Photo by Suki Dhanda
A small edited section of this article was previously published by VICE.com.
It was a clear day in New York when the poster-boy of British conspiracy theory made a shocking announcement. Times Square buzzed behind Charlie Veitch as he stood there, training a camera on himself and declared something so unthinkable, so upsetting, insulting, ignorant and evil, that it changed his life. To paraphrase, he said: I don't believe the American government blew up the World Trade Center. He uploaded the video to his YouTube account and then everything went bananas. You see, the conspiracy world, of which Charlie was a central part, doesn't like it when you question their accepted truths. Charlie's revelation cut deep. Their champion was about to become their most hated pariah.
Conspiracy theories really depress me. Hours after the bombs went off in Boston, Buzzfeed were able to publish a post called something like "The 24 Maddest Conspiracy Theories Surrounding The Boston Marathon Bombing" (they've since – wisely – taken it down). Conspiracies are the place the libertarian and the hippy meet and today not a single event of note can pass without being fed through the paranoid grinder of the fantasists. But their stupidity is not the most miserable thing about them, no the most depressing thing about them is the rate at which they've been taking over for the last decade.
In 2012, the philanthropic Leverhulme Trust, most notable for funding dreary desk-based research, offered a grant for academic investigation into conspiracies. "Conspiracy theories," their announcement read, "have received remarkably little examination. Though they prompt almost obsessive attention in the public imagination, they have been largely ignored by academic research." It's true, encouraged by the internet, fuelled by the global crises, championed by popular culture (Dan Brown and The Matrix, specifically), the last ten years have seen a conspiracy boom. Perhaps, while extreme Islam has gained more press, and smug atheism is more sensible, it's possible to argue that conspiracy theory has become the first dominant philosophy of the internet age. No-doubt, The Leverhulme Trust – with its connections to the multinational Unilever – and its grant, inspired far more paranoia than academic insight.
Earlier this year Public Policy Polling conducted a survey about the public's trust in some of the more established and outré conspiracy theories. The results are infuriating enough to drive rationalists up a tower with a rifle and start shooting. Apparently, 13 percent of respondents suspect that Barack Obama is "the Antichrist", while 37 percent of Americans think that global warming is a hoax and 28 percent of dickheads believe in a sinister global New World Order conspiracy. I'm told it's supposed to be consoling that only four percent believed in David Icke's lizard men, but the way I see it: FOUR PERCENT OF PEOPLE WITH A VOTE BELIEVE IN LIZARD MEN.
Years before his Time Square insubordination, Charlie Veitch was a lost and vaguely passionate man, desperate to find an ideology radical enough to explain the weird, new world of 9/11s and WMDs. He spent a decade looking for peace inside the army, inside the city, and found none. Then, it seems, one day he simply turned on his computer and happily jogged down the rabbit hole.
I had known Charlie for six months before he abandoned conspiracy theory. I knew him as an absurdist protester, a self-proclaimed anarchist and a nice guy who wore lame trousers with extraneous pockets. He was also a committed believer in the conspiracy of 9/11. When we met, Charlie was a celebrated foot soldier in the war against government deception, and his student-y anti-establishment protest videos had an online following of over 50,000. But, in June 2011, he travelled to America with the BBC. They were there to film 9/11 Conspiracy Road Trip, a trashy documentary confronting conspiracists with evidence supporting the official explanation of the Twin Towers' collapse. Something switched inside him and Veitch discarded the conspiratorial dogma he'd long defined himself by. Back home, among his conspiracy crew, this was big news.
Charlie was branded a deserter. Google "Charlie Veitch traitor" today and you get around 38,000 results. Depending on which link you click, he's either totally insane, an establishment shill, brainwashed, a government agent, a Satanist, a sex criminal, corrupt or a blackmailed putz. Videos were mocked up super-imposing dollar signs in his eyes, horns on his head and his face onto Gary Glitter's body. One of Charlie's oldest heroes, Alex Jones – that guy who freaked out at Piers Morgan and exists in a space somewhere between Glenn Beck and Charlie Sheen – declared that Veitch had "psychopath eyes". To thousands it seemed that Charlie Veitch himself had become evidence of a very real and very evil New World Order.
A month after he uploaded that Times Square video, titled "No Emotional Attachment to 9/11 Theories – The Truth is Most Important" to YouTube, the Greater Manchester Police arrested a man for sending Charlie death threats.
On a moody day in Cambridge, I met Charlie in a restaurant to drink beer and discuss his remarkable transformation into an Illuminati bogeyman. He's a positive guy, but seemed exhausted by all the hate. So I bought him a steak. "The worst abuse," sighed the 6' 5" activist in his unlikely Scottish-Brazilian accent, "was on my fucking birthday. My website got hacked and someone sent an email to 15,000 people, saying that I was a child molester." Bleak.
Charlie in 2011. Photo by Henry Langston
Charlie's sudden refutation of the 9/11 Truth Movement wasn't his first dramatic personal awakening. Back in 2006, he was everything he now loathes: A city boy enlisted at Sandhurst, the military academy, weeks away from going to war in the Middle East.
"I grew up in a right-wing conservative household," he told me over our steaks. "The literature I had was The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph so I had no thoughts of my own." On September 11th, 2001, Charlie watched the news unfold drinking a magic mushroom milkshake with some Israelis. "They were ranting: The whole world will now know how we feel every day!"
Watching the towers crumble while in a psychotropic haze did something to this trustafarian. Charlie set aside his career in finance and did what he perceived to be his duty: signing up to go and kill Islamists and protect the British way of life. But, a week before his graduation, a fear of bullets inspired him to down weapons and run home. He plodded on with his life working for The Man and plunged himself back into making lots of money working for the Rothschild family.
It all began to change in 2006.
"I'd been out at the nightclub, Fabric," he laughs, "and I went back to my friend's house at six in the morning to have a smoke. He said, 'Now that your brain's malleable I'm going to show you something that will blow your mind.' So he showed me Terrorstorm."
Terrorstorm: A History of Government-Sponsored Terrorism is one of the cornerstones of contemporary conspiracy theory. Directed by Alex Jones, the man who would later label Charlie a psychopath, tens of millions of people have watched it online. And I imagine a lot of them, like Charlie, have had their stoned little minds blown.
"It really affected me. It suddenly made real sense that a government could organise something like 9/11. And I fell for it; hook, line and sinker."
From that day Charlie had his eyes wide open: He was Neo, one of the few sentient minds in a planet of sleeping slaves unable to see through The Matrix. He spent his time at work researching conspiracies, chasing windmills through the internet's self-perpetuating myth machine. Finally, his unsatisfying career made perfect sense. It wasn't a lack of imagination or guile that had seen him glumly turning his philosophy degree into a lucrative, but unfulfilling corporate position. It was George Bush's fault! In fact every personal, social and global problem could be rested at the feet of the Satanist cronies running Planet Earth PLC.
He still handed in his paycheque, though; right up until the day he was made redundant in 2009. That's when Charlie Veitch 3.0 really started. He went from soldier, to banker, to street fighting man in just three years.
He bought a camera, built a website and once he began filling it with tearful political polemics, the internet responded by sending him money. Now he had a new job: tearing the militarised economic superstructure of the West apart. Armed with a thick skin, a Bill Hicks T-shirt and some twee pranks he was going to make the police state cringe itself into extinction.
His profile grew and he began dating the founder of an activist organisation at Cambridge University, a young student called Silkie Carlo, of whom Charlie was desperately proud. Unlike most bedroom revolutionaries, he was confident, striking and had a sense of humour. Soon he was gaining powerful supporters. His hero, Alex Jones, picked up on the conspiratorial lingo floating through Charlie's anti-establishment rants and invited him to appear on his radio show, InfoWars.
"I became their poster child very quickly," says Veitch, a little bitterly, "and it fed my ego."
Of course, one of the biggest causes of conspiracy theory is actual conspiracy. Charlie experienced his own, rather mundane, Big Brother plot on the 28th of April 2011, the day before the royal wedding. I was drunk in a pub near work when I got a text from Charlie's girlfriend:
URGENT. Charlie was arrested from his own home today on an absurdly concocted free speech pre-crime – 'conspiracy to make nuisance'.
That morning, two politely officious coppers had knocked at Charlie and Silkie's door and taken him to a holding cell.
This was ridiculous. Yes, Charlie's shtick was a little annoying and the mawkish tourists probably wouldn't have appreciated his megaphone satire, but did that justify an arrest? Charlie spent 24 hours in solitary confinement, was bailed, and, weirdly, banned from the City Of London for a short period.
Okay, it wasn't exactly a fake moon landing, but in a way all of Charlie's most paranoid ideas seemed to be coming true. This was, he felt, the Orwellian boot stamping on his face. On his release, Veitch uploaded a new video to his website: In it, he shouted for ten minutes about his arrest, the illegitimacy of the Royal Family, the culpability of us "sheeple", concentration camp guards, Zionism, the falsification of Osama bin Laden's death, Pakistan, poverty, the Illuminati plot to depopulate the planet and breast implants. "I just want to say one last thing to the elite," Charlie shouted with tears in his eyes. "You can kill me, you can shoot me, you can disable me, you can snap me in half. But you will never get my soul. I will never support your artifice! I will never support the Royal Family! I will never support the New World Order that you've brought in around us, so we live in this dystopian world! I am a Palestinian, and I will fight you!"
This worried me a bit. It wasn't that the things Charlie said were very surprising, it was all standard anarcho-conspiratorial stuff. But he was starting to look a bit mad. I didn't want the nice guy I knew to lose his faith and fall more deeply from the society, which, for all its faults, I still – in my sheep-like hive mind – believed to be relatively decent and sane.
During his ban from London, Charlie managed to walk the line of legality and make it to Southwark Crown Court. He invited me to join him. We were there for the trial of Muad'Dib, a 7/7 conspiracy theorist.
Muad'Dib, Charlie explained to me, is the pseudonym (nicked from Dune) of John Hill. Hill's an old man with a long white beard who lives in a small town in Ireland. He's best known as the creator of 7/7 Ripple Effect, a film blaming the London terrorist attacks on, of course, not the four vicious arseholes I naively blamed, but the government and the complicit British Broadcasting Corporation.
"He's a very spiritual man," Charlie reassured me as we walked inside. He had explained that Muad'Dib had already suffered 150 days incarceration in Wandsworth Prison for sending copies of his film to the jury foreman on a trial linked to the 7/7 suicide bombings. And, while I thought that did sound like a stupid thing to do, I agreed that the punishment sounded harsh.
The silencing of Muad'Dib was clearly a conspiratorial cause celebre. Outside, awkward groups of suburban revolutionaries assembled. Each less remarkable than the last. It was clear why Charlie stood out to men like Alex Jones. He bowled confidently into the courtroom, cracking jokes while people shook his hand, patted his back and shrugged angrily at the thuggery of the police. Since the arrest, Veitch was the big man on conspiracy campus.
The visitor's gallery was full of John Hill's supporters. I sat with them as Charlie scored laughs by mocking the lawyers' wigs and pointed out the Zionist implications of the courtroom crest. At one point he jogged out of the room, returning with a copy of 7/7 Ripple Effect and pressed it into my hand, urging me to watch it.
"When the judge comes in, we shouldn't stand up," someone said. Everyone around me chuckled in agreement.
"I'm going to stand up, I'm afraid," I whispered to Charlie.
The judge came in. We all stood up.
Before Muad'Dib's hearing, there were two others. The first was a black man in his late twenties who Charlie thought looked like Maxi Jazz from Faithless. We listened to the sad story of this man's decline into drug abuse and then the judge's harsh sentencing. "Oh, that's going to help him!" Charlie said outraged. I agreed and the gallery exchanged a flutter of liberal indignation.
The next prisoner was brought in. He was a white middle-aged bald guy in a suit. Charlie leaned over to me, "I bet he's a tax dodger," he said through his teeth. "He looks like a tax dodger to me."
When I brought it up again in Cambridge, Charlie didn't have much time for Muad'Dib (who was found not guilty). "He's mad. And I found out he's a crazy anti-gay. Like, string-them-up crazy." But, back in that courtroom, Charlie and Muad'Dib were both considered heroes. Times Square changed that.
As a vehicle for self-revelation, BBC3's 9/11 Conspiracy Road Trip was a tawdry one: Coach Trip meets the 21st century's most iconic atrocity. Guided by an Irish comedian with no obvious connections to America, New York, planes or Osama bin Laden; Charlie and four other conspiracy theorists travelled around the East Coast condescending exasperated experts. One high point involved a bereaved mother being told that the last phone conversation she had with her son had actually been with a CIA robot. Some kind of C3P0 designed to make middle-aged women sad.
Somehow, out of this gumboot of rotten broadcasting, Charlie found peace. As his low-rent companions buried their heads in the swill, refusing to listen; he calmly heard the experts, and reevaluated his position. Four days into shooting and he was in Times Square, recording that video.
No Emotional Attachment to 9/11 Theories – The Truth is Most Important
You have to admire his balls. He must have suspected how seriously the conspiracy community guarded their faith. If he didn't, he soon found out. Ten days after his revelation, this is what Charlie said in a depressing video entitled "Melancholy For 9/11 Mind Change Reactions":
"Everything I had is lost. It's as if people once really liked what I did and now they hate everything about me. I've lost friends. I've lost people very close to me over this. I had nothing to gain from changing my own mind, I had everything to lose."
Who would have thought that standing with Mock The Week's Andrew Maxwell at Ground Zero could inspire a man to lose his religion so completely? After all, just 19 days before his rebirth, Charlie was organising a lecture by Richard Gage, a prominent 9/11 Truther. I couldn't help but think of the magic mushrooms and Israelis that compelled him to join the army. Or the dope and conspiracy videos that inspired him to fight the system. Perhaps, I wondered aloud, he could just be a little bit easily led?
"I think rather than being easily led, I have an open mind."
Oh, OK then. I turned back to my steak; the cruel part of me still suspecting that another great personal upheaval was probably just around the corner for Charlie. What would it be? Buddhism? Grail theory? Militant gynaecocracy? Could be anything.
He's got internal resources, though. Charlie has dealt with death threats and hatred. He's dealt with false Facebook profiles begging for money in his name. His relationship with the beautiful conspiracy theorist Silkie collapsed. Funding through his website slowed dramatically. Despite this, Charlie is feeling philosophical. "It's been a journey. I now see a lot of conspiracy theory as a warped virus; it distorts things and makes you see the world in paranoid terms. I'm now in an interesting position, there are very few people who have escaped conspiracy theory. They hijack people's minds and I want to stop them." So maybe this is Charlie Veitch 4.0; the conspiracy-buster.
But if that's the case, he should watch his step because if there's a lesson here, it's not to mess with a furious, faceless bunch of geeks with modems. Perhaps it's best not to get involved at all; I mean it's rare you meet a happy conspiracy theorist.
One beautiful example of the conspiracy theory's widening gyres of paranoia was the community's attitude to their own overblown reaction to Charlie's mutiny. "They said it proved I was definitely CIA or whatever," Charlie laughs, "and that this was all planned three years ago, so that as the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 came around, I would announce that it wasn't an inside job. After that I'd get loads of death threats and people would be able to say, 'Oh, look at the Truthers, they're just a bunch of nutters.'"
You have to hand it to the New World Order; they know how to get shit done.
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