Grassy Knoll

The eternal appeal of conspiracy theory

By Jeff Winkler, Friday 13 May 2011 21.00 BST

The US – with the help of a few Navy Seals – found the elusive Osama bin Laden, shot him in the face and then deep-sixed the diabolical diabetic somewhere in the Arabian Sea. While the rest of the country cheered “How wonderful!”, many others had only one thought: “How convenient.”

Before the al-Qaida figurehead had hit the ocean floor, conspiracy theories surrounding Osama’s death had already begun to bubble up. Within hours, the conspiracists had a name – “Deathers” – and, shortly thereafter, feature pieces in mainstream news outlets. One publication called the supposed death of OBL our “generation’s ‘Grassy Knoll'”.

Let’s hope so.

Whether it’s JFK, aliens, the Bilderberg Group, the massacre at Virginia Tech, George Soros or the Koch Brothers, the culture and prevalence of conspiracy theories comes out of this country’s own unique history as an unregulated brave new world for the slightly afraid. To trust no one is not a preciously paranoid mantra solely for The X-Files fans. It’s just caution.

The desire to assess and confront threats has universal appeal. As one New York Times conspiracy theory article noted, “In a way, it is human nature to want to construct a narrative to resolve anxieties, to be drawn to mystery or the perception of it.” For the American psyche, surviving this chaos means constructing an order, any order, and this need manifests itself in as varied ways as there are people.

Unfortunately, in the partisan hype over President Obama’s birth certificate, journalists latched onto the just one idea. Several publications even ran nearly identical headlines (“Why the stories about Obama’s birth certificate will never die”). Despite numerous, varied and sometimes overlapping conspiracy theories, when it came down to the Birther conspiracy, the conclusion in the media was clean and simple: Birthers equalled horrible, conservative racists on par with good ol’ boys from the Old South. Conversely, when the left-leaning Sarah Palin “Trig-truthers” breached the public consciousness yet again this past month, one columnist on this site expertly concluded that the conspiracy theorists were, at their core, hateful misogynists and nothing more.

But the fears about Obama and Palin come from the same essential conspiracy. Two previously little-known figures with relatively untested backgrounds have become powerful agents of change in a now unfamiliar world. A few people recognised the elemental fear, but quickly shied away from fully acknowledging it, favouring reactions to them and explanations of them that were nearly as ridiculous the conspiracy theories themselves. Perhaps the most bizarre reaction was that of Lawrence O’Donnell who – knowing full well what the most famous Birther would say – actively sought out Orly Taitz to appear on his show before rudely and publicly kicking her off after she did exactly what she was put on the programme to do. A casual observer might wonder what the point of that was. A conspiracy theorist, however, knows full well that anyone desperate to prove something probably has twice as much to hide.

But, as any “sane” person knows, berating – rather than listening to – a fearful individual is not constructive: fear isn’t rational, and can’t be yelled out of existence. Second, to understand and sympathise with these elemental fears – to recognise one’s own doubts about the unfamiliar world – is to know they spring from some kernel of truth.

The CIA’s mind control project? Yeah, that was ultra real. The Kennedys were quite familiar with the Mob. Those evil-doers supposedly “behind” the attacks on 9/11, like Saddam Hussein and the Sadis? Plenty of American backing in their day. The world’s political leaders and wealth-holders actually do meet once a year, a tradition begun at the Hotel de Bilderberg in the Netherlands.

At worst, conspiracy theorists are harmless kooks. At best, they’re simply more aware and over-prepared for the infinite possibilities of impending doom. The conspiracy theorists are the American psyche’s most blunt defence mechanism against an increasingly strange and uncontrollable world. And as that strange American frontier rapidly expands become a global frontier, they’re not only becoming bipartisan, but international, as well.

As the Los Angeles Times gleefully pointed out, Deathers come from both sides of the political sphere. Those who believed the official story were “stupid”, according to antiwar cheerleader Cindy Sheehan – and left-leaning 9/11 truthers didn’t believe it, either. The Tea Party Nation’s Judson Phillips said Obama “killed” Osama solely to win the next election. That, and Osama was killed years ago.

Moreover, there are reports that Muslims and other foreigners think something devious may be afoot, too, thanks to the Obama administration‘s refusal to release the photos showing Bin Laden’s body. Convinced this government has lied so much about so many other things – and it has – that this too-good-to-be-true thing much not be. Conspiracy theorists may be getting the wrong answers, but at least they’re asking the right questions. The administration’s original story was, by its own admission, not entirely the truth and now some high-ranking politicians who have seen the photos say, “Trust us” – which is like putting 23-year-old John Gotti in charge of the Warren Commission.

So, while the media fails to question authority – or positively panders to it (lookin’ at you, Richard Wolffe!) – the conspiracy theorists and their never-ending ragging serve as the vanguard of the strange, post American century. The country, founded with no rules and no history, remains forever a vast, threatening mystery where the enemy is out there and within. Now that the paranoia is going global, it’s the conspiracy theorists who will keep an eye out for Them, and Us. or or

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