critiques press attacks fair use notice

Critique of The Village Voice's
'The Usual Suspects: What it takes to make a conspiracy theory'

by Jim Hoffman

The purpose of this article is apparently to dismiss serious challenges to the official story by psychopathologizing people who raise such challenges.

The Usual Suspects
What it takes to make a conspiracy theory
by Jarrett Murphy
February 21st, 2006 11:52 AM

illustration: Lloyd Miller
The ABC's of 9-11:
What Really Happened: A Beginner's Guide to the 'Truth' Movement
by Jarrett Murphy

  • The ABC's of 9-11
    The birth and life of the '9-11 Truth movement'

  • Conspiracy 101
    The basics of alternative 9-11 theories

  • Your Turn: Ground Zero Stories?
    Experts want to interview the 2,000 who made it out of WTC 1 & 2
    Power Plays by Jarrett Murphy
  • 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 C label.

    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´┐Żconspiracy theories, like the one about a worldwide Jewish cabal.

    Here is the usual pschopathologizing of "conspiracy theorists" lumping skeptics of the 9/11 attack in with anti-semites.

    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.

    More by Jarrett Murphy
    Conspiracy 101
    The basics of alternative 9-11 theories

    The Seekers
    The birth and life of the '9-11 Truth movement'