The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories


After writing a piece for about the mysteries surrounding Nick Berg's murder, I received a full mailbox of e-mails pointing out that I only scratched the surface, and that I did not give due attention to the more daring conspiracy theories widely contemplated in the weblog universe. I didn't much discuss the footage of his murder itself, raising questions about how one of the killers appears to be wearing white sneakers, or how another one openly identifies himself as Zarqawi and yet paradoxically wears a mask, or how not enough blood gushes from Berg's neck when he is decapitated, or how Berg is shown seated in the exact type of chair that is seen in photographs of Abu Ghraib prison, or other such alleged incongruencies.

Now I do not buy any of the explanations for all these perceived discrepancies given to us by the conspiracy theorists. But I do understand why so many Americans are quick to believe that the government formulates intricate plots behind closed doors. It is because the government has lied to the American people so many times about all kinds of things, and often enough that the conspiracy theories have been proven to be true.

During wartime, government lies become as common as battle casualties. Lyndon Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident to trick Americans into a worthless war with North Vietnam that cost the lives of millions of people, including more than 50,000 Americans. The first Bush administration lied to sucker Americans into the first Iraq war, and the second Bush administration lied to sucker Americans into the war's sequel. By now, it's widely accepted by many that Roosevelt provoked the Japanese to attack on Pearl Harbor, pinning the blame on two innocent military officers, all to open a back door for U.S. entry into World War II.

Anyone who said these government leaders were lying at the time was likely branded as a conspiracy theorist or crank. The widely respected historian Charles Beard lost all his mainstream credibility for confronting Franklin Roosevelt early after Pearl Harbor . Nowadays, Americans have more freedom to discuss the government lies of Roosevelt , and certainly of Lyndon Johnson, but at the time the government's veracity was given the benefit of the doubt, and those that expressed skepticism were deemed as loons and traitors.

As far as the CIA goes, those who suggest the agency makes secretive and devious plans are especially vulnerable to be shunned and ignored. To the average American, the notion that the CIA has orchestrated everything from John Kennedy's assassination to the new recipe of Coca-Cola to the murder of Nick Berg smacks of Loonyville.

Of course, we do know that the CIA has done some bizarre things, probably in clandestine rooms, and perhaps ones that were smoke-filled. The agency engineered MK ULTRA, a truly odd mission in which unsuspecting detainees were fed LSD and watched from behind one-way mirrors. And it is certainly strange that the CIA's budget is 'black' and unknown and unknowable to the general public, or even Congress.

Compound the well-known facts about government prevarications with some strange events in recent history, and some of the conspiracy theorists' ideas ' but not all of them ' seem at least as credible as the official government-approved explanations.

Some think Americans have yet to learn the truth behind the Oklahoma City bombing. Even Congressman Ron Paul has raised this point. Nowadays, the most common conspiracy theory on Oklahoma City , coming from the atypical source of the warhawks, is that Saddam Hussein had something to do with it. Whatever happened, a lot of aspects of the official story do not quite add up.

Some think we have yet to learn what happened with the downing of TWA flight 800, or, more recently, what happened on September 11.

I don't know what to think of any of this, and so I focus on the more certain and less speculative issues of the day. Whether the U.S. government went to war with Iraq to protect the value of the dollar against the Euro seems less relevant than the fact that it did go to war, it did kill 10,000 innocent people, and it currently maintains an occupation with no hope of instituting American-style democracy or freedom among a population that wants neither.

Though it's true you don't need to be a conspiracy junkie to see the connections between the Project for the New American Century and the War on Terrorism, it's even less a prerequisite to opposing the non-concealable mass violence committed in our name.

As long as we have a government, and certainly as long as it is as bloated, large, bureaucratic, expensive, intrusive, unaccountable and belligerent as it is now, we have no hope of keeping track of all the lies used to sustain its policies.

I understand the appeal of conspiracy theories, especially in a time when both presidential candidates are alumni from the same mysterious secret fraternity. But what is happening right in front of our eyes is more maniacal and frightening than even the most outrageous conjectures about cocaine and the CIA I have ever heard.

We may never know the full truth about Oklahoma City , the Kennedy brothers, TWA , flight 800, and the murder of Nick Berg. Historians can't even agree on who set the Reichstag fire.

But we do know that whether the Nazis, Communists, or anarchists burned down the Reichstag, it spawned the emergence of Adolph Hitler's murder spree. And we do know that whatever the unknowable details surrounding September 11, the U.S. government has grown to an unprecedented size and threatens the peace and freedom of millions of human beings worldwide.

The state itself is at the root of most violence on earth today, as well as the conspiracy theories that have sprouted in response to the all-encompassing confusion generated by its policies. I do not resent conspiracy theorists for their pursuits. Much of the time they will be wrong, in which case their efforts will prove futile but harmless. Some of the time they will be right, and may even uncover some important truths. But as long as we have the out-in-the-open conspiracy known as the modern state ' the ubiquitous root of massive theft, deception, and war ' focusing too much on any one lesser-exposed conspiracy theory amounts to searching for hidden branches at which to hack.

Those who want to should hack away. As far as I'm concerned, the tree I see in front of me is enough to keep my mind occupied.

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Anthony Gregory's picture
Columns on STR: 37

Anthony Gregory is a Research Analyst at The Independent Institute, a Policy Advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation, and a columnist at His website is