Conspiracy theories are nothing new. We have fostered them for centuries mainly to offer explanations for troublesome events. During my lifetime, the conspiracy theories around the assassination of John F. Kennedy have been the most wide-spread ones and are still generating books, documentaries, etc.
Conspiracy theories often are rooted in a mistrust of organizations such as the federal government. The theme of UFOs is an example. The government has the remains of a space alien at Area 51. Aliens were responsible for the Pyramids and Stonehenge. Such theories are an integral part of UFO lore. The popular series The X-Files owes its success to the preponderance of and fascination with UFO conspiracy theories (which, by the way, are experiencing a resurgence.)
Mistrust of government was greatly fostered through the Nixon Administration and Watergate. Those events showed that indeed the government does hide things and even lies. Watergate showed us that cover-ups do indeed happen.
As noted above, conspiracy theories reflect a desire to make sense of things. I suppose they are relatively harmless. But when conspiracy theorists begin to act on those theories, then they are no longer harmless.
Last week a young man killed 10 African American people in a grocery store. It appears he did so after embracing the current “replacement” theory in which the powers of government are believed to be letting in immigrants to control voting. Similarly, almost 3 years ago here in El Paso, a young man entered a Walmart and killed 23 people, having embraced a conspiracy theory that the government was allowing criminals to enter the country. Inspired by political anti-immigrant rhetoric, this young man said he was there to “kill Mexicans”. One of his victims was a man who was not only a U.S. citizen but also a veteran.
As mistrust of government increases, so too does fear. Those who espouse conspiracy theories attempt to play on those fears. This also is nothing new. Senator Joseph McCarthy played on fears of Communism in the 1950s. He spun a conspiracy theory that the State Department was filled with Communists and accrued great power in the process. His claim of having proof was false. Sadly, though, I believe McCarthy could be reelected these days if he were still around.*
Unfortunately, too, conspiracy theories are now being fostered via news programs. There was a time when news broadcasters felt obliged to report, not to offer opinions. Thus, the great Walter Cronkite hesitated when CBS encouraged him to present an opinion piece on the futility of the Viet Nam War. Cronkite hesitated because he believed that was outside the scope of his responsibilities. Nowadays conspiracy theories such as the replacement theory are being espoused by news reporters.
Issues such as immigration are complex ones in need of intelligent dialogue to find realistic humane solutions. Conspiracy theories about the government’s involvement in those issues are definitely not part of a healthy dialogue.
Wikipedia presents a listing of conspiracy theories with 12 broad topical areas ranging from UFOs to government to sports. Within each topical area are multiple sub-topics.
Are all conspiracy theories wrong? Sadly, no. There is for example plenty of evidence of government cover-ups ranging from Nazi death camps to research on syphilis to White House tape recordings. But then that’s the point. Those conspiracy theories are validated by evidence, not by emotion. As long as we embrace unsubstantiated theories and give power to those who espouse such theories, shootings such as those in Buffalo and El Paso are likely to continue.
At a personal level, I believe we each need to examine how we deal with fear. Do I face them and name them? Do I pray about them? Do I utilize the methods at hand to address them, e.g., voting? If I feel called to protest, do I do so peacefully? Do I examine all points of view before deciding my own beliefs about an issue such as immigration?
Conspiracy theories will be with us for some time to come. Hopefully, by not acting on them we can make them harmless again.
*Here’s an interesting historical footnote. Joe McCarthy’s aide Roy Cohn later became Donald Trump’s mentor.