I’ve recently written about the relationship between conspiracy theories and hate speech. Too often, conspiracy theories are used to justify irrational hate for one group or another, and to direct anger over lack of control of one’s life onto a group the conspiracist ideologically opposes. Historical examples include the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or blood libel and more modern examples include everything from the racist birther allegations that our president isn’t American, the homosexual agenda, and the rabid anti-government conspiracy theories advanced by lunatics like Alex Jones, and Glenn Beck. Beck, astonishingly, made the assertion that it must be a foreign terrorist behind the Boston bombings because American terrorists only attack the government, they don’t attack streets full of people.
Think about that for a minute. Ignore, for the moment, the obvious factual inaccuracy of the statement given the homegrown terrorists that have bombed abortion clinics, churches, planes, the Olympics, or schools. Think about what Glenn Beck is saying. He’s saying that previous terrorists who have targeted the government, like for instance Timothy McVeigh, weren’t targeting people in their attacks. They were targeting government. Never mind that at OKC Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people, including 19 children under 6, and injured 680. Those weren’t people. They were “the government”. This man is sick.
Enter Alex Jones, who has never had a conspiracy theory he didn’t like, from moon-landing conspiracies to constant (and hilariously false) predictions of impending government collapse, government assassinations, terror attacks, monetary collapse, or whatever seems to spring into his mind from moment to moment. A compendium of his hilariously-false predictions is a fascinating watch:
(thanks to Ed Brayton
By their fruits you shall know them.
Why should we be at all surprised that someone as full of hate as Tamerlan Tsaernev was a believer in a host of conspiracy theories:
It’s not particularly surprising that Tsarnaev would be drawn to a wide range of conspiracy theories, as research shows that people prone to believing one conspiracy theory will likely believe many — even if they’re completely contradictory. And he fits a profile of a type of person likely to be drawn to conspiratorial thinking, considering he was allegedly alienated from and disgruntled with society.
On top of Jones and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, we have to add the one that seems to be the most important of all: The kind of anti-American conspiracy theories pushed by Islamists. For instance, the Washington Post reports that the brothers were apparently motivated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers there. As with many conspiracy theories, there is a grain of truth here — American soldiers really have done some horrible things in those countries. But Tsarnaev went beyond the evidence by telling people that “in Afghanistan, most casualties are innocent bystanders killed by American soldiers.” In fact, according to the U.N., the Taliban is responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths — 81 percent in 2012.
Anti-American and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are foundational to al-Qaida and other radical groups’ ideologies, according to Matthew Gray, a professor at Australian National University who wrote in his book “Conspiracy Theories in the Arab World,” that ”the speeches of Osama Bin Laden are peppered with conspiracist language and the assumptions that underline conspiracism.”
Indeed, conspiracy theories are hardly unique to the United States and often run rampant in the Muslim world, as Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote in the New Republic, and seem to be especially strong among Islamists. A 2011 Pew poll of residents of Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, the Palestinian territories and Indonesia found that the vast majority refused to believe that Arabs executed the terrorist attack on 9/11. “There is no Muslim public in which even 30 percent accept that Arabs conducted the attack,” the study found.
From the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to 9/11 truth, to Alex Jones Infowars, Tamerlan was a promiscuous-believer in conspiracy theories, and his younger brother, from his Twitter account, appears to also be a CT proponent of 9/11 truth.
While the right would like to blame the behavior of these individuals on radical Islam, I’d like to propose a different source of radical, and hateful behavior. I would suggest we consider that conspiratorial thinking might be behind this type of group violence. As the Salon article mentions, one of the major propaganda elements of groups like Al Qaeda are conspiracies about the US, about Jews, about Israel, about anyone who they believe is their enemy. Conspiracy theories are often a reflection of a feeling of powerlessness, and those who are more likely to believe them are reacting a world which is often disordered, and out-of-control. The conspiracy theory is a simplistic explanation for one’s troubles, and usually incorporate one’s irrational, tribal, or bigoted beliefs about the world.
But while conspiracy theories might make people feel better about an out-of-control world, as it gives them the false perception that they (and no one else) really knows what’s going on, at the same time they feed back on themselves and reinforce that very sense of powerlessness. If democratic government is just a sham, the US is imminently about to round us up and put us in FEMA camps, or kill us with a billion DHS bullets, your supposed grasp of the problem does nothing to solve it. It only further shows how helpless you are to do anything. What are the solutions the conspiracists fall back on? Arming yourself, doomsday prepping, and detachment from society, especially all those stupid sheeple (it’s amazing how often Jones calls his audience stupid!), is the solution. Civil society, voting, community, charity, and collective action aren’t the solution. It’s guns, and isolation.
Should we then be surprised when individuals influenced by these conspiracy theories resort to violence? Should we be surprised that when people are told the political process is a sham, the government is killing us at will, and everyone else who doesn’t believe this is stupid, that they then go out and target government, and other citizens, and cops, indiscriminately? Isn’t this just conspiracy theorists, like Jones, and Al Qaeda for that matter, just reaping what they sow?
In the aftermath of this tragedy, the usual actors came out of the woodwork to ghoulishly use human suffering to advance their agenda, whether it was attacking government, or blaming abortion, people who knew nothing and cared nothing for their fellow citizens sought to use the tragedy to their advantage. The conspiracists, of course, settled on the usual suspects (Beck has his Saudi agent/government conspiracy, Jones and Mike Adams the FBI/government). Not that they had any information that we didn’t. They were pronouncing this nonsense within minutes of the attack. Now that we have some information we know that the two alleged suspects have some pretty damning evidence against them if the timeline is correct. They were both witnessed at the scene with, and then without backpacks. One was filmed dropping a backpack at the scene of the second bomb. Both were filmed coolly-observing the aftermath. They shot one MIT police officer to death, apparently in cold blood. They carjacked an individual who said they identified themselves to him as the Boston Marathon bombers. They had pressure cooker bombs in their apartment. They exploded such a bomb while eluding police, critically injuring another police officer.
This is, to put it mildly, a damning case.
However, the conspiracy theorists have not changed their tune. Beck continues to blame some Saudi national who’s major crime appears to be he happened to be in Boston that day. Jones and infowars continues to blame the FBI, the CIA, anyone, including Sunil Tripathi, the missing student who has been found dead. Likely this will not stop them, they’ll just say that the FBI killed him to keep him quiet, and keep victimizing his poor family, who have suffered enough from the loss of their son. If the analysis reveals he died over a month ago, that won’t stop them either, because who did the analysis? The government! It’s sad, and pathetic, and horrible. They blame the innocent, and further create the impression that in our society there is no justice, the government is the real criminal (and is not composed of living, breathing, human people), anyone who believes otherwise is stupid.
My question is, for those who believe this nonsense, how long until we see another one plant a bomb? For those for who believe they have no political or civil power, isn’t violence the outcome encouraged by this belief?
I think we have to stop just blaming the religious extremism, and start considering the role of conspiratorial extremism in acts of political violence and terror around the world. When you make people feel powerless, and stupid, and excluded from society and participatory democracy, one should not be surprised when they turn to violence and political terrorism. The Tsaernev family insists their children didn’t learn this from them, or in their life abroad, they learned to think this way in America. Maybe they’re right.
Jones’ response that Tamerlan was a fan was typical, another conspiracy as will the responses to whatever I write here I’m sure. I’ll be accused of being paid off, working for the FBI, a shill, whatever. It’s boring, and part of the known self sealing aspect of conspiratorial thinking. Whenever anything conflicts with the predetermined truth, it must be then incorporated into a new, grander conspiracy. One of my commenters joked about this phenomenon:
A group of elderly JFK conspiracy theorists were comparing notes when one of them suddenly had a heart attack. After going through the whole tunnel light scenario he finds himself facing God. He asks “Oh Lord, who really killed JFK?” And God replied “It was Oswald acting alone.” At that point the EMTs were able to jolt him back to life. Later in the hospital with his co-theorists he said in a low voice “The conspiracy is bigger than we thought.”
So on that lighter note, I ask to think about how dismissive we should be of conspiracy theorists. We often treat them as just ridiculous and foolish. But given the historical and modern examples of hatemongering through conspiracy theories, and the conspiratorial beliefs of terrorists from Timothy McVeigh, to Al Qaeda, to the Tsaernevs, maybe we should be looking at the darker side of this behavior. Maybe it’s time to recognize that those who call us stupid, and powerless, and helpless, are the ones encouraging violence as a solution.