Paranoia Runs Deep

Conspiracy theories have seeped into the heart of the American public

WASHINGTON — Conspiracy theories have become a way of life in America, no longer limited to paranoid crazies on the political fringe. Today they are promoted by mainstream news outlets, political figures, and prominent individuals. As soon as Bill Clinton was accused of conducting an illicit relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Hillary was on the air with accusations of a right-wing plot to undermine the president. When terrorist bombs exploded at two American embassies in Africa, suggestions of a scheme by fundamentalist Muslims soon had to compete with claims that the attacks were planned by Clinton to draw attention away from his affair with Lewinsky.

In each case, the facts eventually came out. But facts usually do little to stem the tide of conspiracy theories — they have a way of taking on a life of their own. Since conspiracies are by nature secret, they are impossible to disprove: lack of press coverage or government evidence to the contrary only demonstrates that the media and the government are part of the plot.

People have always searched for the hidden hand behind historic events, but conspiracy theories have truly proliferated only in the post-Cold War era. There are no Communists left to take the blame for everything that goes wrong, yet the world seems an increasingly complex and insecure place, where currency trading in Asia can bring down the American stock market, and a semen stain can bring down a presidency.

Today, inexplicable tragedies or negative turns in world events tend to be attributed to one of a vast array of hidden and sinister forces: Maybe they're the work of the international Jewish conspiracy, the focus of the most enduring of all these theories. Perhaps it's the drug lords who operate through Clinton's "Dixie Mafia" from their secret headquarters on an airstrip in Mena, Arkansas. It might be the "Power Elite," the Big Business clique that works under the tutelage of David Rockefeller and his evil theoretician, Henry Kissinger. And of course, it could be aliens—but we don't know for sure, since the government has long conspired to hide all evidence of extraterrestrial visitations.

Government cover-ups, in fact, seem to figure in just about all conspiracy theories. "A random telephone survey of 800 American adults in September 1996 found that 74 percent—virtually three out of four citizens—believe that the U.S. government regularly engages in conspiratorial and clandestine operations," writes Robert Anton Wilson, author of Everything Is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults, and Cover-ups. During the Reagan/Bush years, it was the left that was the most vocal in describing a "shadow government"—a force seen in such scandals as Iran-Contra and BCCI. In the 1990s, however, right-wing theories of government plots exhibit the most vitality.

The worldviews of militias and other far-right extremists are often conspiracy-based, but the influence of their theories reaches well into the mainstream. In 1995, Texas congressman Steve Stockman accused the Clinton administration of staging the government raid at Waco to build support for its ban on assault weapons, while Representative Helen Chenoweth of Idaho voiced militia complaints that "black helicopters" were being used to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

Some conspiracy theories today make strange bedfellows of common adherents on the left and right, and of hard-boiled politicos and starry-eyed believers in the paranormal. And the current pop-cultural climate has served as a breeding ground for these devious notions. The X-Files and the numerous shows it has inspired combine stories of slimy aliens and modern-day werewolves with complex government schemes to cover up military research into gene splicing and biological weaponry, and the Internet offers sites catering to every possible combination of paranoid analysis.

What follows is a list of some of the world's most enduring conspiracies, along with a few of the more popular and bizzare from among the current crop.

Protocols of the Elders of Zion

Author / Date of Origin: The Czar's Secret Police/early 20th century

The Theory: One of the many versions of the Worldwide Jewish Conspiracy aimed at undermining civil society and establishing Jewish control. The Protocols posit that once every hundred years, the reigning elders of the 12 tribes of Israel gather in a Jewish cemetery in Prague and plot to enslave gentiles and take over world. Promoted in the U.S. in the '20s and '30s by Henry Ford and Ford car salesmen, the Protocols remain popular at gun shows, militia meetings, and other far-right gatherings.

True Believers: The far-right racialist political movement in the U.S. and its counterparts in Europe and Australia

Reality Check: The Holocaust (Response: many of the same groups insist that the Holocaust is a fiction invented to win sympathy for the Jews.)

Big Business Plot to Kill JFK With the Help of Nazi Scientists

Author / Date of Origin: William Torbitt (pseudonym)/1970

The Theory: The John F. Kennedy assassination was set up by leaders of the military industrial complex through a cabal that includes NASA, a supersecret "Defense Industrial Security Command" run by Werner von Braun, J. Edgar Hoover's Division Five investigative unit, and the mob. Lee Harvey Oswald was a "mind-control victim." The plot may have been masterminded by Nazi scientists working under NASA cover at a secret site in the Nevada desert.

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