Who's Responsible for This? | Essay | Chicago Reader

Who's Responsible for This? 

The worldview of the conspiracist is an appealingly simple one: Since all our problems stem from a single source, all we really need is one vigilant hero to set things right

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For all its seeming irrationalities--the baroquely elaborate plots, the vehement scapegoating of seemingly innocuous characters, the obsessive cataloguing of minutiae--the world of the conspiracy theorist is an eminently rational one. In this world nothing happens by chance; everything--from the outcome of presidential elections down to the hiring practices of the Texas School Book Depository--is carefully planned and masterfully executed. "How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?" a famed political analyst once wondered. "It must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man."

The conspiracy theorist here, of course, is Joseph McCarthy. But to anyone who has ever spoken for more than a few moments to a devoted conspiracy buff, the logic is all too familiar. Conspiracy theorists don't start their inquiries with the obvious questions--who killed Kennedy? who bombed the Murrah building in Oklahoma City?--but by asking instead about motives: who would gain from killing Kennedy? who would gain from the Oklahoma bombing? Once you find a motive, you've found your man--and the evidence will adjust itself accordingly.

The world of the conspiracy theorist is a simple one, uncomplicated by the ambiguities of human psychology. People are either bad or good, motivated either by a lust for money and power or by a simple faith in the truth. There's evil simply because the bad people have power. Were the seekers of truth able to shine a light on the bad deeds of the wicked, a righteous populace would undoubtedly rise up as one to depose the usurpers of their freedom. And, presumably, we would have something close to paradise on earth: our political system would work as the charts in the civics books say it should; political violence would cease; drugs would vanish from our cities; the trains would run on time. It's a political fantasy as simple and seductive as a fairy tale. And, of course, as childish.

After the Oklahoma bombing, I spent a good deal of time poking around the paranoid fringes of the Internet, digging up stray militia manifestos and instructions on how to make bombs, and listening in, as it were, on the discussions taking place in the more politically minded Usenet newsgroups. Everywhere I turned the discussion looked more or less the same: conspiracy theorizing and apocalyptic bluster dominated by those who blamed the U.S. government itself for the tragedy, arguing that the bombing was a kind of Reichstag fire orchestrated by the Clinton administration to make racist extremists look bad. One Usenet contributor suggested that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, expecting an attack, had used the day care center in the Oklahoma City federal building as a kind of "human shield" to protect them from terrorists; another even suggested that the BATF "had warnings about the bombing and collectively took the day off--yet failed to alert others in the building, particularly those in the day care center."

The most avid conspiracists in this instance were on the right. But in the world of conspiracy theorizing, ideological distinctions don't seem to matter much. The discussions in alt.politics.white-power are similar, at least in spirit, to the discussions in alt.conspiracy--and even to those in alt.politics.radical-left.

It seems a little silly to be surprised when would-be founding fathers don camouflage and join militias and start fretting about computer chips in their buttocks and the metal strips in $20 bills. These are wacky ideas, to be sure, but they're no more wacky than the run-of-the-mill Kennedy assassination theories that have been floating around the edges of respectability for decades, involving everything from Oswald doubles and switched bodies to mysterious dart-shooting umbrellas.

While only a few serious buffs could tell you off the top of their heads the exact locations of Kennedy's entry and exit wounds, most Americans believe there was a conspiracy of some sort involved in the assassination. More than 2,500 books have been published on the subject, and you can pick up a wide assortment of assassination videos at your local Blockbuster. More than a few Americans must spend their Saturday nights looking for typos in the Warren Commission report, getting into heated debates over the firing characteristics of Mannlicher-Carcano rifles, building scale-model replicas of Dealey Plaza in the attic. Belief in a Kennedy conspiracy unites everyone from 60s-style leftists to libertarians, from former spooks to nostalgic liberals hungering for a return to Camelot. Debates on the Usenet newsgroup alt.conspiracy.jfk get remarkably specific: recent topics included everything from Dan Rather's alleged role in the alleged cover-up to a certain "Dr. Angel and the missing frontal bone."

And it's not only geeky white guys like Oliver Stone and Timothy McVeigh who believe that hidden powers rule the world. More than a third of African-Americans--inspired in part by the preachings of Louis Farrakhan and talk-radio hosts eager to stir up controversy--believe that the government deliberately created the AIDS virus to use in a genocidal campaign against blacks. And nearly two-thirds believe the government runs drugs in black neighborhoods. (Never to be completely outdone on the paranoia front, the CIA has blamed such rumors on "Soviet disinformation campaigns" and the work of other hostile intelligence services.) For a time, rumors spread in the black community that the food served at Church's Fried Chicken franchises was laced with chemicals designed to render their mainly black customers infertile--all in the service of a Klan-organized genocidal campaign.

This is bizarre, yes, but belief in the bizarre is as American as apple pie and tabloid television. Americans, for example, not only believe in UFOs, but, according to polls taken over the last 20 years (including a recent one conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University), about half of all Americans are convinced that the government is hiding the truth about alien visitors from the public. In a recent document posted on the Internet, Jon Roland of the Texas Militia Correspondence Committee outlines the conspiratorial designs of what he calls the "shadow government"--made up of financiers, government officials, and (in some undefinable way) space aliens. "UFOs and aliens seem to be involved," he writes. "Perhaps only as a manufactured opportunity/threat, but more likely the people in charge of dealing with the matter are using a real situation to expand their power."

Among devoted conspiracists, of course, everything is connected to everything else. The "mystery tramps" arrested after Kennedy's assassination in Dallas are somehow connected to the men in black who have allegedly been pestering UFO researchers ever since the first UFO made its appearance in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. All the plots have become one.

In recent years, as Michael Kelly suggested in the June 19 New Yorker, a group of devoted theorists have developed something close to a unified theory of conspiracy, an elaborate "fusion paranoia" that obliterates conventional political divisions. Drawing on an ideologically diverse set of sources, ranging from Noam Chomsky to Lyndon LaRouche, they've constructed a vision of the world in which "the Jonestown massacre is linked to the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Woodstock never happened (it was faked by the media); J. Edgar Hoover set up Teddy Kennedy at Chappaquiddick; government agents are brainwashing Americans through drugs and mesmeric techniques; Dan Rather's 'Kenneth, what's the frequency?' mugging is traced back to the CBS News anchor's 'extremely curious behavior in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.'" I'll stop here: there's already enough intrigue for a whole season of The X-Files.

"There is no left and no right here," Kelly observes, "only unanimity of belief in the boundless, cabalistic evil of government and its allies."

Conspiracy is nothing new in American politics. Indeed one could almost say that America was founded in paranoia. In some respects the American Revolution was less an independence movement than a desperate attempt to defend the rights of colonists from the nefarious plotting of a royal cabal. It's no wonder that contemporary militiamen look back with such fondness on the founding fathers; they share a similar worldview.

Once you get past the opening rhetoric, the Declaration of Independence, for example, becomes a list of plots and crimes. The British monarch is accused of everything from "call[ing] together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records" to sending "hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance." To the hypervigilant eyes of the colonial elites, such things proved not, say, that King George was a poor politician with a penchant for the occasional backhanded maneuver, but that he was a sinister plotter trying to establish "an absolute tyranny over these states." The British, not surprisingly, regarded the colonists as a bit touchy.

In the 19th century, conspiracists warned of the dastardly secret intrigues of everyone from the Freemasons to the international bankers. Anti-Catholic crusaders denounced "prowling" Jesuits and told one another lurid tales of corruption and vice behind monastery walls. Populists denounced the "treachery" of the "secret cabals of the international gold ring" that was threatening to bring America to ruin. By the mid-20th century the main enemy had migrated abroad. America's conspiratorial right wing, having set aside the Masons, fulminated against the evil powers of world communism and that other dastardly force--the United Nations.

But if the nature of the paranoia hasn't changed much since the early days of the republic, the current upsurge does have some unique features. The growth of the militias--which emerged as a social phenomenon only a few short years ago--has been remarkable: it's rare for conspiratologists to be quite so organized. According to Beth Hawkins, an investigative reporter for Detroit's Metro Times, as of last fall the Michigan Militia "credibly could claim 10,000 members." The Militia of Montana claims similar numbers, though perhaps not as credibly.

These are the success stories, but militias of some size are said to be operating in 39 states. A couple thousand here, a couple thousand there--pretty soon we're talking about real numbers. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (ADL) estimates there are 15,000 militia members nationwide. Other observers put the figure much higher. "If you count just the people who are arming themselves against the day when U.N. tanks roll through the heartland to establish the one-world order, estimates range only as high as 100,000," Time magazine recently reported, almost nonchalantly.

Now perhaps I'm being alarmist, but 100,000 seems to me rather a lot. Particularly when you start talking guns. In its heyday in the 30s, America's much-dreaded Communist Party had fewer members than that; left groups today struggle along with memberships in the low hundreds. And the reds were then (and are today) armed only with pamphlets and their own big mouths; the militias pack both ideology and ammunition. If anything, the notoriety of the Oklahoma bombing has added to their appeal: according to the ADL, the militia movement has continued to grow since Oklahoma.

Militia-style paranoia has seeped deep into American politics. Militia spokesmen get airtime on Nightline and a forum in the halls of Congress. Only a few weeks ago, our elected officials listened more-or-less politely while cammie-clad militiamen, appearing on Capitol Hill to testify before a Senate subcommittee, accused the government of, among other things, plotting vast and nefarious "weather wars" to disrupt the lives of midwestern farmers.

The only political action Kennedy assassinologists tend to advocate is the opening of the assassination files, which might not be such a bad idea--at least it would give them something to do. But the paranoia of the contemporary right can actually make a political difference. As a recent New York Times article suggested, the supremely innocuous Conference of the States--intended to bring together governors from across the nation for several days of discussion this fall--was recently scrapped because of paranoid fears that the conference was really a secret constitutional convention, part of an insidious plot to turn the country over to an emergent one-world government. And in the last year, 15 states have passed militia-style resolutions asserting their sovereign rights under the U.S. Constitution. The Oklahoma state legislature, going one step further, has declared itself firmly against a one-world government and has demanded that the "United States Congress . . . cease any support for the establishment of a 'new world order.'"

Government officials have found themselves grappling with even odder outbursts of paranoia. Indiana transportation department officials were recently compelled to alter the maintenance codes marked on the back of highway signs, because some state residents were convinced that the markings were coded messages designed to assist invading UN troops. "People were calling, saying that we were part of the U.N. takeover plan," a spokeswoman for the department told the New York Times. "And then they were painting over the signs. It got so we couldn't ignore it." The signs are now being changed, which the department hopes will "reassure those in the motoring public who had these suspicions." Somehow this isn't reassuring to me.

As the Associated Press recently reported, freshmen congressmen returning home to face their constituents--expecting to find themselves discussing the budget or the state of health care--find themselves instead peppered with anxious questions about national identification cards and the evils of the BATF. "A lot of people don't realize that twice as many children were killed at Waco than Oklahoma City," one angry citizen told Indiana representative David McIntosh at a recent town meeting. "There needs to be something done."

The Truth Is Out There, the tag line of The X-Files, is the credo of everyone who's ever cobbled together a serviceable conspiracy theory. But it's a misleading slogan: the true conspiracists need precious little confirmation from the world "out there" to be convinced that they are right. For them the truth is not so much out there as in there, buried within a system of thought that exists in a realm of its own and has its own logic--slightly unhinged, to be sure, but internally consistent and all-encompassing enough to survive more than a few challenges from the putatively sane. "When people cease to trust the authorities," writer Christopher Hitchens has noted, "they often become not more skeptical but more credulous." It doesn't take much confirmation from "out there"--a strange coincidence in the news, a sympathetic nod from someone in the government or the media--to convince the conspiracist he's found the secret key to unlock political mysteries past and present.

Despite their different targets, all variants of conspiracism share what historian Richard Hofstadter, in his influential 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," called "the same crusading mentality, the same sense that all our ills can be traced to a single center and hence can be eliminated by some kind of final act of victory over the evil source."

The necessary corollary of the belief in conspiracies as the motor of history, as Hofstadter went on to note, is the belief that ingenious conspiracy hunters can be the brake. If a dozen men control the world the one man who reveals their secret can put himself at the flash point of history. And the world had best take notice. Summarizing the conspiratorial logic, Hofstadter continues: "If the warnings of those who diagnose the central treachery are not heeded soon enough...we are finished: the world confronts an apocalypse of a sort prefigured in the Book of Revelation." Sound dramatic? It is. The world of the conspiratologists is undeniably a heroic place, a world in which one man--if diligent enough in his search for the truth--has the potential to save humanity from impending doom.

Of course, since the heroism is mostly in the mind of the hero, the bold maneuverings of the self-appointed saviors of humanity often have an unintentionally comic air about them. When a reporter for Time magazine knocked on the door of former Michigan Militia "commander" Norman Olson, he was greeted by a bathrobe-clad would-be warrior in a state of high alarm, distressed to have been pulled away even for a moment from his phone and his fax machine. "Why are you bothering me?" he demanded of the reporter. "Can't you see I'm trying to stop World War III?"

Militia commanders may take their cues from military manuals; assassinologists patch together their personal style of heroism from espionage fiction and detective whodunits. Jim Garrison's

On the Trail of the Assassins--the book upon which Oliver Stone's JFK was based--is filled with scenes that seem to have been grafted from B detective movies, and dialogue that's as likely to have been imagined as remembered. "That might have been good enough for the Warren Commission, Dean, but it's not good enough for me," Garrison reports himself saying in the midst of one dramatic showdown.

A few pages later Detective Jim gives Dean an ultimatum: "I leaned forward. 'Read my lips,' I said. I spoke with careful deliberation. 'Either you dance in to the Grand Jury with the real moniker of that cat who called you in to represent Lee Oswald, or your fat behind is going to the slammer. Do you dig me?'"

Politics, properly a collective endeavor, thus descends to the level of individual heroics--or, as in the cases of Garrison and McVeigh, mock heroics, strange and oddly isolated crusades that by their very nature do more harm than good. This is not simply a symptom of a paranoid American mindset, but of a political system so constricted in its range of options that it pushes many Americans to a kind of imaginary politics. In a winner-take-all two-party system, only the politician with the vaguest and broadest appeal has a chance. The two-party system is hell on mavericks (except in the case of "mavericks" like Ross Perot, whose politics are safely centrist in their eccentricity).

In countries with parliamentary systems even those who get considerably less than a majority of the votes can achieve some kind of political recognition, resulting in a bewildering variety of parties ranging from the German Greens to England's whimsical Monster Raving Loony Party. It's hardly utopia, but it's a step in the right direction.

In America those with odd ideas end up retreating from the world of real politics to the safer havens of their own minds--to a kind of politics of the imagination, a politics responsible to no one and indifferent to its real-world consequences. Alone and isolated, those with odd ideas get yet odder; their political visions become at once more pure and more apocalyptic. But, as Freud reminded us, the repressed has an uncanny knack for forcing its way back into our conscious life--often in the ugliest possible way. Hence Jim Garrison. Hence Timothy McVeigh.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.

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