The appeal of conspiracy theories is strong. They seem to provide the believer a sense of esoteric understanding, of elevation above the limited grasp of moiling herd. They may make life less boring. Yet to many people, including me, they seem borderline delusional. How come?
The curious thing is that CTs–Conspiracy Theorists–seldom seem to be crackpots. I have friends who are CTs, have known others. They have been otherwise sane, not unsophisticated, and intelligent, sometimes very intelligent. Apparently to be twisted you have to start with enough string.
There are common threads. Believers in one theory usually believe in several. Choose from JFK, RFK, black helicopters, Nine Eleven, various plane crashes, FEMA camps manned and ready to hold thousands of political prisoners, and fluoridation of water to soften our brains.
Other commonalities exist, forming a sort of syndrome. Though often silly, the theories are intensely held, usually involve unfamiliarity with underlying material, vastly complicate simple explanations, and willfully overlook obvious inconsistencies and absurdities. This is puzzling in, again, intelligent men (I have met only on conspiracy theoritess.)
Further, the conspiracy theorist–here is the squarely part–seems to live in a world of DUMs– Disembodied Uniform Malignancies. These are a sort of metaphysical clouds that cause large of people to behave as if controlled by some unspecified central entity: The media, the military, governments, law enforcement. This is wacky, but universal among CTs.
This is the Conspiracy Theory par excellence. There are many variants. The mainstream holds that the Israelis destroyed the towers by controlled demolition to provide a pretext for the American attack on Iraq. (Then why does the “official story” blame it on the Saudis? It makes no sense. See?) The aircraft were presumably flown by Israeli suicide pilots. After the airliners hit, the buildings were blown up by explosives planted within. This was to make it appear that the aircraft dropped the buildings. (Then why wait an hour after the planes hit to blow up the buildings? But never mind.)
To weave the tissue of the theory, the CTs begin with their customary unfamiliarity with their subject, and with their strange lack of interest in research. Since they are not stupid, this is puzzling.
To persuade the thoughtful, they would need to show that controlled demolition was possible. They do not. They do not even try.
Controlled demolition is a technical and highly specialized field. It involves placing calculated amounts of explosive in calculated places with calculated timing. Equations govern how much of what explosive placed how will cut what kind of support. Yet in reading too much of this stuff, I have seen no indication that one CT in a hundred could tell PETN from a ham sandwich. The focus is on dark hidden forces, plots, cabals.
In a documentary I saw detailing the demolition of a building of perhaps twelve stories, much prepping was involved: knocking out of walls to get at supporting elements, sawing through beams to weaken them, planting explosives and stringing det cord everywhere on multiple floors.
There is obviously no way this could be done in a huge building, at least partly occupied twenty-four seven, with large maintenance crews working nights, without being spotted. The idea is silly. So the CTs either ignore the question or–protecting the theory by expanding it–say that the maintenance crews must have been in on it.
Note that very few people know anything about controlled demolition. The CIA doesn’t, nor Mossad, nor the military. A very few firms, such as CDI, Controlled Demolition Incorporated, do know. Where did the necessary large number of trained men come from? Did the Mossad go to a bar frequented by CDI guys and say, “Hey, Ralph, we’re about to blow up some buildings in New York, kill a few thousand people. Yeah, a real hoot. You want in? Don’t tell anybody I asked.” Of course anyone so approached would call the FBI. But we are not dealing with real questions of the real world, but with a Disembodied Malignant Field. Perhaps the necessary specialists materialized out of thin ether like subatomic particles, and then vanished back into the cosmic background.
Here we come to Complexity Expansion: CTs scrap the Official Story, replacing it with with one implicating the governments of Israel and the US, the media, the controlled-demolition industry, a large janitorial staff, and the law-enforcement agencies that (they day) have hidden the plot. If you asked the CTs why they do not favor a criminal investigation to apprehend the perpetrators, they would reply that everyone knows law enforcement is in on it. Again, expand the theory to protect it.
Never having paid much attention to the assassination of JFK, about which I know little, from curiosity I Googled “Grassy Knoll,” whence the alleged second sniper supposedly fired. “Hanh?” I thought on seeing a photo. “Am I missing something? This is nuts.”
The knoll is self-evidently the last place in Dallas to put a sniper. (The best was the book repository.) A small island, with virtually no cover, surrounded on all sides by trafficked city streets and overlooked by windows in several buildings. How sensible.
So: In broad daylight, lots of people around, the President coming through, and a guy carrying a rifle walks up the knoll. Nobody notices. Well, maybe it was deer season and lots of people with rifles were wandering around. Alternatively, a guy, with a rifle, climbs up the backside of the knoll, under the windows, with traffic passing by. Probably lots of men did that, with rifles, so it didn’t seem out of the ordinary. Or maybe he hid the night before on the grassy knoll, where there is nowhere to hide, and waited next day for the President.
Then, having shot JFK, he walks back down the knoll, with his rifle, unnoticed, or climbs back down the other side, with his rifle. Nothing conspicuous in that. It’s probably how the CIA usually does assassinations.
This–the not noticing of gross implausibility–characterizes CTs. Anyone familiar with rifles will note the great difficulty of hitting a moving eight-inch bull on a semi-crossing path while holding fire until Oswald shot. Many such inconsistencies exist.
An illustrative conspiracy theory is that of flight TWA 800 that blew up just after takeoff from New York in 1996 and crashed, killing all aboard. The “official story” was that a fuel leak caused the explosion. CTs insist that the US Navy accidentally shot it down during a live -fire exercise.
Which is absurd.
Now, I came up in journalism as a newspaper reporter. In my time, though no longer, newspapers esteemed factual accuracy. The paper might be biased politically, and always was, but the reporter had better get his facts right. The consequences of not doing so were finding another job, libel suits, and just plain embarrassment.
The enforcer of this regimen was the desk editor. He tended to be cynical, remorselessly unsympathetic, and unbullshittable. When you handed in your copy, he expected it to be sourced. There was a saying, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
By the Desk Editor standard, most if not all conspiracy theories are nonsense. They are huge on passive voice, blind quotes, and lack of verification. It’s the spirit of the thing that counts.
In the case of TWA 800, you find assertions like, “Navy ships were known to be in the area.” Ah. Which ships? How known? Known by whom? Names? Phone numbers? Or “Witnesses saw a streak like a missile….” Which witnesses? Names? Phone numbers? Had they ever seen a missile fired? Or “Laboratory tests confirmed residues consistent with a missile strike….” No doubt, Jimmy Olson. What lab? Can I see the report?
Again, we find little knowledge of the bones of the story, and a lack of research. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the military knows that the Navy does not do live-fire exercises, with no target, and no prior notification, at the end of massively trafficked urban runways. One might as well say that JFK was killed by a division of Marines engaged in live-fire infantry exercises in downtown Dallas, perhaps wearing CIA invisibility suits. Or maybe it was the staff of Mother Jones, which is as likely as the Navy.
For the record, during the decades when I was covering the military for the Washington Times and Universal Press Syndicate among others, live-fire missile tests went thusly: get an obsolete fighter from some boneyard, usually Davis-Monthan. Fit it with a remote-control pack. Send the firing ship and its escorts to a region with little civilian aviation. Give public notification well in advance. The skeet bird then flies over at the desired profile. Whoosh, boom. airliners.
Today old F-16s are used for targets as well as specifically designed unmanned target RPVs.
Wikipedia: “The QF-4 is a remotely controlled target, which simulates enemy aircraft maneuvers. The aerial target can be flown by remote control or with a safety pilot to monitor its performance. The QF-4 is flown unmanned when missiles are fired at it, and only in specific over-water airspace authorized for unmanned flight. When flown unmanned, an explosive device is placed in the QF-4 to destroy the aircraft if it inadvertently becomes uncontrollable.”
Most of this is available on the web, but CTs don’t bother.
Another newspapering saying comes to mind. “A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. A reporter should know the difference.” Now why did I think of that?
In this conspiracy as in most we see the Disembodied Uniform Malignancy: If “Navy ships” had shot down the airliner, some five hundred men, and maybe more depending on the number of “Navy ships,” would have known it. Their response would have been, “JESUS, we just… God Almighty, that was a freaking….” etc. They would then have told everyone they knew about it. The captain would have been court-martialed.
But CTs see the Navy as one multicellular thing, like the fruiting body of a slime mold, one mind composed of many cells–i.e., sailors–who will keep perfect silence about mass murder.
Likewise the media, composed of thousands of reporters who would give one leg and a lung to break such a story, obediently and mysteriously cover it up. Uh…yeah.
And the enormous complication: From a simple explanation–a fuel leak and a spark, or a bomb–we have gone to a sprawling conspiracy involving many hundreds of men, the national press, the Navy brass up to the Pentagon, ships of unconfirmed existence engaged in wildly implausible missile firing, unavailable reports from unnamed labs. Whew!
For the non-CT, I once went to sea on a shakedown cruise aboard the Vincennes, a Tico-class AA cruiser with the SPY-1 phased-array radar, then hot stuff, and watched simulated firing from the CIC. There is no way to fire “accidentally,” as missiles are not armed and, if the skipper went Queeg-gaga and ordered firing at an airliner, no one would obey.
Oh well. I’m going to lunch.