The Holocaust didn’t happen.
Aliens abduct humans.
The Earth spontaneously came into being 10,000 years ago.
Satanic ritual abuse of children is widespread and out of control.
We must invade Iraq or Saddam Hussein will destroy the U.S.
Why do people believe such weird things? Skeptic Society director Michael Shermer wrote a compelling book about this question, called, appropriately, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time.
Shermer, of course, doesn’t deal with the current U.S. Iraq obsession in his 1998 book, but perhaps it is the same deep, human reasons that underlie our vulnerability to cults and conspiracy theories that also explain the mass delusion in the U.S. that catastrophe will result if the U.S. does not adopt a doctrine of preventive war and take out every monster on the planet.
Shermer suggests five general reasons that people invest their faith in weird things:
2. Immediate gratification
4. Moral meaning
Starting a few years ago, prompted by the development of a movie I was making along with actor and co-producer David James, I began a study of JFK conspiracy theorists. It didn’t start as a study of the CTs, as conspiracy theorists are known in the community (in contrast with the LNs, or “Lone Nutters”–i.e., those who believe, as I do, that Oswald acted alone). It began as a study of the JFK assassination itself, because, having suddenly begun reading about that crime, I became convinced that there was something rotten in Dallas.
There are literally hundreds of books written from a CT POV about the assassination, and these (Crossfire and On the Trail of the Assassins, the two books upon which Oliver Stone’s movie JFK was based, were among them) formed my original impression of the Kennedy murder, the Tippit murder (Dallas cop killed on the same day) and the murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby. The books are filled with details–pieces of original evidence, witness statements, theories both simple and elaborate–and to read them is to become utterly overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of evidence pointing to a conspiracy of some kind involved with the assassination. Caught up in this hurricane of evidence, I was convinced something more than the official version of the event had happened, and that justice had yet to be served.
And then I noticed something odd: The theories cancelled each other out. They couldn’t all be true at the same time. Some had to be wrong. So I set about trying to determine which was right and which was wrong. I wrote out a long list of claims: “Magic” bullet could not have taken that path, Kennedy’s head movement inconsistent with shot from behind, parade route was changed at the last minute, Oswald was a terrible marksman, Oswald was in the break room in the building during the assassination, the backyard photos of Oswald show evidence of tampering. And so on.
And then I checked them all out. I went to Dallas and walked Dealey Plaza for myself. I stood where Zapruder stood when he took that famous film. I stood behind the picket fence. I went up to the Sixth Floor and sat in a window near the one Oswald allegedly used (and was astonished by how close the shots really were–Dealey Plaza is very small). For a segment for a cable newsmagazine show, David James and I interviewed many of the leading CT figures, including Jim Marrs, author of Crossfire, and Robert Groden, considered the key expert on the photographic evidence. We interviewed the archivist for the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. We attended the annual seminar for CT scholars, called November in Dallas, and took notes at numerous presentations and lectures.
I checked out all of the claims that I had found persuasive. And they were all bullshit. All of them. The “magic” bullet theory, for all the ridicule it has suffered, is not at all lacking in credibility, given the Zapruder film and the wound locations. There are no “U-turns” required. It’s the nearly straight path of a tumbling bullet slowing down as it passes through flesh and bone, and it is hardly in “pristine” condition. With as much practice as Oswald had (and he had a lot), I’m pretty sure I could have scored two out of three shots, too, perhaps with one of them being a head shot. The parade route wasn’t actually changed–that’s a myth. And those “mysterious deaths”? Someone just made that up. It sounds scary, so it sticks in your memory, but it’s statistical nonsense, just plain made up.
I checked out all of the claims, and they were all based on nothing, or on some author’s desire to make money, or on long-discredited evidence. (Talk to Jim Marrs someday if you want to see just how seriously he takes this whole greatest-crime-of-the-century thing–he treats it like a lark, like something fun to do, like the UFO stuff he also dabbles in to sell books to the same crowd.) Nobody, but nobody, had any credibility once you actually sat them down and pressed them on the issues–in fact, they pretty much have a rule barring you from pressing them on any issues. At the “scholarly” conference I attended, the host explicitly instructed us not to ask any of the guest “witnesses” (many claim to have been there on 11-22-63) any “rude” questions. They had shown up to be celebrated, not interrogated. In fact, not a single skeptical, truly probing question was ever asked of any speaker at the November in Dallas conference. They don’t want the truth–they want to believe.
The JFK conspiracy theories, taken as a whole, fit some of Shermer’s reasons, and so does the “If we don’t invade Iraq, Saddam Hussein will come destroy us” theory.
Consolation. The JFK killing was extremely damaging to the American psyche, and one would think that “Oswald did it” would provide plenty of consolation, since he was caught and killed. But it doesn’t. Because it hardly consoles us to believe that some disgruntled and confused ex-Marine Commie could bring down one of the greatest Americans who ever led the nation. A common parallel drawn is the Holocaust–greatest crime, greatest criminal. Hitler qualifies as a great criminal. Oswald does not. He’s just a nobody punk. But a grand conspiracy involving [fill in your choices here]–now that’s proportionate to the crime. Life is actually less unsettling if this kind of balance is present. It’s less chaotic.
Similarly, it hardly consoles us that a rogue band of criminals could commit 9-11, especially if the ringleader is still out there. But Saddam Hussein–now there’s a great criminal, and we already know who he is, where he is, and how to get him. It doesn’t matter that there is no evidence connecting him to 9-11. If we can just feel there’s a connection, we can find consolation in his downfall. We are still reeling emotionally from 9-11, which means we are extremely vulnerable to this kind of manipulation. Unfortunately, those who have wanted to invade Iraq for 12 years now realize how vulnerable we are. (On Sept. 10, 2001, there was no plan to invade Iraq.) It’s going to feel good to settle our scores with Saddam. It’s going to feel a bit like 9-11 has been avenged, as irrational as that may be. Consolation.
Simplicity. How do you stop a Lee Harvey Oswald from popping up again? Just thinking about it boggles the mind. Lee Harvey Oswalds are everywhere. The Lone Nut is terrifying, largely because it is impossible to figure out how to find and stop the next one in a country of 281 million people, many of whom are a little bit crazy in their own way. Most JFK conspiracy theories, as complex as they may be, have at their root an attractive simplicity: If we root out the bad guys in the [government, mafia], the problem is solved. It might not be easy (simple being different than easy), but at least the problem is located. It’s not 281 million potential problems.
We have similarly located the solution to our 9-11 anxiety in Saddam Hussein. A more rational approach–to examine the complexities of terrorism, to treat it as a long-term, international law-enforcement problem in addition to a long-term political problem that must be cured at its root–is very complicated and comes with approximately zero guarantees. It is much easier to believe that a single military campaign–or even a series of them–will stamp out the problem. Violence is alluringly simple. You kill once, your problem is gone. If there’s one thing President Bush likes, it’s simplicity.
Moral meaning. The struggle to discover the truth behind the JFK assassination is an intoxicating mission–I know, because I was intoxicated by it. (And it’s one of the reasons I am so careful to keep an eye on myself and my anti-war zeal.) It feels like a great moral crusade. Your life suddenly has Purpose. It’s very easy to overlook those pesky facts that would get in the way. Much easier to just show up at the annual conference where nobody ever challenges anyone else, and everyone literally applauds the dedication and courage of the CTs.
Similarly, it’s easier to cast aside any complex view of the world stage and simply choose a war–no matter how arbitrary–against “evil.” President Bush probably could have chosen any number of countries to invade. Cases could be made against many regimes, and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia certainly would rank higher on the list of clear and present dangers to the United States, by any rational analysis. I don’t doubt that the country would have rallied behind an invasion of Saudi Arabia, given the nationality of most of the 9-11 hijackers and the proven links between high levels of that country’s government and terror groups. Stories could be told about the scary stuff that goes down in that country, too–it ain’t pretty by a long shot. We would have gone just about anywhere, as long as eradicating “evil” was the purpose. Useful word, “evil.” It gives meaning even to something that is obviously arbitrary.
It might be a bit too soon to try to examine America’s bizarre behavior in 2003. The Salem witch trials (“Don’t you care about the devil?”) and the McCarthy hearings (“Don’t you care about the Communist menace?”) made sense back when they were happening. Satanic ritual abuse made sense even to seasoned (and now terribly embarrassed) prosecutors just a few years ago (“Don’t you care about the children?”). And “America should wage war on Iraq” makes sense to a lot of people in the U.S. right now (“Don’t you remember 9-11?”), even as the rest of the world looks on in disbelief.
Someday, though, historians will try to root out the answers. One of them will write a book about it. It will be called Don’t You Remember 9-11?: Monsters, Madness and the U.S. Preventive War Doctrine. I’ll bet it’s going to be a good read.