The truth is out there - maybe

November 6, 2005

Sept. 11 conspiracy theories have edged into the mainstream.

In September, Fire Department chaplain candidate Imam Intikab Habib questioned whether Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida were responsible for the attacks, then quickly withdrew from the job. A short time later came a two-day conference in New York City that was built around the charge that "controlled demolition" brought down the World Trade Center.

Conspiracy books proliferate, and the Internet is such a cyber-trove of 9/11 arcana - Google the term "9/11 conspiracy," and 5.4 million entries turn up - that one site includes a primer, "Navigation for 9/11 Newbies."

As a cultural phenomenon, though, it's all been seen before: This is a conspiracy nation, and it has been almost since its founding. Those who study conspiracy rhetoric say beliefs in various 9/11 cabals are entirely predictable, that conspiracy narratives, ranging from the thoughtful and plausible to the fringy and fanciful, always have been threaded throughout American culture. (In late 2003, the 925-page "Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia" was published.)

Sense of comfort
A recurring trend, conspiracy theories tend to emerge after major national events as a means of making sense of the senseless.

"The most ambitious conspiracy theories are, in a way, oddly comforting to the people who hold them," said Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University and the author of "A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America," published in 2003.

Historically, Barkun said, conspiracy theories share "a number of related characteristics: that nothing happens by accident, that nothing is as it seems, that everything is connected. Conspiracy theorists have a view of the world in which there is no coincidence - nothing happens because of human stupidity or randomness. Somehow, everything is part of a pattern."

And, said Mark Fenster, a University of Florida assistant law professor whose book "Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture" was published in 1999, "The greater the trauma, the more the desire to have some sort of rational explanation for it ... a desire to have things be explicable in a cause-and-effect framework."

When an official account finally does emerge, added Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, an independent nonprofit based in Somerville, Mass., "there often aren't answers to all the questions. In any investigation, many paths lead nowhere," leaving some disgruntled, angst-ridden and suspicious.

Conspiracy theorists then "turn to the only explanation that's left, which discards randomness," said Berlet, who has studied conspiracy movements. "They develop a very comforting and simple theory that ultimately a handful of really bad people did it."

The way some people connect the dots, 9/11 was the work of the U.S. military; the Twin Towers and 7 World Trade Center were wired with explosives and deliberately blown up; a satellite-guided missile, not a hijacked jet, plowed into the Pentagon; the jet that crashed in a Pennsylvania field actually was shot down by Sidewinder missiles.

Some of those who promulgate conspiracy theories are angry and powerless, Berlet said, and to those susceptible to conspiracy theories, "they become a hero because they are sounding the alarms."

Before the Internet, alarms were sounded by word of mouth or by publications that rarely merited serious note in the mainstream media. The blogosphere changed that, with everyone now his or her own desktop publisher. Anyone with low-grade fears or suspicions can find kindred spirits almost instantly.

Seeds of fear
Some conspiracy theories spring up as an overreaction to "the fear and the loathing that occurs when there is destruction or damage," said Dr. Marc Siegel, who teaches at New York University Medical Center and whose latest book is "False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear."

But a contributing factor, he said, is that "the United States government and others are not inspiring confidence. You almost get a choice: You either inspire people through positive emotion or through negative emotion.

"Right now, the climate is fear. If the government is scaring people all the time, it's only about three steps away from that to distrust the government, too, and say, 'What did they do? Are they behind it?'"

"Fear easily turns to paranoia when there is a climate of distrust that the government is participating in, when you cannot trust your information sources," Siegel said.

That in turn spawns conspiracy theories, which columnist Christopher Hitchens calls "the white noise which moves in to fill the vacuity of the official version."

For all the transfiguring awfulness of 9/11, subsequent conspiracies have not overtaken the public imagination the way the Kennedy assassination did in 1963, a skepticism that persists to this day.

Conspiracy has been a recurring topic in political discourse since ancient times, though the most fertile ground has been that of American history, according to Michael William Pfau, whose book "The Political Style of Conspiracy: Chase, Sumner and Lincoln," is to be published this month.

In the 1850s, for example, the North and the South used conspiracy theories to discredit each other. Southerners feared that Northerners conspired to create slave revolts because the North sought to destroy the institution of slavery. Northerners believed that Southerners were determined to spread slavery throughout the Western states. The Republican party, Pfau says, rose to power in 1860 partly through the use of such rhetoric.

Kernels of truth
Florida's Fenster noted in a telephone interview that to label something a conspiracy theory "is an act of political rhetoric. It's an act of de-legitimization of something." And some of those who study so-called "conspiracy narratives" say it's a mistake to automatically dismiss or marginalize them, because sometimes they hint at a larger truth.

Or they are exactly on target.

In the 1960s, some warned of FBI surveillance of dissidents and infiltration of anti-war and countercultural groups, and they were disdained as paranoid. That very activity, of course, was a staple of the J. Edgar Hoover era, as were Cold War claims that the civil rights, voting rights and other progressive movements were "communist conspiracies."

Fears that the government deliberately spread AIDS and recreational drugs in inner cities may strain credulity, but, in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis program, the U.S. Public Health Service did experiment on 399 black men, a program that ended only in 1972.

Supposedly complicit in the 9/11 cover-ups is the national media cartel - which leads Berlet, of Political Research Associates, to wonder, "How could there be a conspiracy involving the military, the executive branch, Congress and the media in which somebody didn't rat it out and get a Pulitzer Prize?"

He adds, "It's very difficult to maintain conspiracies over any length of time with a large number of people. Inevitably, someone rats it out. Or someone gets arrested and turns."