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Conspiracy theories have always been with us, but they seem to be escalating

Law enforcement on the scene at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, the day of the shooting. AP PHOTO: JESSICA HILL
Law enforcement on the scene at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, the day of the shooting. AP PHOTO: JESSICA HILL
A scene from Sandy Hook Elementary School on the day of the shooting. AP PHOTO: JESSICA HILL
A scene from Sandy Hook Elementary School on the day of the shooting. AP PHOTO: JESSICA HILL
David VanDerBeek, believer in the Sandy Hook conspiracy
David VanDerBeek, believer in the Sandy Hook conspiracy
Harmless vapor trails or chemical shenanigans by the government?
Harmless vapor trails or chemical shenanigans by the government?

‘It can’t possibly be coincidence’: Conspiracy theories have always been with us, but with the Internet and the chaos of modern life, they seem to be escalating — even the Sandy Hook massacre isn’t immune from the ‘truther’ mind-set

When you look up at the cloudy lines crossing the sky, what do you see? Most of us see the vapor trails of airliners passing high overhead. But some people see a government effort to poison Americans with chemical or biological agents.

When you watched the inaugural address address this week, you likely saw and agreed, or disagreed, with the man you believe is the legally elected president of the United States. But millions saw a man with forged citizenship papers who was installed in the White House by powerful, unseen forces.

When you learned of the tragic slaughter of children and teachers at a Connecticut elementary school last month, you probably recoiled with nausea and horror. But a decidedly growing number of Americans see bloody evidence of a hoax concocted to justify confiscation of America’s guns and destruction of the Second Amendment.

Add these to the host of dark designs: Vaccines aren’t designed to protect people from disease — the vaccines and the people providing them are spreading autism. The 9/11 attack was an inside job perpetrated by shadowy power elites. UFOs are visual evidence of another massive government cover-up. The Stars and Stripes isn’t flying on the moon; it was planted in the phony dirt of a Hollywood soundstage. Fluoride is not added to water to improve dental health; it is a toxin introduced to America by Marxist agents, domestic and foreign. The weather’s escalating instability isn’t a product of carbon pollution; it is the result of a secret government climate-control program. The Masons aren’t an association of like-minded middle-aged men who enjoy a bit of Scotch away from their wives; they are a secret society bent on world domination. And then there’s the U.N.

With its proximity to secret Defense and Energy department bases, alien visitations and the broadcast of a pioneering media examination of ideas once relegated to the margins, Las Vegas is right in the middle of this conspiracy mania. In a complex and chaotic world, millions of Americans — and quite possibly you or your neighbor or your sister-in-law — believe that they have pierced the veil of confusion that keeps most of us from understanding the true nature of things:

It’s all a conspiracy!

Suddenly the world makes so much sense. But where some see evidence of national if not global conspiracies, others see a dark and dangerous vision of reality that feeds upon the fears and uncertainties of the public.

That is not to say that all conspiracies are fantasies. In a normative sense, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that small groups and the leadership of whole nations have engaged in conspiratorial behaviors: The Nixon campaign’s criminal shenanigans led to the resignation of a president in disgrace. Tobacco companies suppressed research showing conclusively that cigarettes are poisonous. The Reagan administration sold weapons to the Mullahs of Iran and used the proceeds to fund anti-communist guerrillas in Central America.

These things are conclusively real — most people would agree.

But how do conspiracies that once would have been on the margins of society now make it into the mainstream? For example, the idea that the massacre of the Sandy Hook children last month is a hoax, or, even more grotesquely, that the parents knowingly murdered their children to advance an anti-gun agenda.

That theory has been picked up by an associate professor at a Florida university; by thousands, if not millions, of gun enthusiasts around the country — and by a former Nevada political figure who managed to garner almost 49,000 votes in the last general election.

Or take chemtrails. Not familiar with the global chemtrail conspiracy? Advocates believe the federal government is using thousands of aircraft to spray chemical or biological agents over everything and everybody. There are various theories as to why, but suffice it to say that there are literally tens of meteorologists who are convinced that the scientific explanation of so-called “contrails” (that they are visible evidence of ice crystals forming around the aerosol emissions of high-flying aircraft) is just another part of the conspiracy. The sheer power of the government and the conspiracy is easily demonstrated by the fact that the thousands of people necessarily involved in the conspiracy have famously never directly contacted major media outlets such as the New York Times or CityLife. Las Vegas is smack-dab on the air routes between the East and West coasts, and has its own busy international airport. So lots of aircraft. Chemtrail enthusiasts, though, believe that more than half of all those vapor trails up there are government aircraft spewing government thingabobs for some reason or other. Can’t prove they aren’t.

Of course, it’s easy to mock this stuff, but those who know they are being gassed or sprayed by aircraft are terrified.

This is another example of the ability of new technologies to expedite and amplify conspiracy theories, says Michael Barkun, professor emeritus at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and author of a 2003 book examining the impact of conspiracy theories on public discourse.

“Particularly with the rise of the Internet, it’s possible to both generate conspiracy theories and proliferate them with extreme rapidity,” he says. “Conspiracy theories that at one time that would have remained in the fringe get into the mainstream. They are no longer in some isolated subculture that’s known to only a few people.”

One of those arguing that the Sandy Hook murders were a government hoax is Nevada’s own David Lory VanDerBeek, who received about 49,000 votes in his American Independent Party candidacy for Senate in 2012.

“When I first saw the story I didn’t have any immediate reaction to it because I know the federal government lies about everything,” VanDerBeek says in a 78-minute YouTube video uploaded this month. The police and the parents who were bereft by the murders were faking their grief, he believes.

“Why would the government stage this event to get us to give up our Second Amendment rights?” he asks the camera. “Our government is full of criminals … who want to surrender the sovereignty of the United States of America …

“We will learn of their betrayal and we will execute them. We will try them and put them in jail and execute them.”

VanDerBeek says he has conclusive evidence of the Sandy Hook conspiracy, and his points echo others from around the country. Of about two dozen “smoking gun” points enumerated by VanDerBeek, one of them — point 14 — is that in a map of Gotham City in the movie The Dark Night Rises, the area on the south side of the fictional Manhattan is labeled Sandy Hook. That is consistent, VanDerBeek says, with Satanism and government-staged terrorism.

“They like to leave calling cards,” he says. “They like to take credit for their own crimes. … It can’t possibly be coincidence. It also could be a way to communicate orders.

“Obama, I believe you murdered those kids so you could be a dictator.”

VanDerBeek did not respond to an invitation to comment for this story.

Barkun, the researcher, says that conspiracy theorists such as VanDerBeek would once have had to rely on pamphlets and group meetings to promote his ideas, but now he has access to billions through YouTube.

Conspiracy theories certainly are older than modern telecommunications, though. Two hundred years ago, citizens were convinced that a secretive international group known as the Illuminati was trying to grab the reins of power in the nascent United State.

“They go all the way back to the earliest days of the Republic, all the way back certainly to the late 18th-entury,” Barkun says of the Illuminati scare. “There’s been ebb and flow. It’s always been there.”

What is different today is that “fringe” conspiracy theories are everywhere now, Barkun says. Alex Jones, who explicitly argues that a cabal of leaders from the worlds of finance, government and academia, among others, are trying to take over the United States in the name of a one-world government, not only has a talk radio show and enormous influence over the Internet, but he was recently invited on to cable news giant CNN, where he accused host Piers Morgan of working for that international conspiracy.

“For something like that to happen would have been unthinkable 25 or 30 years ago,” Barkun says. “Things certainly get talked about [now] in the mainstream that would not have been talked about before, when there were clear boundaries between the fringe and the mainstream.”

Where once professional media would have practiced a degree of self-censorship that would have confined the more outlandish theories to late-night drive-ins, now those companies are bringing the fringe to the general public.

A Nevada broadcast pioneer may have helped usher in that modern era.

One of the grandfathers of the modern library of conspiracy mythology is Nevada’s Art Bell, a talk-radio host who opened up the airwaves to talk of alien visitations and abductions, the paranormal and occult, and, of course, government involvement in a host of dark issues. Bell broadcast out of dusty Pahrump — as he put it, “from the Kingdom of Nye,” as in Nye County — and his program, Coast to Coast, was for a time in the late 1990s the highest-rated radio show in the country.

Bell, who (mostly) retired in 2007, was an amazingly patient sounding board for callers from across the country who helped popularize many of today’s most persistent conspiracy memes. Bell’s show wasn’t confined to the weird. His callers competed for time with a huge variety of guests that included nationally known entertainers, respected scientists and newsmakers of all kinds.

One of those who have inherited his Coast to Coast show is Las Vegas’ own George Knapp, an Emmy and Peabody award-winning broadcast and print journalist whose column, Knappster, appears in CityLife.

Knapp says his radio program now reaches several million people and is carried by 550 radio stations in the United States alone, with others around the world.

“I don’t know if there’s anyone is this state that deals with more conspiracy theories than I do,” he said. “It’s a huge audience. It’s not a monolithic audience, either. It’s a pretty discriminating audience in terms of what they believe.”

Knapp says the reason people believe in conspiracy theories is that so many of them are true. From the questions surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the China Sea that helped draw the U.S. into the Vietnam War, to the long national nightmare of Watergate, to the fiscal collapse that sparked the Great Recession, people have seen real evidence and felt the impact of real conspiracies.

“Look at Wall Street, the housing bubble,” he says. “That was the biggest heist in human history. That was a conspiracy. All those Wall Street bankers knew they were selling bullshit stuff. They erased $11 trillion. Millions lost their homes, millions more lost their jobs. They stole that money from regular people.

“Why do people seek them [conspiracy theories] out? Because all too often they’re true.”

Knapp says that people who reject discussion of UFOs as conspiracies miss the point. The issue isn’t whether extraterrestrials are visiting the Earth. The real issue is how the government has responded to the issue over the decades, with a policy of ridicule and threats towards those who want to investigate the phenomenon.

Although Knapp, like his predecessor on Coast to Coast, has an affable way of allowing callers to spin their yarns, he doesn’t accord every idea equal plausibility. He says that people have to engage critical thinking and examine the evidence and the source for conspiracy theories.

He is not a fan, for example, of Alex Jones. He agrees that Jones’ appearance on CNN pleased the Infowars conspiracy spinner’s legions of fans, who probably saw the appearance as long-deserved recognition, and probably also helped Piers Morgan’s ratings on the news channel — but it was nonetheless not a service to the public.

“There was a lot of heat there,” he says of Jones’ outburst, “but not a lot of light.”

Knapp notes that here in Nevada, thousands of people believe that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid somehow “stole” the 2010 election from challenger Sharron Angle, a claim she has repeatedly made.

“There’s not a shred of evidence that that’s true,” he says. Knapp adds that while he usually lets people say what they want on his show, he’s drawing the line at Sandy Hook “truthers.”

People will continue to understand the world by applying conspiracy theories, Knapp predicts.

“It’s the nature of change in the world we live in,” he says. “Not only are the changes so profound, but they are coming so fast. It’s deeply unsettling for a lot of people.”

He says the media and political partisans gin up crises and false outrages to deal with on a daily basis, and that only leads to a greater sense of the loss of control.

“It’s no wonder that people are scared,” Knapp says.

Michael Ian Borer, a UNLV associate professor of sociology, strikes a similar note in explaining how and why conspiracy theories are so popular. They are, for many, a collective effort to make meaning and order of a chaotic world.

Conspiracy theories also relate to power dynamics, Borer says. It is no coincidence that white, Christian males seem to be those most heavily invested in the narratives of modern conspiracies, especially those that make sense of what they perceive as a loss of power and prestige in a modern America.

Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine and a regular columnist with Scientific American, has written and spoken extensively on improbable conspiracy theories. Last year, he toured the Nevada outback in an unsuccessful effort to find evidence of extraterrestrial visitations.

Shermer says that there are several reasons people adopt conspiracy theories. One important reason is that belief in conspiracies as the agent of terrible events gives people a sense of control. A tragedy such as the Sandy Hook massacre is “highly improbable, completely unpredictable and massively disruptive,” Shermer says. If we think we understand its cause, such as a secret conspiracy, then we can potentially control the factors that lead to these events, he says. His idea is related to another reason people apply conspiratorial designs to historic events: a sense of balance.

The assassination of President Kennedy is a lot easier to understand as the result of a massive conspiracy than the act of a crazed loner with a gun, for example. Or to cite a more recent event that has created a growth industry of conspiracy theories, the death of Princess Diana in a car crash.

“What could be more quotidian than a drunk driver and no seat belts?” Shermer asks. Some people reject the idea that a figure of such power and popularity could be undone by such a mundane set of circumstances, and instead look to complex plots from the British intelligence services or others as the cause of Diana’s tragic death.

Perhaps the most profound reason why people believe in conspiracy theories may be that our brains are hardwired to see patterns, says Shermer, whose early academic work was in experimental psychology and neuroscience. As part of the natural learning process, people look for and find patterns in what would at first glance seem like random noise.

“We’re not good at finding randomness,” he says. “We’re good at finding patterns. When things just happen, we just can’t grasp it. We feel there must be a reason, a pattern, to the randomness. It’s part of learning, it’s what we’re good at.”

Shermer, who is a tireless advocate for the application of scientific analysis to social, educational and political questions, agrees that sometimes these beliefs are harmless, but not always. “They can be dangerous if they undermine the stability of the government or if they get people to commit violent acts.”

Borer says that to understand a conspiracy theory, identify the villans, the victims and the heroes. “That will tell you a lot about who is telling the story. … It’s good to understand it from all points of view.”

Understanding who’s telling the story, and why, can help avoid tragedies when, for example, law enforcement interacts with people with deep distrust of the government, he says.

But there will be dangerous interactions with those whose narratives are deeply in conflict with the rest of society, he warns. “It can become pathological. It can become paranoia.”

Clearly, some people pay a price for the belief in dark conspiracies. Individually, people have gotten so deep into their beliefs that they act violently against those they perceive as the agents: In 1995, in Oklahoma, 168 people, including 19 children at a preschool, were killed by a truck bomb planted by Timothy McVeigh, a militia movement sympathizer, white supremacist and gun-rights advocate. McVeigh passionately believed that bombing the Oklahoma City federal building would prompt a revolt against what he perceived as the tyranny of the federal government.

The conspiracy theories surrounding Sandy Hook have made additional victims — so far, just emotionally — of some of those who were initially called heroes. In the minutes after the Sandy Hook tragedy, a retiree living next to the school found a half-dozen children on his lawn who fled the school after their teacher was murdered. Gene Rosen brought the children into his home and gave them his grandchildren’s stuffed animals to comfort them. He provided media with some interviews.

Since then, Rosen has been subject to phone calls and e-mail attacks by those who believe the Sandy Hook massacre was a government hoax. The United Way of Connecticut, which is providing assistance to the families of the victims, is also being targeted: Due to a technical error, an online form to submit donations to the families appeared to have been posted by the United Way before the massacre, fueling the conspiracy theories around the event.

And one could also argue that we all have something to lose if public policy is formed around perceptions that don’t conform to reality. For example, if we ignore the threat of climate change because we choose to believe that an international cabal of scientists has been feeding the public a diet of false data for 50 years, or if we fail to have our children vaccinated because we believe the medical establishment has a secret and dangerous agenda to poison our youth.

If policy influenced by the belief in improbable conspiracy theories is dangerous, then Nevada might have a little more to worry about than other parts of the world. As Shermer notes, it seems to be a place where the belief and dissemination of conspiracy theories seems to be endemic.

“The desert seems to make people a little less skeptical.”