November 2006 -- The fifth anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity has come and gone. Many of us took time to remember the fallen, and to reflect upon the wider meaning of the ideological threats to our way of life.
Regrettably, these somber remembrances and thoughtful reflections were marred by the loud, incendiary claims of conspiracy theorists.
Surely, you have heard the 9/11 conspiracy theories by now. The U.S. government—not Osama bin Laden and radical Muslims—brought down the World Trade Center. Attacked the Pentagon. Tried to hit Congress, even. Or at least allowed these things to happen—then covered it all up.
Why? To justify launching the War on Terror.
And why launch a War on Terror?
If you are a Muslim conspiratorialist, it’s because the Great Satan wishes to destroy the Muslim world.
If you are a libertarian conspiratorialist, it’s because a War on Terror would allow excuses for the diabolical neocons to violate our liberties, vastly increase government spending, and consolidate power.
If you are a leftist conspiratorialist, it’s because that gives the imperialistic U.S. a rationale to colonize the Middle East.
If you are a conservative conspiratorialist, it’s because it gives the communist Insiders and international bankers a greater stranglehold on our economy.
The wonderful thing about the 9/11 conspiracy theory is that it can be cited to explain damned near anything, for damned near anyone. Like the Blob from the 1950s horror movie, an ambitious conspiracy theory like this one can expand amorphously in any direction, allowing it to encompass—and account for—any conceivable fact, thus allowing its proponent to imagine himself unassailable to any challenge.
Conspiracy theories provoke anti-science and anti-American sentiments around the world.
Of course, the “theory” (if we dignify it with that label) is complete nonsense. Recently, Popular Mechanics editor Jim Meigs and his staff took on and meticulously refuted the various 9/11 conspiracy theories in several long articles, a dedicated blog, and a book, Debunking 9/11 Myths. Naturally, none of this matters one whit to the conspiratorialists: clearly, Popular Mechanics has been co-opted or duped by The Conspiracy, you see.
This prompts me to address a wider issue: the general susceptibility of many people to conspiracy theories of all sorts.
Mr. Occam, forget your famous “razor”: there is no simple, obvious explanation for anything that can possibly withstand the orgies of speculation, assumption, and rationalistic deduction conducted by conspiratorialists. Celebrities like Marilyn and Princess Diana and George “Superman” Reeves never simply die, you know. Some always-gargantuan, always-brilliantly-orchestrated, and always-perfectly-kept-secret conspiracy murdered them, for reasons of cosmic importance and Byzantine complexity. It’s the same for any tragic event or major attack. Pearl Harbor. 9/11. The Kennedy assassination. All cunningly planned and brilliantly executed by a secret cabal of Men at the Highest Levels. So popular are conspiracy theories that thriller writers and filmmakers have turned them into lucrative careers. Think Robert Ludlum. Dan Brown. Oliver Stone…
So, why do conspiracy theories attract such vast audiences?
Well, I have my own theory about that.
At the root of conspiracy theories is a primitive, childish view of the universe—an attempt to explain why things happen by attributing all events to some conscious entity’s intention. Primitive peoples believed in polytheism—a kind of metaphysical “conspiracy theory,” if you will—by which natural phenomena (wind, rain, thunder, flowing water, volcanoes, etc.) occur because specific gods or specialized demons intended for those things to happen. But while polytheism was the source of rich and creative mythology, it also made for a universe of unwieldy, chaotic complexity. When monotheism came along, it integrated and thus simplified the dizzying number of metaphysical conspiracies (and secret magical agents), leaving one grand source of all causality: a single, all-powerful god.
Conspiracy theorists have merely taken what we might call “explanation by intention” and applied it to the social arena. Like polytheists, some conspiracy theorists explain everything that happens around them in society by reference to a multiplicity of conspirators and plots. But, like monotheists, most conspiratorialists these days claim to have a more sophisticated understanding of the social world: They see everything that happens in society as caused by a single grand conspiracy run by a small number of devious plotters.
Observe that conspiratorialists attribute to secular schemers the same traits traditionally ascribed to the monotheistic god: omniscience, omnipotence, and infallibility. I mean, those guys control everything. And no matter how many plotters are involved, not a single traitor ever exposes their grand-scale machinations. That’s why conspiracies are so often regarded and described as “diabolical.” Who else but an all-powerful devil could do so much evil, yet never get caught?
At the root of conspiracy theories is a primitive childish view of the universe.
In the conspiratorialist classic None Dare Call It Conspiracy, author Gary Allen frames the fallacious, quasi-theological premise underlying conspiracy theories: that whatever happens in the world is either the result of “accident” and “coincidence,” or the result of “intention” and “conscious design.” Allen and other conspiratorialists cite the tangled details and “coincidences” that invariably accompany any given event as “proof” that “all this complexity couldn’t have occurred by accident.”
What else is this except the theological “Argument from Design,” applied to society?
Of course, “accident” and “design” don’t exhaust the logically possible ways to explain events. People often intend things—for good or ill—contrary to the eventual outcomes. For example, ignorant of fundamental economics, liberals raise the minimum wage, intending to help the poor and minorities; instead, unemployment follows. Do we conclude that liberals were really scheming all along to cause unemployment?
Most conspiracy theorists believe in the power of plots because they utterly fail to grasp the power of ideas. As John Maynard Keynes famously wrote: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
In other words, shared premises—not secret meetings in smoke-filled rooms—cause many people to act toward the same goals, making it appear as if they were being directed consciously, by some Invisible Hand. I directed this argument against conspiracy theories in a November 1995 column in The Freeman magazine titled “Conspiracy or Consensus?” Predictably, that essay earned Yours Truly a shrill (and delightfully illogical) critique in none other than American Opinion, the John Birch Society’s magazine. You see, I was either a conspirator myself, or a “dupe” of the “Insiders” who control the universe.
Most conspiracy theories are magnificent in their complexity and breathtaking in their stupidity. UFOs have been visiting the earth for years; they are so Superior that they have almost never left behind incontrovertible physical evidence of their presence; but The Government knows and is covering it all up; it has dead aliens on ice at that secret military base, Area 51. The CIA, FBI, Big Business, and Lyndon Johnson murdered JFK, according to the anti-American conspiratorialist filmmaker Oliver Stone. AIDS was devised in U.S. labs and then deliberately unleashed in Africa by the racist U.S. government, according to leftist and racially motivated rabble-rousers.
Well, why is it so harmful to believe such garbage? Because these conspiracies, respectively, divert precious resources into dead-end government boondoggles to find elusive ETs; divert attention from the much more plausible machinations of Fidel and the Soviets in JFK’s death; and provoke anti-science and anti-American sentiments around the world.
In some versions of the alleged 9/11 conspiracy, the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked by our own government. Yep, government officials decided to target the seats of their own financial and military power! Not only that: they managed to orchestrate, simultaneously, the attack on the World Trade Center (not just by airliners, but by secretly planting explosive charges throughout the buildings), the firing of a cruise missile into the Pentagon from a U.S. military jet, and the shooting down of Flight 93 by another military jet. Moreover, this was accomplished with the aid of secretly recruited and trained Arab stooges who would hijack and fly the airliners, then “take the fall” for the conspirators—literally and figuratively. It is a plot so vast and maze-like that it would have required hundreds of co-conspirators worldwide. Yet not a single soul ever got cold feet and blew the whistle in advance, or got pangs of conscience and betrayed the plot afterwards.
Such incredible secrecy—in a city where President Clinton couldn’t even keep secret his private sexual romps behind closed doors. Where President Nixon couldn’t hide from the Washington Post his administration’s involvement in a third-rate hotel burglary. Where government bunglers can’t keep laptop computers with Top Secret data from falling into the wrong hands. Where the supposedly all-seeing, all-knowing NSA, CIA, and DIA didn’t have a clue that the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse in 1979—and couldn’t provide accurate intelligence to the President about WMD in a backwater like Iraq.
Yet bedazzled by their own ponderous, rationalistic deductions from a few isolated facts, the conspiracy theorists conclude that the success and secrecy of this incredible 9/11 plot only proves how diabolically cunning the government puppet masters were and “how high up” in the government the conspiracy goes.
Conspiracy theorists believe in the power of plots because they utterly fail to grasp the power of ideas.
Most conspiratorialists whom I’ve met over the years tend to be powerless, frustrated people living in social isolation. They have no contact with the Big Shots whom they assume run everything and thus no inkling about how high-level decisions are really made. Many do have highly honed deductive capacities, however: They are rationalists par excellence, with the tendency and tenacity to follow meticulously any random premise or fact down long, attenuated deductive chains, to the most absurd conclusions imaginable. How? By evading or explaining away any inconvenient empirical facts to the contrary that might blow their grand theories to smithereens. In fact, theorizing seems to be the sole source of their pride: Impotent in the social world, all they have left to control are the contents of their skulls. So, they take great solace and pride from their ability to add 2 plus 2 and concoct the totally creative 9.
That’s also why, incidentally, so many religious fundamentalists tend to be susceptible to conspiracy theories. In addition to the “Argument from Design,” adherents of both fundamentalism and conspiratorialism share the same methodological habit of taking a few premises (or articles of faith), then rationalistically deducing away to absurd conclusions.
In the film Conspiracy Theory, Mel Gibson’s character is just such a wounded and isolated soul, drowning in paranoid fantasies from his own imagination. The conceit of the film is that, for the first time in his life, the guy uncovers a real conspiracy and nobody believes him. It’s fine light entertainment—but that’s all. Conspiracy theories are rarely light entertainment. Too often, they have pernicious impacts because they blind people to the true, underlying causes of events.
How emotionally satisfying it is to believe that some vast U.S. government conspiracy brought down the Twin Towers.
How inconvenient it would be, though, to grasp that those great buildings toppled because of the power of certain very popular ideas in the world today. The latter explanation is much less romantic and also much more difficult to face and address. Doing so would require a grasp of the power of philosophies and ideologies in motivating people; the ability to sort through and separate good premises from bad; the willingness to abandon one’s own long-held but toxic ideas and values; and the understanding that stopping ideologically motivated fanatics requires the slow, patient spread of better ideas and values.
How much simpler to blame it all on Karl Rove and Richard Perle.
Observe that in political conspiratorialism, the far left and far right often meet and blend. Nutcase “paleolibertarians” on the Lew Rockwell website, tinfoil-hat LaRouchies, moonbat Marxists from the Workers World Party, and envy-eaten Eurotrash from intellectually disreputable places like France all wind up on the same side, whether by “accident” or “design.” Feeding the paranoid delusions of anti-American Islamists, they constitute a de facto coalition of malice, united only in their shared hatred for the great Satan: the U.S. government.
So, to all you conspiracy kooks out there now ready to pounce:
No, you are not Doing Good. In fact, the damage that you do—by spreading paranoid delusions, by breaking down the bonds of social and institutional trust, by diverting people from pursuing valid, scientific, causal investigations, and (in the global arena) by fomenting anti-American hostility—is incalculable.
So, please spare me your long-winded tracts and obsessive wackiness. I’ll ignore you. No, not because I’m one of “Them.” No, not because I am a “dupe.” No—simply because I’ve heard all your nonsense a million times before.
Go peddle your paranoia elsewhere.