Why we believe in conspiracy theories

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     Schematic map from U.S. Army Special Operations Command for Jad Helm 15 military training operation.  Texas is depicted in red indicating it is a 'hostile' state.

    Schematic map from U.S. Army Special Operations Command for Jad Helm 15 military training operation. Texas is depicted in red indicating it is a 'hostile' state.

    Hey, did you hear that the U.S. Army is going to invade Texas, suspend habeas corpus, and confiscate everybody’s guns?

    I’m talking about Jade Helm 15, the military training exercise scheduled for seven states this summer. It’s a pretend operation, of course, not a real one. But you wouldn’t know that from the chatter on the Internet, where Texans have warned that the military is actually plotting to take over the Lone Star State.

    Most alarmingly, they have found champions in the state’s political class. Louie Gohmert, a Republican congressman, told reporters back in May that Jade Helm 15 made his constituents fear that “the U.S. Army is preparing for modern-day martial law.” And GOP Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered the Texas state guard to monitor the federal military exercise, just in case.

    How could anyone believe that our government would plot to harm its own citizens? Because it’s happened before. Over the past century, the American federal government has repeatedly conspired against the people who elect it. And that’s why so many people suspect that the same thing is happening now.

    From 1932 until 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service denied potentially life-saving treatment to syphilitic African-American men as part of a study of their disease. And starting in the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly tested LSD and other drugs on psychiatric patients. It also hired prostitutes to lure unwitting patrons to CIA safe houses, where the agency slipped LSD into their drinks and observed their reactions.

    Meanwhile, the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation illegally wiretapped and harassed thousands of civil rights and antiwar activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr. The FBI even sent a tape recording of King making love with one of his mistresses to his office, where the package was opened by his wife.

    Then came Watergate, when president Richard Nixon and his aides conspired to spy on their political enemies and then conspired to cover all of it up. And the 1980s brought the Iran-contra conspiracy, in which federal officials sold arms to Iran and illegally funneled the profits to rebels in Nicaragua.

    And when the government wasn’t conspiring against Americans, it was spreading false conspiracy theories of its own. The great master of the genre was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who blamed the Yalta accords, the Soviet hydrogen bomb, and the Communist takeover of China on “Reds” inside America. Indeed, McCarthy charged, the so-called “fall” of China reflected “a conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

    Yes, a small handful of duplicitous Americans passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. But the idea of a vast Communist conspiracy within the United States was itself a lie, hatched by McCarthy and others to whip Americans into a frenzy of fear.

    To combat accusations of his own conspiratorial activities, meanwhile, Nixon spread false conspiracies about his predecessors. One Nixon aide faked a cable implicating John F. Kennedy in the murder of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, then leaked it to the press.

    In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, finally, the George W. Bush administration invented a conspiracy between the hijackers and Saddam Hussein. Just hours after the attacks Bush instructed counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke to investigate Hussein’s role in them, turning aside Clarke’s protests that “al Qaeda did this.” Then Vice-President Dick Cheney went on television to declare that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague several months before the attack, even though FBI agents found records indicating that Atta was in the United States around that time.

    No wonder that over one-third of surveyed Americans in 2006 said that the Bush administration had either planned the 9/11 attacks or knew about them beforehand and did nothing to stop them. And after so many years of government conspiracies, real and invented, it’s hardly surprising that some people thought President Obama had deliberately unleashed last year’s Ebola outbreak.

    Let’s be clear: there is no basis whatsoever for the claims about Obama spreading Ebola. Nor is there a shard of evidence that Jade Helm 15 is a real invasion designed to enslave Texans under the federal whip. The people who spread these lies are reprehensible demagogues, and we should do everything that we can to expose them as such.

    But we should also keep challenging government secrecy and duplicity, which provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theorists of every stripe. After revelations that the National Security Agency was secretly collecting phone records of millions of Americans–which a federal court recently struck down as unconstitutional–many Americans got a bit more suspicious of their government. Didn’t you?

    When the government creates conspiracies, it encourages the rest of us to do the same. But if it’s transparent, we’re more likely to trust it. To quote Louis Brandeis, sunlight really is the best disinfectant–against conspiracy theories, and everything else.

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