There are about 15 people in attendance at the press conference, most of who seem to be the authors’ friends and colleagues. They listen attentively to Fetzer’s theories and nod along to his frequent digressions on the press (Logic and evidence are not the strong suit for the American media) or John F. Kennedy’s assassination (The Zapruder film was recreated). But they are most receptive to his main point, which is that Wellstone’s death was no accident. As conspiracy theories go, the one limned in American Assassination is pretty simple: An electromagnetic pulse device, or EMP, was used to kill the plane’s instruments and cause it to crash, whereupon the FBI rushed to the scene and removed the cockpit voice recorder. Afterwards, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) covered everything up with a rushed, perfunctory investigation blaming the crash on pilot errora finding at which Fetzer scoffs. Noting other elected officials who have died in small plane crashes in recent years, namely the late Missouri governor Mel Carnahan, Fetzer announces, We do believe that the use of airplanes to take out political figures is a genuine phenomenon and an example of fascism. At this announcement, several audience members break into applause. The shadowy forces behind it all? None other than the troika that controls the White House: Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, according to Fetzer. Why? Because Wellstone, the Senate’s most liberal member, was an enemy of the Bush administration’s way of doing business. He was shifting the way people were looking at politics. He was dangerous to the neoconservative agenda, claims Jacobs, his taut, intense face at odds with the colorful Western garb he is wearing.

Supporting this audacious theory is a voluminousthough somewhat ricketyscaffolding of circumstantial evidence, which Fetzer and Jacobs energetically lay before their audience during their presentation. As evidence for the use of an EMP device, they cite reports of interrupted cell-phone calls and garage doors gone haywire, as well as the expertise of one John Costella, an Australian physicist and conspiracy aficionado who collaborated with Fetzer on his last book, The Great Zapruder Film Hoax. (Costella’s support is all the more crucial given that the man who claimed his cell phone cut out due to the EMP later retracted his statement, admitting that it wasn’t unusual for phone calls to cut out in northern Minnesota). As evidence that the plane was tampered with, they rely on reports that the smoke rising from the burning plane was bluish-white, rather than the black smoke that Fetzer asserts should have risen from a kerosene fuel-based fire. Then there is the intriguing fact that the plane’s co-pilot was a flight-school acquaintance of Zacarias Moussaoui. Fetzer’s not sure what this means, but he’s certain that it means something. There was actually a connection between the co-pilot and Zacarias Moussaoui, he blurts excitedly.

The book itself turns out to be full of second-hand reports, character assassinationin a typical tangent, Fetzer insinuates that presidential brother Marvin Bush arranged his babysitter’s deathand citations of such sterling sources as and (For that matter it never explains where, exactly, the alleged EMP device was deployed or who was using it.) But in person, Fetzer sounds less like an unscrupulous author grasping at straws than a man determined to preach his truth to the world at large, whether or not the world is ready to hear it. How many people thought that JFK was a conspiracy and that Lyndon Johnson was involved? Well, I tell you, I’ve done a lot of work on this, and it was a conspiracy, and Lyndon Johnson was involved, Fetzer cries, shaking his fist.

The crowdgraying radicals and true believers, with the slightly haunted air of the perpetually marginalizedseems to appreciate Fetzer’s frequent JFK digressions. For them, Wellstone’s demise is just one more entry in a lengthy ledger of malfeasance and subterfuge by the status quo against its assorted challengers. One man, wearing a purple jacket and a button that says War Is PeaceBush-Orwell 2004, belabors the Moussaoui point, agreeing with Fetzer that such a connection can’t just be chalked up to coincidence. When I ask the man what he does, he says that he’s the director of something called the Coalition on Political Assassination.

These are Fetzer’s peoplethey buy his books, they buy his theories. Together they traverse the shadow world, shining lights in crevices, mistaking dust mites for dinosaurs, drowning in a miasma of never-ending questions and never-satisfactory answers. Intrinsically tragic as such a paranoid world view might be, there is something uniquely American in it, as well. The idea that a government would go to such great lengths to hide its misdeeds from the public is an essentially democratic onefew other governments in human history would take so much trouble to conceal their wrongs. And the fact that a dissenting voice can have a prestigious public forum in the nation’s capital to spread views that in any other era would have been considered seditious is nothing short of revolutionary.

Whether or not this dissent is factually-based is somewhat beside the point. American Assassination, with its half-baked citations and “X-Files” outlook, will convince no one who isn’t already out on that conspiratorial ledge. But for those people who are out there already, watching the world with a wary eye, it’s a fortifier, a cornet calling them to soldier on. We’re not into conspiracy theories, except for the ones that are true, Fetzer notes, and even if this one isn’t true, it doesn’t really matter. For Jim Fetzer and his band of suspicious minds, the next conspiracy is inevitably right around the corner.

Justin Peters

Justin Peters is a correspondent for Slate and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.