Imagine that a government illegally and secretly sells weapons to an enemy nation and diverts the proceeds to a guerrilla group. Or agents in one country, hoping to keep control of a second country, use spies in a third country to try to assassinate a religious leader. Let’s say, in order to hurt a rival, operatives for a candidate cut a back-channel deal with hostage takers to delay the release of the captives. Better yet, what if three countries make a pact in which one starts a war so the others can play peacemakers and get what they want?
Bad things happen all the time; only some events turn out to be conspiracies and/or fodder for conspiracy theories. The above references (to Iran-Contra, the supposed KGB effort to kill Pope John Paul II, the purported October Surprise plot involving the 1980 Reagan campaign and the Iran hostages, and the 1956 Suez Canal crisis) are examples of the breadth of events that—accurately in only some cases—get stuck with the
Conspiracy theories usually attach to events that have shocked or hurt many people, such as the JFK assassination (the daddy of modern conspiracy theories). It also helps if the first official stories turn out to be false or incomplete; every official lie weakens the credibility of the mainstream tales and augments the plausibility of other versions.
Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida who has written about conspiracy theories, sees other common structural elements. “You’d also need specifics that go to really gritty details,” Fenster says, “a level of detail that suggests that . . . the person who’s telling me this knows what they are talking about.” And the details generally revolve around the idea, says Fenster, that “there are bad guys out there that have some sort of motivation to do what they are doing, that you can find traces or evidence of what they are doing, and that some effort of newly enlightened people to band up against them to correct history is necessary.”
That sense of taking action is one aspect of what makes conspiracy theories satisfying to believe. Another is that they bring order to an unwieldy universe: Even a theory that posits an overweening evil force in the world is comforting compared to the images of random tragedy we see on the evening news. This is especially true of what Michael Barkun, a poli-sci professor at Syracuse’s Maxwell School, calls super–conspiracy theories, like the one about a worldwide Jewish cabal.
Conspiracy theories also reflect their developers’ values. “I think there is something deeply populist about the U.S.,” says Fenster. “We claim to have a fear of the concentration of private and public power, and a lot of our conspiracy theories relate to the idea that there are some private entities that are capturing our political system.”
The problem is that if people erroneously believe in a shadowy conspiracy, it is difficult to change their minds because counter-evidence can be seen as a ploy by the conspirators to conceal the dirty deeds. And the danger, Barkun says, “is that we may end up in a place where there are a lot of different pictures of the world. The question is: Can you have a workable society if that happens?”
That’s not an idle worry. Conspiracy theories are typically depicted as the ruminations of a lunatic fringe, but in fact, almost everybody is into them. Former Justice Department official Webster Hubbell recalls President Clinton asking him to find out the truth about UFOs and the JFK assassination. And despite President Bush’s plea not to “tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories concerning the attacks of September the 11th; malicious lies that attempt to shift the blame away from the terrorists, themselves, away from the guilty,” several members of his administration have—to varying degrees—tried to tie the attacks to Saddam Hussein. These claims owe much to scholar Laurie Mylroie’s efforts over the past decade to link Iraq to everything from the Oklahoma City bombing to TWA Flight 800.