"No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."
While I have no doubt there exist miniscule conspiracies that involve two or three guys dumping Jimmy Hoffa in a swamp (and even some a bit more complicated than that), I also have no doubt there do not exist impossibly complex conspiracies -- ones perfectly executed -- that involve four passengers planes being remote-controlled into skyscrapers, ones which, by the way, also have remote-controlled explosives hidden in them.
Yet, these kinds of conspiracies have been around since, oh, the day human race showed up. I'm sure the conspiracy stories thousands of years ago were doozies, just as they are today: "See that tribe over there? Their invisible witch-doctor, whom no one has ever seen but I still know exists, sent a tornado right through our teepees last night and killed all our cows. Let's go rub all of them out."
Not only are conspiracy theories not new, they are warned against in the Bible:
"For Jehovah spake thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me not to walk in the way of this people, saying, Say ye not, A conspiracy, concerning all whereof this people shall say, A conspiracy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be in dread thereof. Jehovah of hosts, him shall ye sanctify; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread." (Isaiah 8:11–13).
Theorists attribute to conspiracy what the Bible attribes to God: omniscience and omnipotence. Anyone who believes that will end up with warped brains.
The best conspiracy story I encountered recently is the one in which Joe Kennedy (the father) okayed the hit on both his sons, John and Bobby. Before that, it was the one about how the Titanic and its sister ship, the Olympic, were switched so the Olympic would go to the bottom and the owners get the insurance money.
Why do people believe such wackiness? Such conspiracies are clearly nonsense, ones that have zero proof and are almost completely divorced from reality, yet many people still suspect they are true. Some are convinced they're true, and end up spending 40 years trying to prove there were three shooters triangulating on Kennedy. And 40 years from now, there will be people with 30 books and several boxes of papers, fanatically convinced there was a satellite or a helicopter that took over those four planes and crashed three of them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. (I wonder how many of them will ever find out that idea was the plot of the first episode of The Lone Gunmen, the spin-off of The X-Files, which came out several months before 9-11?).
All these conspiracy stories look different on the outside, but there is a core story all have in common: there exist incredibly brilliant, evil, perfectly hidden people who are responsible for most of the problems in the world. They go by many names: the Illuminati, the Masons, British bankers, Zionists or, if you want to believe David Icke, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian space aliens (I might have fallen for that one except when he claimed Kris Kristofferson was one). But underneath all of these stories, there remains that one core story.
Do such brilliant, evil people exist? In real life, no. In fiction, yes: for one, that graduate of Evil Medical School, Dr. Evil. Do there exist high-IQ psychopaths who are experts in explosives, skyscrapers, logistics, electronics, planes, secrecy? And whatever else is required, all rolled into a few people that no one can seem to find? Ones who can pull off such an extraordinarily multiplex stunt, blame it on others, and cover their tracks so completely that no one can find any of them?
I remember an anthropology class in college, where the instructor told us in some primitive tribes the members don't believe anyone dies of disease or accident -- they believe in witches who've cast fatal spells on them. Those witches, of course, have to be ferreted out and killed. Talk about everyone being paranoid.
Do such witches exists?
I know such an idea sounds preposterous to us, but it's still an example of that core story: brilliant and evil people are the ones who did it! It's no different than Europeans or Americans who thought witches existed, ones who hexed people. A lot of them ended up burned at the stake. Since more than one "witch" was immolated (there were tens of thousands), obviously the people during that time thought they were dealing with a conspiracy.
That same belief in witches and witchcraft exists today, only those "witches" have advanced technology instead of magic, and fly airplanes instead of brooms. But it's still the same core belief: it was done by those evil, brilliant people. Heartless, cruel people, motivated solely by the lust for money and power. Usually, they want to conquer the world, like that little big-headed mouse, Brain, of Pinky and the Brain.
The people who believe in these impossible conspiracies will be loath to admit they're the same kind of people who, several hundred years ago, believed witches really existed and cast spells on people. But they are, whether they can admit it or not. They believe in a conspiracy of corporeal demons, ones who can ensorcel us to the degree that no one can quite figure who they are or how they actualized their evil nefarious plans. They appear to be The Shadow's evil twin, clouding men's minds so they can't see the truth.
They're also examples of that curious, indeed almost unconscious belief, that evil is smarter and more powerful than good. No one believes in a conspiracy of good people attempting to do good things to the world. It's always evil people, and they're never dumb. They're not even smart. They're Mad Scientist brilliant. Why are there no Totally Sane Scientists involved in a conspiracy to put the world right? They're always mad, brilliant and evil people doing terrible things. Nobody would believe in a conspiracy of Really Nice, Really Smart Guys Doing Good Things. But they'll believe in some guy with Emilo Lizardo-type wild hair going "BWHAHAHA!!"
It doesn't say much about people, that they believe such things, not when in the past it led to innocents having firewood ignited at their feet while they're strapped to a pole. Religion, for all its many faults, at least got one important thing right: people are asleep, hypnotized. That sleep-walking has very often led to some truly depraved behavior.
The first guy I met who truly believed in conspiracies was a religious nutcase (who I will call Keith) who thought that he, and only he, understood what the Bible meant. He was convinced the Catholic church was the anti-Christ and the Whore of Babylon, and since he had discovered the truth about the church, he told people the Pope had sent assassins to rub him out. He was totally rational in his own way, but completely deluded. He was also, not surprisingly, "writing a book," one he has been working on for about 25 years.
In his mind everything was very simple: there were bad people who were responsible for most of the problems in the world, and then there were the good people (which basically meant him and anybody who agreed with him) who had turned the tables and discovered the plot. He was the ultimate conspiracy buff, who, if he ever gained political power over people, would probably go completely grandiose and paranoid and therefore would really be insane.
In the entire time I knew him he never admitted he was wrong. When someone never admits he is wrong, he has no recourse except to project all his problems on other people. Fanatical conspiracy buffs are exactly the same way: having discovered the truth, they are never wrong, and therefore have to locate all evil in other people.
It was from my deluded aquaintance that I realized that the fixed belief in these massive, complex conspiracies is narcissistic: there are brilliant and evil people who are responsible for most of the badness in the world, and I, in my intellectual and moral superiority to them, have grandiosely figured them out. Even if I don't have any proof.
But what about people who aren't as nearly as crazy as my crazy friend? The same applies to them as it does to him, only in lesser degree: there are brillant and evil people responsible for our problems...only they're not sending godly gunsels to rub me out. The paranoia is far less. And thank goodness for that.
On that lesser scale, I'd say the more powerless people feel, the more horrible things that happen, the more they are prone to belief in conspiracies. "Conspiracies and urban legends offer meaning and purposefulness in a capricious, kaleidoscopic maddeningly ambiguous, and cruel world. They empower their otherwise helpless and terrified believers," writes Dr. Sam Vaknin. People believe in conspiracy theories because of a deep-seated need to make sense of major events in terms of major causes. They want to impose order and pattern on a sometimes chaotic world.
Vaknin also writes: "The narcissist sees enemies and conspiracies everywhere. He often casts himself as the heroic victim (martyr) of dark and stupendous forces. In every deviation from his tenets he espies malevolent and ominous subversion."
His comment about the sometimes capricious and cruel world means the archetype of the horror story is relevant: evil invaded by good; order attacked by chaos. A belief in major, impossible conspiracies is the belief in Godzilla-sized monsters attacking the order of society, and our lives. Since some people see these conspiracies everywhere, they become paranoid. They exaggerate the threat; they give people evil qualities that they cannot possess, only demons and monsters. Hence, the belief in astonishing brilliant and astonishingly evil conspirators.
Writes Lev Grossman: "There are psychological explanations for why conspiracy theories are so seductive. Academics who study them argue that they meet a basic human need: to have the magnitude of any given effect be balanced by the magnitude of the cause behind it. A world in which tiny causes can have huge consequences feels scary and unreliable. Therefore a grand disaster like Sept. 11 needs a grand conspiracy behind it. 'We tend to associate major events -- a President or princess dying -- with major causes,' says Patrick Leman, a lecturer in psychology at Royal Holloway University of London, who has conducted studies on conspiracy belief. "If we think big events like a President being assassinated can happen at the hands of a minor individual, that points to the unpredictability and randomness of life and unsettles us.' In that sense, the idea that there is a malevolent controlling force orchestrating global events is, in a perverse way, comforting."
Ultimately,the belief in conspiracies is the belief the "perpetrators" are walking, talking little Satans.
Believers ignore the concept of Occam's Razor ("Entities should not be multiplied unncessarily"). It's the same thing as the principle of parsimony, or as most people know it, KISS ("Keep it simple, stupid"). Simple conspiracies have a chance of succeeding; impossibly complex ones do not.
People think that because something "great" has been bought down, it can only have happened though the agency of something equally "great," even if that "greatness" is evil. It's why some people cannot believe Kennedy was killed by one insignificant man, or the WTC and the Pentagon where attacked by 19 Arabs still stuck in the 7th Century. It's that old narcissistic tale of either idealized or devaluded.
The story of the Garden of Eden is also relevant. In it Adam blames Eve for his problems, and Eve blames the serpent. It illustrates our first defense against pain: blame it on someone else.
Here's how the story of the Garden of Eden applies to today: for at least 50 years the U.S. has interfered in the Islamic world, supporting dictators who oppressed and murdered their citizens. At the same time we've let in foreigners who have no business in this country.
So when they strike back at the U.S., our first defense is to blame them while ignoring what we've done. We idealize ourselves and devalue them. We're shocked at the attack, most especially since we let them in our country. "How dare they do this...it must be because we are good and they hate us because they are evil." Again, that narcissistic idealization or devaluation.
You could say it's the belief in God (which is us) always under attack by Satan (which is them). Only mere humans aren't Satan, and they certainly aren't God.
Since people believe in monsters, they seek a hero to save them. Usually this requires idealizing him and giving him qualities of goodness, intelligence and bravery he doesn't possess. Quite often he claims, and the people claim, that he had God on his side.
His "goodness" and "intelligence" and "nobility" is exaggerated almost as much as conspirators' evilness. We are desperate to idolize such a man, hoping he can save us.
Perhaps in children's fairy tales can heroes and monsters be like this, but not in real life. Sometimes, the "hero" can be utterly incompetent, or even a catastrophe, as in the case of Hitler.
Yet, some conspiracies do exist. How can a person tell the difference between a conspiracy that can exist, and one that cannot?
Here's a potential answer: all conspiracies that can exist are the handiwork of imperfect people who make obvious mistakes. All conspiracies that cannot exist are supposedly the work of superintelligent, superevil superdemons, ones who can, as I said, take over four jet airliners by remote control and pilot them into the World Trade Center, where hidden explosives are detonated... and not only pull it off flawlessly, but blame it on someone else. Such perfection is not possible.
It is possible, however, to put explosives on the Lusitania so German subs could sink it, thereby bringing the U.S. into World War I. That's an easy conspiracy.
To sum it up: the belief in impossibly complex, perfect conspiracies is the belief in monsters, in witches, in demons. It's the belief in a grandiose hero to save us. It's the belief that goodness is always under attack by an evil which is smarter and more powerful than good. It's the belief in exaggeration and therefore paranoia. It's the belief that, underneath all the complex conspiracies, those involved can be defined in simple good-or-evil terms.
The belief in these impossible conspiracies does no good whatsoever in dealing with the real problems in the world. It diverts people's attention into blaming that which is blameless and trying to prove that which cannot be proved. It diverts attention from a bloated military out of control, a world-spanning empire, crushing debt and taxes, the middle-class being outsourced...onto people trying to prove ludicrous fantasies about remote-controlled airplanes and explosives in buildings.
Were I a dictator, I would be consistently churning out propaganda, diverting attention from me toward innocent people. Nothing like an innocent scapegoat to cover the guilty's butt. You can say there is a Gresham's Law of Conspiracies: the bad ones drive out the good ones. When it comes to the belief in conspiracies, it certainly looks as if the false ones beat out the true ones.
Vincent Bugliosi, the author of Helter Skelter, referring to the Kennedy assassination, said the belief in these kind of conspiracies is "poison." He's right; that's exactly what it is. Poison, that can, and has, and always will, obsess and ruin people's lives.