of things must be questioned. “It becomes difficult to trust our most cherished sources of information,” Noël says. And who knows what grand, apocalyptic meta-conspiracy this ultimately will reveal?
In the meantime, suspicions continue to arise and gather like white trails of jet exhaust, lingering enigmatically over our beaches and shopping malls and homes, tantalizing those who desire to uncover some hidden, ominous truth.
The Conspiracy Scorecard
The lowdown on theories with true believers in Orange County
|SMOKING GUN||FLY OINTMENT|
|Birtherism||President Obama’s birth certificate|
has been forged, concealing his
ineligibility for office
|The president and, presumably, state|
officials in Hawaii
|Obama’s alleged use of a|
Social Security number
belonging to someone born in 1890
in two Hawaiian newspapers
|Chemtrails||Vapor trails left by jets are chemical-warfare tests or|
military, and scientists
|They look so weird and creepy||Evidence is thin and wispy|
|The World Trade Center was destroyed by explosive charges planted inside, not by the hijacked planes||U.S. government,|
military, news media,
|7 World Trade Center collapsed, even though no plane hit it; numerous other phenomena as well||Videotape in which Osama|
bin Laden explicitly confirms al-Qaida involvement
|Pentagon was destroyed by|
explosives planted inside, hijacked jet didn’t even hit the building
military, news media,
|Witnesses who contradict|
official version, simulations that
purport to show that official scenario was impossible
|Numerous witnesses who saw|
the plane strike the building,
on surveillance videos
|U.S. government is plotting|
to implant radio-frequency
identification microchips in citizens
|Bush administration Health|
Secretary Tommy Thompson briefly
was involved with a company that
marketed implantable chips
|Equally appealing alternative|
theory holds that RFID
chips are the mark of the
beast described in
Book of Revelation
|The animator and theme-park|
entrepreneur belonged to a
clandestine devil-worshipping group
|The Walt Disney Co.|
and its 144,000
minions, er, employees
|Disney belonged to a Masonic|
youth group; his famous signature
supposedly contains number 666
|As a rule, Satanists don’t|
generally wear ascots or
pose with adorable
What Americans Believe
80% Oil companies are conspiring to keep gasoline prices high
61% Federal government officials probably had advance knowledge of Sept. 11 attacks
47% Princess Diana’s fatal car crash was the result of a conspiracy
42% Federal officials had advance knowledge of the assassination of JFK
40% Federal government is withholding evidence of life on other planets
Source: Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University
The Conspiracist’s History of O.C.
1955 Disneyland is opened by Walt Disney, whom some claim belonged to either the Freemasons, a fraternal lodge accused over the years of various dark deeds, or the Illuminati, a similarly secretive group founded in 18th century Bavaria that supposedly controls governments and corporations.
1959 A young Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald does poorly on a marksmanship test at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which some say indicates that he could not have assassinated JFK.
1963 The Capistrano Test Site opens, ostensibly for the purpose of testing the descent engine for the Apollo lunar module. Of course, if the moon landing six years later was faked, as some conspiracists allege, who knows what actually went on there?
1965 A county traffic inspector snaps photographs of a UFO over Tustin, which are published in the then-Santa Ana Register.
1969 John Birch Society founder Robert Welch gives a speech in Santa Ana in which he alleges that the international communist movement is co-opted by a conspiracy of “insiders” such as the late President Kennedy.
1972 Sci-fi author Philip K. Dick of Fullerton writes to the FBI, claiming a member of “a covert organization involving politics, illegal weapons, etc.” has asked him to implant coded messages in future novels.
1986 At the Concerned Women for America confab in Newport Beach, Costa Mesa author David Balsiger claims that rings of Satanists, some posing as Christians, are abusing and killing children.
1991 Col. James E. Sabow dies at El Toro air station in what the military concludes is a suicide. Skeptics suspect he was killed as part of a cover-up.
1996 After Rep. Bob Dornan, a Republican, loses reelection by 984 votes to Democrat Loretta Sanchez, he alleges electoral fraud.
This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Orange Coast magazine.