Others might prefer a good old-fashioned whodunit, but for purely recreational reading we relish a good conspiracy theory. They have plots as carefully contrived as any mystery novel, feature villains and heroes every bit as clearly cut, and offer the same refuge from reality with the same reassuring implausibility.
The past week, however, has brought forth more conspiracy theories than even the most avid buff would want. Bombings at the Boston Marathon, ricin-laced letters sent to a senator and the president, an explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant, and the culmination of the gun control debate in a series of Senate votes on Wednesday all had the conspiracy theorists working overtime. There is no reason to believe that any of these events are related, but their unlikely confluence in the span of a few days seems to have heightened the suspicions of the conspiracy theorists nonetheless. Coincidences do no occur in conspiracy theories, a strict convention of the genre, and even the most random dots can somehow be connected.
A quick arrest in the ricin-laced letters case has blunted much of the speculation about the case, although any details that emerge might yet inspire more conspiracy theorizing. The suspect is an Elvis impersonator, a plot twist that the most ingenious mystery novelist could not invent, and thus far it is unclear what motives he might have for his alleged crime. He is reportedly a registered Democrat, which will no doubt come as a disappointment to those eager to blame such events on right-wing extremism, but the choice of a staunchly Republican senator and President Obama as victims suggests a bi-partisan sort of craziness that does not easily lend itself to conspiracy theories. Other reports suggest that the suspect is a conspiracy theorist, however, so perhaps his views will eventually spawn a good legend.
An accident is always a more probable explanation for an explosion at a fertilizer plant than a terrorism attack, especially when the plant is located in such an unlikely target as the small town of West, Texas, but that has not stopped the conspiracy theorists from all sorts of suspicious speculation. That the explosion occurred so soon after the Boston Marathon bombings fueled the speculation, as did the town’s proximity to Waco and it’s upcoming anniversary of the tragic conflagration that resulted when federal agents conducted a raid on a religious cult there, and within hours of the explosion there were several web sites dedicated to the possibility of terrorism.
Terrorism clearly occurred at the Boston Marathon, so all of the conspiracy theorizing has been devoted to identifying a possible culprit. Some are openly hoping that it turns out to be white people with extremist right-wing views, while others are assuming that Islamist radicals are to blame, and thus far neither camp has any real evidence for their theories. Photographs of two possible suspects released Thursday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation are a sort of Rorcshach test for conspiracy theorists, grainy and indistinct enough that one camp will look and see two white men while the other will immediately spot two men of Middle Eastern appearance, and in any case the men are only suspects and their ethnicity provides no proof of their motives. For what it’s worth the men’s rather hip-hop style of clothing strikes us as incongruous with right-wing extremism, but perhaps the right-wing extremists in Boston are more fashion-conscious than the ones we encounter here in the heartland. The debate will rage until some definitive proof emerges, and even then the true believers will continue to insist on their original suspicions.
As with every tragedy of this sort, allegations of a “false flag” government theory are also proving popular. The FBI news conference where the photographs were released was constantly interrupted by one of the more prominent peddlers of this theory, which is based solely on the usual wild conjecture and fevered fear of a government conspiracy behind anything bad that happens, and the notion is also gaining currency on some of the more fanciful talk radio programs. It’s a comforting notion that a nefarious cabal is secretly running the world, at least when compared to the sobering reality that the world is far too vast and complex for even the most diabolical genius to successfully run and tragedy is therefore beyond anyone’s control, and conspiracy theories of this sort will always appeal to the anxious people at both ends of the ideological spectrum. The side that is out of power, as the largely forgotten “9/11 Truth” movement demonstrates, will always be more prone to such conspiracy theories.
Which is not to say that people do not conspire with one another to achieve their common goals, a point that was acknowledged by both sides of the recent gun control debate, but these are usually limited conspiracies conducted in plain view and without any cloak-and-dagger conduct. In a petulant and peevish speech in the White House rose garden Obama seemed blamed the Senate’s failure to pass any of his pet proposals on the “gun lobby” convincing the public that his “common sense” measures were part of a government conspiracy to disarm the citizenry, which is a sort of conspiracy theory itself, and his vice president mocked anyone who doubted his good intentions as a paranoid gun nut and member of the “black helicopter crowd.” There are plenty of politicians and activists who do wish to disarm the citizenry, however, and there are reasons to suspect that Obama is among them, so it isn’t paranoid for those who cherish their gun rights to organize against an organized effort to do away with the Second Amendment.
Guarding against a government’s natural inclination for more power is not the same as suspecting a government plot behind every tragedy, and doing so through the democratic process as in the defeat of the gun control proposals is patriotic rather than treasonous. All these crazy conspiracy theories, alas, tend to discredit the valid ones.
— Bud Norman