On Monday, the New York Times reported that Spike Lee devotes a significant amount of time in his new four-part HBO documentary series, NYC Epicenters 9/11–2021½, to the group Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, which promotes the conspiracy theory that the Twin Towers were brought down by a controlled demolition as part of an inside job.
About a decade ago, I interviewed Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth founder Richard Gage multiple times and attended one of his events for articles in Slate and Architect Magazine. Gage is responsible for peddling some of the most pernicious and long-running lies about the 9/11 attacks, which is why I was surprised that Lee, HBO, and WarnerMedia might be lending his group any amount of time.
I had to see for myself to what extent Lee’s documentary actually promoted Gage’s fantasies, so I checked out a screener for Episode 4, which is due to be released around the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. What I found was surreal and demoralizing.
Lee devotes 30 minutes near the very end of his series to relitigating arguments that have been debunked a thousand times. Specifically, he presents about a dozen conspiracy theorists and members of Gage’s group, including Gage himself, in a back-and-forth with three credible scientists who investigated the 9/11 attacks in a teach the controversy–style format that presents the truth behind 9/11 as an open debate between two equally valid sides. In terms of conveying facts, this is a bit like presenting COVID-19 vaccine skeptics in a debate alongside Anthony Fauci, or Holocaust deniers alongside the Simon Wiesenthal Center, or a clique of climate change skeptics alongside the authors of the United Nations IPCC report.
Unfortunately, it’s also clear from Lee’s presentation in the film, as well as his public statements, where his leanings are on this “controversy” and where he wants the audience to land. In a New York Times interview published on Monday, for instance, Lee promotes previously debunked “evidence” of a controlled demolition, such as “the amount of heat that it takes to make steel melt, that temperature’s not reached” and “the way Building 7 fell to the ground” was suspicious.
In the documentary, Lee is presented with an explanation of the facts by Shyam Sunder, who led 200 scientists in examining the evidence of the 9/11 attacks to produce a three-year-long, $16 million investigation into the collapse of the World Trade Center for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. When Sunder finishes and says, “Hopefully that answers your question,” Lee laughs and responds, “Well, not really.” Interspersed through that part of the film are Gage and members of his group promoting falsehoods that the buildings could only have been brought down by a controlled demolition, citing faulty premises about “jet fuel” and “evidence of explosions” and repeating the claim that “Building 7 is the smoking gun of 9/11.” Ultimately, Lee calls for a new congressional investigation into how the towers came down. “I hope that maybe the legacy of this documentary is that Congress holds a hearing, a congressional hearing about 9/11,” he told the Times.
You might be wondering why it matters if Spike Lee is raising questions about the official story of 9/11, particularly given that most of the “evidence” he presents is perhaps most well-known at this point because of mocking teen memes from the mid-2010s.
But Lee and HBO are offering Gage and his conspiracy theories the biggest and most mainstream platform they’ve ever had, pointing their viewers directly towards a bog of heinously dangerous ideas: Like other conspiracy theorists, Gage doesn’t just stick to 9/11, and if Lee’s viewers follow Gage down the rabbit hole, they likely won’t, either.
Gage, for instance, considers himself an expert on the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past year, he has said on various podcasts that COVID-19 is a “deep state” “hoax” and “false flag event” that has been perpetrated by an “increasingly restrictive and tyrannical government that has locked us into our own homes, and kept us in isolation from each other with distance and masks, and poisoned us with vaccines that are going to kill us.” Gage has also claimed that “Bill Gates is a eugenicist” attempting to “reduce the population” by doing “a good job with the vaccines” because “his father was the head of the whole legal deal for Planned Parenthood.” Again, once people dip a toe into the fever swamp of conspiracy theories, they are often sucked all the way in—with all the attendant horrific consequences for society and public health.
But aside from being a potential gateway drug for his ideas about COVID-19, Gage’s theories about 9/11 are dangerous in and of themselves. His elaborate conspiracy would implicate nearly everyone in the country as either culpable criminals or gullible “sheeple.” Particularly guilty are mainstream media entities—such as HBO and WarnerMedia—which Gage says are in on the crime. Indeed, the man tends to see anyone who disagrees with him about 9/11 as a likely criminal; when I interviewed him in 2011, he demanded a criminal “federal grand jury investigation” into Sunder himself.
When you listen closely to Gage and attend his events, other alleged criminals start to emerge. Chief among them: Jews. When I visited one of his group’s gatherings in 2012, he offered an open platform to participants claiming “that our government and the Israeli government, the Israeli Mossad, could be responsible for the Twin Towers demolition.” In one recent interview, Gage endorsed the ideas of a podcast host who said that Israel’s use of COVID-19 passports means that it “has the database that collects all of our phone calls” and that “Israel benefited” from 9/11 and “it’s pretty obvious who” the real perpetrators of the attacks were. In response to the podcast host essentially suggesting the Jews did it, Gage responded: “It’s not too difficult to figure that out. You just have to listen to some really, really good people—your station, which I’ve heard many times, your TV or video exposés are extraordinary.” The 9/11 truther movement is awash in this sort of antisemitism, and Gage seemingly never disputes it.
Lee is now pointing his viewers directly into the arms of Gage, whose most mainstream platform before now was the 9/11 conspiracy film Loose Change, and who has never had the type of audience that HBO is offering. It’s a shame; from what I saw, the rest of the documentary was poignant and quite good, addressing real systemic failures such as issues preventing 9/11 first responders from receiving the health care they need and even a genuine conspiracy wherein former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo covered up nursing home deaths from COVID-19. Indeed, Lee himself acknowledges the danger of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 in Episode 1 of the series, during a set of exchanges with CNN national correspondent Athena Jones and epidemiologist Jacqueline Moline:
Jones: It’s very concerning, because it is just baked in, this idea that some people don’t think this virus is a real thing. They think it’s a hoax. They think it’s just like a flu or a bad cold.
Lee: How do they think that?
Jones: They think that because they’re listening to the wrong people.
Moline: There are people that think that the world is flat.
I asked representatives from HBO and WarnerMedia what they and Lee felt about Gage’s other ideas about 9/11 and COVID-19, why those ideas weren’t included in the film, and whether or not promoting Gage’s work might be leading his viewers to “listen to the wrong people” about both catastrophes. As of Tuesday afternoon, they had yet to respond.
There’s still time, though, before Episode 4 airs, for Lee to do the right thing by excising the 30-minute section from the film, which is totally unnecessary to the true and important story he tells in the rest of the episode—about the courage and health struggles of 9/11 first responders—so that his audience is not bamboozled by 9/11 lies.
Update, Aug. 26, 2021, at 7 p.m.: The revised version of Episode 4 no longer includes the 30-minute section in which Lee speaks with 9/11 conspiracy theorists.
Update, Aug. 25, 2021, at 3 p.m.: On Wednesday, HBO sent out a message from Lee saying: “I’m Back In The Editing Room And Looking At The Eighth And Final Chapter Of NYC EPICENTERS 9/11➔2021½ . I Respectfully Ask You To Hold Your Judgement Until You See The FINAL CUT.”