"No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."
While I have no doubt there exist conspiracies (Affirmative Action
means "White Men Need Not Apply") 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 (which has a lot of good practical wisdom):"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
Conspiracists attribute to conspiracy what the Bible
attributes to God: omniscience and omnipotence. Anyone who believes that
will end up with warped brains. And obviously conspiracists were babbling about everything being a conspiracy thousands of years ago.
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
Why do people believe such wackiness? Such conspiracies
are clearly nonsense, ones that have zero proof and are 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?
In addition, thousands of these people would have to get together and without dissent decide to pull off the most complex conspiracy ever. Then they disappear forever. No one comes clean from guilt, getting drunk, being on their deathbed, or, most obvious of all, being afraid someone else is going to kill them to keep them quiet (I am reminded of the old saying, "Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead").
It's completely deluded nonsense. Anyone who would believe it is enslaved by blindness and ignorance.
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
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.
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 acquaintance 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 brilliant 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.
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
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 unnecessarily"). 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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