Damn the facts, full conspiracy ahead

The other day on a popular radio talk show several callers suggested that the foiling by British authorities of the latest alleged terrorist plot was in fact just another politically motivated scheme with this country’s chief ally to help justify the Bush and Blair administrations’ military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and support of Israel.

How could anyone harbor such a preposterous and profoundly stupid belief? What ignorance makes them find plausible allegations that the very rigid British law enforcement system would lend itself to an unimaginably convoluted, cynical plot? Easy. There are among us an endless number of otherwise rational, intelligent human beings who will find credence in any hare-brained theory that supports their own ideologies or their deep distrust of most everything governmental, particularly when it is fed to them raw over the Internet.

A recent poll conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University revealed that more than one third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East. According to pollsters Thomas Hargrove and Guido Stempel III, suspicions that the attacks were an “inside job” _ the common phrase used by theorists _ have become nearly as popular as decades-old allegations that President Kennedy was assassinated by a vast government conspiracy involving everyone from the Supreme Court to then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

Most startling is the poll’s discovery that 16 percent of Americans speculate that secretly planted explosives, not burning passenger jets, were the real reason the massive twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. Another 12 percent believe the Pentagon was hit by a cruise missile and not a hijacked airliner.

The pollsters discovered that to some degree the conspiracy theories about 9/11 have been fueled by record anger at the national government. Fifty-four percent of the 1,010 persons interviewed in the survey said they “personally are more angry” at the government than they used to be. In turn, this anger and the acceptance of some of the most illogical propositions is being fueled by the new boogeyman, the Internet, which gives hard-core conspiracy theorists access to almost unlimited numbers of like-minded or gullible citizens.

The survey found that people who regularly use the Internet but do not often rely on so-called “mainstream media” for news are significantly more likely to believe in the conspiracies. People who regularly read daily newspapers or listen to radio and television newscasts are especially unlikely to believe in the conspiracies.

Aiding and abetting the Internet bloggers is the government’s need for secrecy and the fact that in this country some plots are nipped when they are only in the earliest talking stage, thus leaving the impression they were not serious but merely targeted to make Americans feel good. British authorities are much more patient and sophisticated in their approach, allowing a terrorist plot to develop and mature before making arrests. This approach may seem somewhat dicey, but it is much more effective from a credibility standpoint when arrests are made.

History is replete with examples certifying that a willingness to believe in conspiracies, no matter how outlandish, is a part of human nature. There are still those propounding theories about the death of Abraham Lincoln and there may never be an end to the speculation about Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, certainly not as long as there is money to be made by those hatching the conspiracies and in turn by those who try to discredit them.

In a follow up to their survey, the pollsters offered these examples of chat room babble on the recent alleged terrorist plot:

“This is just a scare tactic by the Bush-Blair regimes to prop up their rock-bottom poll numbers by convincing the brain-dead that they are being protected from terror.” This person’s Internet moniker is an obscene reference to President Bush.

“The United Kingdom’s government has repeatedly used scare tactics in order to restrict people’s freedoms,” wrote another.

If you find this sort of silliness disturbing, try this chilling bit of reasoning: “I can’t believe a terrorist group would go to all that trouble of planning an incredibly complex plot … when they could pick up some (rocket propelled grenades) … and just shoot at planes as they arrive or take off.”

So to paraphrase the late cartoonist Walt Kelley’s sage possum, Pogo, they have met the conspirators and it is they.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)