They're cynical, skeptical and convinced of the worst. They're fringe, pumped on paranoia, distrust, and they prize their outsider status.
So, they are really pretty much normal Americans.
A poll a few years ago found a third of Americans fit the loose definition of a 9/11 "Truther." The movement is normally presented as made up of conspiracy theorists, teenage anarchists and Internet nightcrawlers, but the definition of a Truther can be a lot broader. It's just someone who questions the official version of events of Sept. 11, 2001.
The fringe of conspiracy theorists says the terrorist attacks were really perpetrated by our own government, because fear translates into surrender of power, and the 9/11 deaths were turned into two wars, the suspension of civil liberties, and the public acceptance of torture.
The softer version of the suspicion says some people in the government knew about the attacks before they happened, and didn't do anything to stop them.
There could be more than 30 percent of people who believe there's something secret about the attacks, something we're not being told. There could be, according to another poll, more than 40 percent who buy the paranoia.
Some of this, I'm sure, is just shock. It's an unwillingness to accept the horrible. Like the suicide of a famous person or the assassination of a president, some events are too traumatic. They seem to undermine everything we knew about the world, and we want to come up with an alternate explanation, any alternate explanation.
But it's not just blind denial, this impulse toward being a Truther. It's not just a refusal to lose faith, but maybe more of a refusal to have faith in the first place. We choose cynicism. We choose scornful disbelief. What do they think we are, suckers?
I don't know if it started with Watergate, or the assassinations of 1968. I don't know if started with John F. Kennedy or Vietnam, of if it started back with the drunken populism of Andrew Jackson, the distrustfulness of the frontier or the founding documents signed by privateers. I know, though, that we are saturated with cynicism. We are proud of our disbelief, our sarcasm, our outsider status.
It's easier not to believe. It's easier to say something's suspicious, something smells. Unlike Fox Mulder, in the recent X-Files movie, we don't want to believe.
I've had friends tell me, secretly, they were inspired by Barak Obama, but were ashamed of it. They felt like they were being suckered. They felt themselves hoping, yet recoiled from that optimistic feeling. They would be happier voting against Republicans, because negative reasons are more respectable. My Republican friends, at the same time, often say privately they're not comfortable voting for their candidates, but are eager to oppose Democrats and counter liberalism's suckers.
Part of the secret of third parties in this country, is that it's safe to lose. It's safer to stay out of power, outside, critical, cynical and fighting. We don't want to lead, we don't want to keep the faith and risk sounding like a corny, civics textbook. We all want to be mavericks. We all want to be Truthers.
I got snagged by an usher at church on Sunday, and had my maverick status stripped away. I was sitting in the back, hiding where the organ's sound starts to warble in the open space, but the usher knew me and whispered he needed help with the collection.
I'm always most cynical when churches take up collections. Even when I know the people passing the plate, I'm skeptical, and I normally sit through this part with my arms crossed.
But there I was, forced to look gullible, passing the plate. Grabbed to help maintain the faith, instead of staying at a safe, potshot distance, there I was, acting out optimistic belief, asking for money on behalf of the church.
It was like I had my shell cracked. It was like I was forced to come in from the snow, where the warmth feels good, but hurts in your fingers. It was like I had to give up my pessimistic position of deep distrust. I had to surrender a little to hope -- and I liked it.
Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.