Democratic Underground

On Conspiracy Theories
October 3, 2001
by John Emerson

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The official story about the WTC attack is a conspiracy theory. A mysterious Muslim religious sectarian, holed up in a far valley in distant Afghanistan, sends teams of suicide terrorists halfway around the world to destroy the nerve center of world trade. This tops Professor Moriarty, Fu Manchu, and Rasputin all put together. But are the conspiracy theorists happy? NO! They want another, different conspiracy!

On the other hand, in mainstream political circles anyone who talks about conspiracies at all is ridiculed. This smug habit is either ignorant or dishonest, since even a little study shows us that there have been many conspiracies in human history, and that some of them had a major effect. Almost everyone immediately suspects a conspiracy when an assassination occurs in foreign countries: for example, Anwar Sadat in Egypt, or Indira Gandhi in India. But in the USA assassins are all supposed to be crazed loners.

An action can be called a conspiracy if it involves more than one person and is secretive (or deceptive) and malevolent. If even a single person knowingly helped James Earl Ray or Lee Harvey Oswald do what they did, then it was a conspiracy. You do not have to have the KGB, CIA , Mossad, Bavarian Illuminati, or Knights of Malta involved. Just a second individual. (Six people were hanged for conspiring with John Wilkes Boothe to kill Lincoln. Probably they were only guilty of knowing what he was thinking of doing and failing to try to stop him).

Here are my guidelines for sorting out conspiracy theories:

1. Some things are conspiracies and some are not. EVERYTHING is not a conspiracy. The minute someone says "There are no coincidences", head for the door. If they block the door, go out the window.

2. Pay attention to who was able to do what; who had a reason to do what, who misunderstood the situation, who was delusional, what unexpected events occurred, what was just dumb luck, etc. Never underestimate the power of stupidity and bad luck.

3. Ask how many people knew about the conspiracy and how they kept security.

4. Check out the details and forget the ones that don't pan out. Don't keep wild rumors alive by saying things like "Some say so-and-so, though others deny this". You have a responsibility to use your best judgement, and exclude the bad links.

5. Look for consistency in what you're saying. Don't push every theory in the kitchen sink even though they are all contradictory. (For example, the all-purpose legal defense: "I wasn't there; but if I was there I didn't do it; and if I did it it was an accident".)

6. Small local specific conspiracies are the most likely. Global centuries-long conspiracies are doubtful. Conspiracies are usually pickup teams which dissolve after the event, choosing sides later for new battles between completely different pickup teams, often involving many of the original members in different configurations. (For example, the Afghan anti-Soviet pickup team dissolved some time ago, and two of its key members, Osama Bin Laden and the USA, are now bitter enemies).

7. Conspiracies are not under central control. Usually you have various players at cross purposes doing their worst to get what they want, forming shifting alliances and hoping for the best.

8. The big players in this game do NOT tell everyone else what they are doing. They are all secretive, and thereby conspiratorial. They are tough-minded guys who often have dirty hands and who never, ever shun another big player simply because he is an "evildoer". So it's no surprise that Bin Laden, Noriega, and the Argentine colonels who invaded the Falkland islands were all, at one time or another, allies and clients of the US. Or that the Bin Ladens and the Bushes have had many business contacts. Or that Grandpa Bush (and even more so, Henry Ford) had friendly relations with Hitler up to a point. And so on. It is a big mistake to underestimate the cynicism and cruelty of the big-time players. (Many conspiracy theorists seem to be recently-naive people who have only just discovered how cruel the system can be).

9. "Who benefits?" is a good but tricky question to ask. Because sometimes unexpected things happen, especially in multi-player games, and the one who ends up cashing in may not even have been a player at the beginning of the game.

10. "Follow the money" is a better question, but it's usually hard to do. The international banking system we have is designed to help people with lots of money to shift it around freely and secretly. (Bin Laden happens to be one of the near-billionaires the banking system is designed to protect.)

The big flaw of anti-conspiracy-theorists is insider smugness. The big flaw of conspiracy theorists is outsider paranoia. Anti-conspiracy-theorists, as insiders, are only too happy to enlist themselves in cover-ups and, you guessed it, conspiracies. Conspiracy theorists tend to bark at ghosts in the closet and to magnify the scope and drama of their conspiracies until almost the whole known universe is involved. (Lyndon LaRouche implicates Aristotle -- a Persian agent and subverter of Western civilization!) Both of these take pride in the secret knowledge they have that no one else has.

There are many conspiracy theories floating around these days, and we will probably see more of them. Some of these theories are insane, some of them are reasonable but false, and some of them are true. We should make every effort to distinguish between the three.