Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Conspiring Minds Want To Know

The "alternative" weekly in my hometown, The Riverfront Times, presents an amusing, non-judgmental account of Missouri conspiracy theorists who are convinced that 9/11 was perpetrated by Bush and Haliburton, that the Pentagon was not actually hit by a plane, and that the Twin Towers were actually brought down by a "controlled demolition." In this, of course, these conspiracy buffs merely echo the sentiments of many whackjobs on an international level, particularly the extreme right, the extreme left, and the Sheen family.

I've noticed over recent years that conspiracy theories seem to be more and more ingrained in our national consciousness, and in no demographic is this more true than among my fellow Christians. For some time now, I've wrestled with a question: Why are Christians so prone to fall for wild conspiracy theories? Is it because, as our critics argue, we are highly credulous in general? Is it because of a misunderstanding of Satan's abilities and powers, which causes us to see monolithic, organized evil underlying every event? From the Y2K panic to the endless email forwards about Proctor & Gamble's supposed Satanism or Madalyn Murray O'Hair working to take "Touched by an Angel" off the air (despite the fact that "Touched by an Angel" left the air years ago, and O'Hair's been dead for over a decade), there seems to be no conspiracy theory or urban legend, no matter how implausible or fantastic, that a substantial number of Christians are not willing to believe.

Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person I know who doesn't buy into these things. Even among people I consider to be otherwise rational and sensible, I can usually find a conspiracy theory if I dig deep enough. Not long ago, I was chatting about conspiracy theories with a highly intelligent, thoughtful Christian fellow I know on a professional basis. I mentioned the 9/11 stuff, the Illuminati, and a few other old chestnuts. He agreed with me that these were largely silly. "And this crazy stuff about Bill and Hillary Clinton having hundreds of people murdered, and Jerry Falwell selling videos about it," I added. "It's nuts!" Suddenly, his demeanor changed. "Oh, no," he said. "That's absolutely true. There's no doubt in my mind about it. They had all these people killed. Look at the evidence." Ugh.

Once upon a time, I was a conspiracy theorist too. In high school and college, I read dozens of books on the JFK assassination and became convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. To be honest, I'm still not convinced that he acted alone. But I am now fairly convinced that there wasn't a far-ranging, Oliver Stone-style, military-industrial complex/CIA plot at work. Why?

Ultimately, it was something that Chuck Colson said. He was addressing the argument that Christ's resurrection was merely a put-on by the disciples to rescue their own reputations. They orchestrated a cover-up of Jesus' death, so the argument posits, by formulating a fake story of a resurrection. Colson said something along the lines of "Look, there was a group of three or four of us who knew what really happened at the Watergate. We were among the most powerful people in the world. And we weren't able to hold that cover-up together for 72 hours." Most of the disciples went to their executions proclaiming a risen Jesus. Conspiracies just don't work like that.

And really, that's my bottom line on conspiracy theories. I don't doubt the evil of humanity. I don't doubt the motive for wide-ranging, evil conspiracies. What I do doubt is the ability to carry them off. I call it the myth of hyper-competence.

Would Bill and Hillary Clinton, if they thought they could get away with it, actually have people killed to protect themselves? I'd be less than surprised. But is there any way on this planet that Bill and Hillary Clinton could murder dozens of people with the help of the police, the Secret Service, the FBI and all other manner of go-betweens and keep a lid on it? No. They may be that evil, but they're just not that competent. The most powerful man in the world couldn't cover up an embarrassing, incriminating stain on Monica Lewinsky's dress which nearly capsized his presidency. But I'm supposed to believe he can have Ron Brown shot and have his plane full of people crashed without anybody knowing about it? Please.

Would the CIA try to have JFK killed because he threatened them in some way or other? Who knows? Let's say they would. Fine. How many people would have to be involved in that? It's been 43 years without a word. How many people in this world keep a secret for more than a week, even in the CIA? Is this the same CIA that didn't know the Russians had nukes in Cuba, that colossally misread the situation in Vietnam, that later failed to predict 9/11, the revolution in Iran, the fall of East Germany and the Soviet Union, and almost every other major world event? The same CIA which has regularly leaked things unflattering to the Bush administration? We know who Deep Throat was, we know that Clinton soiled a girl's dress, we know that two Kennedy brothers were diddling Marilyn Monroe, yet we've never seen a shred of proof of any government involvement in the JFK assassination.

The major problem with conspiracy theories is that no evidence can ever disprove them. There's an emotional attachment to such theories among adherents that I find frankly mystifying. Evidence that definitively disproves a conspiracy theory is simply taken by aficionados as proof that the cover-up is working. Because (as any lawyer or cop can tell you) life is not a jigsaw puzzle where every piece fits together just so, there will always be enough room in any scenario, no matter how clear and obvious it is, to insert some doubt. And conspiracy theorists run with this opening every single time.

The pattern is completely predictable once you understand how it works. I remember watching television with my wife in the late-night/early-morning hours that Princess Diana died in 1997. It couldn't have been clearer that it was a tragic accident. There were dozens of witnesses, many of them reporters. Her car was speeding. Her driver was drunk. All who were killed weren't wearing seatbelts, while the one survivor was. It was cut-and-dried.

"You watch," I said to my wife. "It couldn't be more obvious that this was an accident, right?" She agreed. "Wait a year or two. There will be all sorts of wild theories about 'who really killed her.' She was far too popular for large groups of people not to try to turn this into something much more than it is." Nine years later, Diana conspiracy theories are practically an industry. These ceremonial inbreds, the British Royal Family, can't pull together a foxhunt, but they somehow executed this massive conspiracy to snuff Diana the moment she coincidently stepped into a car being driven by a drunkard. Unless it was the CIA. Or the Mossad. Or MI6. Or the Freemasons. Or the Bush family. Or....

This kind of thinking is pandemic, and especially among Christians. But why do we fall into it so naturally? I'd really like to know.

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