In conspiracy we trust
But first, what in the world is a “conspiracy theory,” and why do they seem more appealing now than ever before?
According to the Random House Dictionary, a conspiracy theory “explains an event as being the result of a plot by a covert group or organization; the idea that many important political events or economic and social trends are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.”
On the basis of that definition, conspiracy theories allow people to think they have unraveled the inside story on “secret plots that are largely unknown to the public.” In other words, conspiracy theorists are simply too smart and savvy to be tricked by the powers that be.
By subscribing to alternative explanations besides the “official version” allows us mere mortals to uncover “the truth” behind events that are so sensational they could only have been orchestrated by higher powers. Indeed, conspiratorial thinking is turning into something of a religious movement.
“The social theory of conspiracy is actually a version of… theism,” wrote the philosopher Karl Popper. “It is a consequence of the end of God as a point of reference, and of the subsequent question: ‘Who is there in this place?’”
That place, Popper observed from a skeptical point of view, “is now occupied by various powerful men and groups – sinister lobbies, which may be accused of having organized the Great Depression and all the ills we suffer.”
Rescue workers search through the rubble of the twin towers at the World Trade Center on 11 September, 2001 (AFP Photo / Doug Kanter)
“Conspiracism serves the needs of diverse political and social groups,” writes academician Frank P. Mintz. “It identifies elites, blames them for economic and social catastrophes, and assumes that things will be better once popular action can remove them from positions of power… ”
Yet it must be admitted that the very elitist nature of American society does little to dispel rumors of a cabal working "behind the throne," secretly turning the screws. Indeed, a quick background check of America’s movers and shakers shows that an uncomfortable number hail from various secret societies, including, but not limited to, Skull and Bones (“the best connected white-man’s club in America”), the Bilderberger Group (an ultra-secret “steering committee”) and Bohemian Grove (an annual 3-week retreat in Monte-Rio, California, where some of the most powerful men in the world allegedly gather for lord knows what).
In light of what we already know to be true about such organizations, is it prudent to casually label those individuals who question the powers-that-be as “conspiracy theorists,” as if there were never any basis for their “irrational fears”? For example, do you have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder how it is possible – in a democracy, mind you – that the members of the most elite clubs, even those individuals running for public office, rarely admit to their memberships in public?
The consequences of elitism gone awry became glaringly apparent during the 2004 US presidential election between the Democratic nominee, John Kerry and the Republican incumbent, George W. Bush. Both of these men, from opposing political camps, are members of Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society that has groomed hundreds of young men (just 15 per year) for positions of power. In other words, not your average college fraternity.
In separate interviews with Tim Russert, the now-deceased-at-a-very-young-age host (itself the subject of a minor conspiracy theory) of the political program “Meet the Press,” both candidates deftly ducked questions regarding their affiliation with the ultra-secretive club.
So who is really zanier: the so-called “conspiracy theorists,” who rightly see the irony, if not the outright criminality, of two alumni from the same secret society competing head-to-head for the highest office in the land, or the people who vote for these individuals without bothering to ask more questions?
Are serious questions into serious issues being ignored due to the stigma of being branded a conspiracy theorist? Indeed, labeling somebody a “conspiracy theorist” has the effect – not unlike chastising a person who criticizes the foreign policy of Israel, for example, as an anti-Semite – of not only rejecting the alternative version of events put forward by the so-called conspiracy theorist, but questioning the very psychological state of mind of the individual.
Here are just a few of the conspiracy theories now gnawing away at the American psyche. Do they have any substance, or are they just, well, conspiracy theories?
Welcome to the GULAG, American-style
Homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina (AFP Photo / Robert Sullivan)
Although FEMA was caught with its pants down during that wanton act of God, the bloated government agency is much more prepared, conspiracy theorists claim, for a totally different sort of national emergency: civil disobedience on a massive scale that will necessitate the introduction of martial law and mass detentions.
This conspiracy theory has been gathering steam ever since the 1980s, when the Miami Herald broke a story about an alleged “secret government-within-a-government” operating inside of the Reagan administration.
“Some of President Reagan’s top advisers,” the newspaper reported, “have operated a virtual parallel government outside the traditional Cabinet departments and agencies almost from the day Reagan took office.”
Congressional investigators concluded that particular individuals were responsible for drafting “a secret contingency plan that called for a suspension of the Constitution, turning control of the United States over to FEMA, appointment of military commanders to run state and local governments and declaration of martial law during a national crisis.”
The Miami Herald said the secret plan did not define “national crisis,” but that it was understood to mean “nuclear war, violent and widespread internal dissent or national opposition against a military invasion abroad.”
The contingency plan was written as part of an executive order or legislative package that Reagan would sign and keep on file in the National Security Council until that “severe crisis” arose.
Fast-forward two decades later to the ultra-paranoid, ultra-violent Post-9/11 world, with George W. Bush in the role of Mad Max behind the wheel of the Global War on Terror, where everything and anything is fair game. But the enemy, as it turned out, was not just bearded men who prayed a lot. The enemy, according to the conspiracy theorists, was also the American people.
Just before the United States was making preparations to “preempt” an attack by Iraq, armed as it was with weapons of mass destruction that in fact never existed, a US federal appeals court ruled that then-President Bush “has the authority to designate US citizens as ‘enemy combatants’ and detain them in military custody if they are deemed a threat to national security,” CNN reported (January 8, 2003).
The ruling came in response to the capture of the “American Taliban,” John Walker, a US citizen accused of fighting alongside the mountain militants in Afghanistan in 2001.
Admittedly, Walker relinquished all of his rights the moment he took up arms against US forces; he was a bona-fide enemy in the very militaristic sense of the word. Nevertheless, the case of the “American Taliban” notwithstanding, the possibility of the US government abusing the abovementioned legislation, possibly accusing and detaining American citizens who are merely a nuisance, did not require a fantastic stretch of the imagination.
The Bush legislation allows for the “indefinite incarceration of US citizens,” reported The Los Angeles Times. “And summarily strip them of their constitutional rights and access to the courts.”
This is where the alleged need for mass concentration camps across the United States comes into the scene.
In the event of “mass civil disobedience” in the United States – sparked by anything from flashfloods to pandemics to anti-war protests – the government would need many facilities to detain the troublemakers. After all, they couldn’t just put them all on a boat and send them off to Cuba or thereabouts (Umberto Eco, professor and author, in his book “Turning Back the Clock” invited readers to imagine what would transpire in the event of an international conflict in our age of globalization and open borders: “Imagine what it would be like if a global conflict broke out,” he asked rhetorically. “It would be the first war in which the enemy not only lives in your own country but also has the right to national health insurance”).
These sort of dark hypothetical scenarios provided the spark to conspiratorial speculation that FEMA was constructing “American GULAGs” across the country.
“Since the nation will never be entirely safe from terrorism, liberty has become a mere rhetorical justification for increased security…” The Times article stated. “If we cannot join together to fight the abomination of American camps, we have already lost what we are defending.”
This story perfectly conforms to all the essential requirements of a conspiracy theory, which says that those individuals in power are forever looking for new ways to increase their hold on power. The ultimate goal being the creation of one-world government and the new world order, held together by technologies so powerful and pervasive they would make George Orwell roll over in his grave.
Moreover, this particular conspiracy theory is backed up by videotapes that allegedly prove the existence of the internment camps.
Glenn Beck, Fox News’s provocative talk show host, recently ran a segment dedicated to debunking the existence of the camps. His guest James Meigs, editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics, inspected a handful of the numerous facilities and came to the conclusion that they were not camps to house unruly Americans in the event of some national paroxysm, but rather train repair centers.
“The truth is actually fairly evident,” explains Meigs. “This is an Amtrak repair facility in Beach Grove, Indiana. The woman who made this video [her name is Linda Thompson and she was a popular figure during the US ‘militia movement’ of the 1990s] initially claimed that it’s some kind of American Auschwitz, and they have outfitted buildings with gas and they’ve got these strange turnstiles…”
Beck quipped with his trademark gallows humor: “Well, Auschwitz had trains… I’m just saying.”
They are coming to take away our God-given assault weapons
In the United States, a large number of people are (literally) up in arms over rumors that the government of Barack Obama is going to cancel their “guns and ammo” subscriptions.
Although the American president has gone on the record as a moderate when it comes to gun ownership – he supports a ban on the sale and transfer of all types of semi-automatic weapons; supports increasing state oversight on the purchasing of firearms; supports child-proof locks on all firearms – Americans are stockpiling ammunition and weapons at an unprecedented rate in the belief that the government will suddenly revoke the Second Amendment of the US Constitution (“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”).
“In a year of job losses, foreclosures and bag lunches, Americans have spent record-breaking amounts of money on guns and ammunition,” reported The Washington Post. “Gun owners have bought about 12 billion rounds of ammunition in the past year, industry officials estimate. That’s up from 7 billion to 10 billion in a normal year.”
The article attributed the bullet hoarding to bad economics and an upsurge in crime, as well as to suspicions about the Democrats now sitting in the White House.
“I think it’s Katrina. I think it’s terrorism. I think it’s crime. And I also think it’s people worrying about whether they’ll be attacks by politicians,” Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA was quoted as telling the newspaper. “They’re suspicious, and justifiably so.”
Whatever the case may be, with so many politically-paranoid people loading up on guns and ammo it is difficult to say whether the American people are any safer for it.
Although US gun advocates like to cite safe Switzerland, a low-crime country where gun ownership is mandatory for all males, few people would confuse Zurich and Geneva with Brooklyn and Detroit. Indeed, it is no surprise that America has the highest number of gun-related deaths in the world, and the trend shows no sign of leveling off.
Last April, for example, Pittsburgh police responded to a routine domestic-disturbance call. The door opened and Richard A. Poplawski, 22, opened fire on the officers with an AK-47 assault rifle. Three of the policemen were killed and one injured.
Four months later, in the same city, George Sodini walked into LA Fitness Center with a duffel bag, turned out the lights in a room where a dance class was in session, and opened fire. Sodini shot eight women, four of them fatally. The gunman used two 9 mm. semiautomatics and a .45-caliber revolver. His stated reason for unleashing hell: he couldn’t get a date with women.
Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell called it “another senseless shooting and a tragic shooting. It’s a case where someone who clearly shouldn't have had a firearm because of mental problems had a firearm. This guy had severe mental problems.”
In late November, four Seattle police officers were gunned down while sitting in a coffee shop. The killer, Maurice Clemmons, had been released on bail six days earlier on charges of raping a child. In 2000, then-Governor Mike Huckabee, a candidate in the 2008 US presidential elections, commuted Clemmons’s 108-year prison sentence for armed robbery and other offenses.
On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a student at Virginia Tech University, went on a shooting rampage on the campus, killing 32 people and injuring dozens. The massacre ranks as the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in US history.
The United States has yet to figure out how to keep firearms out of the hands of Americans with mental problems, while the gun lobby refuses to “violate the rights of Americans” by introducing mandatory safety features on guns (like firearm safety locks that only recognize the fingerprint of the gun owner). So now the heated gun debate is getting closer to the halls of government than many politicians are comfortable with.
On August 11, 2009, for example, William Kostric was spotted carrying a holstered sidearm openly while participating in a protest at a town hall meeting of President Barack Obama in New Hampshire, a state that permits its citizens to “open carry,” shorthand for openly carrying a firearm in public.
Kostric, who quickly hit the US talk-show circuit, never attempted to enter the venue where Obama was scheduled to speak, but rather stood on the private property of a nearby church, where he had the legal right to be.
New Hampshire state law goes rather further in protecting its citizens' rights to carry firearms in public. Carrying a pistol or revolver openly is permitted without a license; carrying a concealed weapon requires permission from the state or local police. Any atempt to stiffen these freedoms will not be easy.
Yet given the bloody mayhem that guns and assault weapons have inflicted on innocent US citizens over the years, some Americans are probably hoping that the conspiracy-theory rumor mill is correct and there really is a government plan to take away everybody’s guns. But such an unconstitutional decision, should one ever arise, would certainly trigger the ugliest debate America has ever known, at least since the Civil War.
Obama was really born in Kenya, or was it Indonesia
Punch the name “Obama” into Google and the third most popular selection for the American president involves his birth certificate, or, as a growing group of individuals called “birthers” would argue, the lack of one.
Theories concerning the legitimacy of President Barack Obama’s citizenship and his eligibility to serve as president have served as political fodder before and since his victory in the 2008 presidential election. Some of these conspiracy theories allege that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, and that his birth certificate is a forgery. Other theories allege the US president is a citizen of Indonesia.
Being a natural born citizen is a requirement to be President of the United States under Article Two of the United States Constitution. Thus, Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, the California governor, who was born in Austria, is ineligible to enter a US presidential election.
In early December, this conspiracy theory received a stab of adrenaline when Sarah Palin, John McCain’s vice presidential running mate in the last presidential elections, told radio talk show host Rusty Humphries that it is “fair game” to question the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate.
Now the “birthers” are back and more persistent than ever, demanding that Obama come clean with the coveted document.
In early December, the US Supreme Court rejected an emergency appeal from a New Jersey man who claims President-elect Barack Obama is ineligible to be president because he was a British subject at birth.
The court did not comment on its order Monday, rejecting the call by Leo Donofrio of East Brunswick, NJ, to intervene in the presidential election.
Despite the defeat, it will certainly not be the last time we hear complaints about the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate and his right to serve as the president of the United States.
Swine Flu and Executive Order 13375
To casual observers, “swine flu” is a severe influenza somehow related to pigs that may result in death in the unfortunate carrier. Or, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the global outbreak “represents a new strain of H1N1 influenza virus… first detected in April 2009, which contains a combination of genes from swine, avian (bird), and human influenza viruses.”
But for conspiracy theorists, swine flu is an entirely different animal. Indeed, it represents a deliberate effort to erect one world government out of the breeding ground of fear, death and disease that would invariably be a by-product of any global pandemic (Consider the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. It is estimated to have killed anywhere from 50 to 100 million people worldwide, possibly ranking worse than the Black Death. An estimated 500 million people, one-third of the Earth’s population at the time, were infected. In other words, swine flu is absolutely nothing to sneeze at).
The Internet underworld went into overdrive in April when Bridger McGaw, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary, circulated the contagious “swine flu memo.” That devious little piece of paper reads: “The Department of Justice has established legal federal authorities pertaining to the implementation of a quarantine and enforcement. Under approval from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Surgeon General has the authority to issue quarantines.”
CBS News speculated that McGaw “appears to have been referring to the section of federal law that allows the Surgeon General to detain and quarantine Americans ‘reasonably believed to be infected’ with a communicable disease.”
So what is the big deal, the reader may be wondering? After all, if 50 million people died in 1918 from Spanish flu pandemic, does the government not have a duty, if not the right, to protect all the healthy citizens from the infected ones? Apparently not, and this is where the now-infamous Executive Order 13375, signed on April 1, 2005, comes into play.
The ability of the US government to implement a quarantine order is limited to diseases listed in the presidential executive orders (tuberculosis, for example). But in Executive Order 13375, signed by President Bush, “novel forms of influenza with the potential to breed pandemics” were added among the outbreaks that could allow for a quarantine order.
Anyone violating a quarantine order can be punished by a $250,000 fine and a one-year prison term.
Later, in November 2005, the Bush administration released the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, which envisioned closer coordination among federal agencies, the stockpiling and distribution of vaccines and anti-viral drugs, and, if necessary, government-imposed “quarantines” and “limitations of gatherings.”
For individuals with a conspiratorial frame of mind, the government was tightening the noose around the neck of freedom, hedging their bets on a global pandemic that would allow them to enact draconian measures against the people.
The flames of suspicion were fanned when it was revealed that the US Marshals, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – not the most benevolent organizations in the minds of the conspiracy theorists – would be the friendly government agencies to enforce any quarantine order.
Even the Pentagon was enlisted to lend its unwieldy support in any future bug battle.
A Defense Department planning document summarizing the military’s contingency plan says the Pentagon is prepared to assist in “quarantining groups of people in order to minimize the spread of disease during an influenza pandemic” and “aiding in efforts to restore and maintain order.”
Now please imagine if you will, at a time when people cannot even trust their neighborhood mailman, FBI agents showing up one sunny morning to haul Mr. and Mrs. Smith N. Wesson off to some federally-ordained quarantine zone (The Houston Astrodome, maybe, or the local hospital?). The pure logistics alone to pull off such a massive operation boggles the mind; but to think that Americans, in whatever physical condition they may happen to be, will open the door to a unit of gas-masked, gun-wielding government agents is simply wishful thinking.
So perhaps the conspiracy theorists overestimate the evilness of their government officials, who, given their efforts to mitigate the effects of other past disasters (think Hurricane Katrina), would certainly not be able to carry out the evacuation of potentially millions of infected Americans. This is also the argument given to explain away other "conspiracy theories," such as the massive one involving the curious events of 9/11: governments are simply not competent enough to plan and pull off such elaborate schemes without leaving behind a messy trail.
But good luck convincing the conspiracy theorists of that.