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Peter Kogen works at the university grants office. He is a dedicated employee, arriving at work early and never leaving a minute before five. Ask his coworkers and they will tell you he is polite, respectful and keeps to himself.

So if any of them were driving through Urbana last Saturday, they were probably shocked to see Kogen, the quietest person in the office, standing alone on the corner of Springfield and Lincoln, holding a large sign that read: “THE WAR ON TERROR IS A LIE. 9-11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB.”

Kogen isn’t crazy. In fact, he’s about as normal as they come. He enjoys reading and having coffee with his friends. He spends the holidays with his family in Evanston. He’s dated seriously, but is currently single. It was President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq that pushed Kogen out of his characteristically reserved shell and into the streets.

He joined AWARE (Anti-War, Anti-Racism Effort) in March 2003 and became a regular at their monthly anti-war demonstrations. Six months ago, though, Kogen found a new focus for his activism: informing people about the 9/11 Truth Movement, a growing international phenomenon that Time magazine called “a mainstream political reality.” Initially Kogen wanted to bring a sign to the AWARE protests that read “INVESTIGATE 9/11 @911TRUTH.ORG,” but the group thought it was a bad idea. So Kogen decided to stage his own one-man demonstration in Urbana, exposing himself to the curious looks and nasty words of passing motorists.

Though Peter Kogen staged his latest street protest alone, there are a handful of activists in town dedicated to the 9/11 Truth Movement. Three of them meet every Friday at a local Panera coffee shop. Last Friday, the night before one of Kogen’s planned protests, two of the group’s three members — Kogen and Dr. Sachi Kuhananthan — discussed their beliefs. They claimed that there is overwhelming evidence that the government is covering up the truth behind 9/11, that the 9/11Commission Report amounts to a joke, that the events of 9/11 constituted a “false flag” operation meant to justify the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and, in due time, Iran.

When questions about the act of protesting came up, Dr. Kuhananthan, whose car is plastered with no less than 15 bumper stickers calling for 9/11 truth, said that he was more focused on promoting websites and organizing screenings of the video 9/11: Press for Truth, a project in which he’d personally invested thousands of dollars. But Kogen shrugged and, while admitting that protests wouldn’t necessarily be effective until the C–U chapter was larger, said he’d still be out protesting the next day.

“If the mainstream media were doing its job,” Kogen said, “I wouldn’t have to protest. Since they’re not, I feel like I need to tell people about this.”

There is something beautifully American about Peter Kogen. He’s a regular guy who believes so strongly in something — in his case, that the American government is behind the deaths of nearly 3,000 of its citizens — that he stands outside for hours to inform his community. His is a very democratic brand of bravery. After all, many opinionistas of the virtual world, free to say whatever they want, keep their identities safely hidden behind screen name pseudonyms. These online voices may face attacks from other posters, but the situation looks decidedly different when a guy in a big truck slows down, flips you bird and calls you a “fucking idiot.”

Indeed, many people in Champaign–Urbana see Kogen on the corner and get upset that he would say that our government is covering up the true story behind 9/11, but why all the hostility toward a hell-of-a-nice guy standing on a street corner?

Perhaps it’s an aversion toward protesters in general. A Missourian I know once said that the reason he liked Missouri was because the people there didn’t protest in the streets like the “crazy hippies” in California. This begs the question: Shouldn’t the people in Missouri get out and protest when they believe in something, whether it’s that abortion is murder or that the quality of education is a disgrace or that the occupation of Iraq is an untenable disaster or that the President’s doing one heck of a job given the circumstances? Shouldn’t Americans feel encouraged to step onto their local street corners, hold their signs aloft and proclaim their beliefs?

Sure, our world might be messier. We might even get angry and say to ourselves, How dare that person believe that? In public, no less! We might even curse and form an anti-protest protest. But in the end, wouldn’t it be better to fight about our beliefs within the community, rather than sit at home on our sofas and watch the paid pundits do it for us?