Saturday, April 01, 2006

Conspiracy Theories

First of all, I have to say that I love Jon Carroll. Carroll writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is probably the best -consistently the most interesting - columnist I’ve ever read. I want to be able to write as well as he does one day. One of the things I like so much about Carroll’s column is that even though he is published in the Datebook section of the Chron, the entertainment section, he writes about everything - the silly and the serious, the trivial and the essential.

You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m going to share a Carroll column with you all. Well, yeah. It was inevitable, I suppose, when I found myself hunting through my purse for scraps of paper to make notes on as I read the thing in the restaurant at dinner last night. That’s always a bad sign.

Carroll’s March 31 column - which I had a link to here, but which didn't work, but you can find him on the Chron's website - addresses the subjects of conspiracies, conspiracy theories, and September 11. He begins by noting that some of the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 are beginning to attract more serious attention. He mentions some other subjects that attract conspiracy theorists - the JFK assassination, UFOs, the princes in the Tower - and allows that the people who study these conspiracy theories are in it for the truth, for the most part, rather than for the notoriety of it. But he also says that most conspiracy theories are built on coincidences that cannot be proved to be any more than that. Then he floats the idea that speculation about conspiracies surrounding 9/11 are really irrelevant, although of historical interest, because there are so many real, ongoing conspiracies that affect our daily lives an that we have more of a chance of doing something about. But, he says, we go off in pursuit of these amphorous, historical conspiracy theories to avoid thinking about the real - and frightening - problems that face the world.

I have to admit that I both agree and disagree with what Carroll says in this column. I do think conspiracy theories are a way of diverting ourselves. Its kind of like watching a horror movie. We know we live in a big, bad, scary world and we occasionally need to look for even bigger, worse, and more frightening things that might or might not be true or possible in order to occupy our minds so that we won’t worry so much about the thins we know are true and real and can harm us.

I also agree that we have much more provable theories than “who really drove the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon” right in front of us. Carroll mentions the current culture of government secrecy, for example. We really should pay more attention to these conspiracies than we do. They affect important issues that affect millions of people in their daily lives, and if we don’t attend to them, the people perpetrating these actions are going to get away with what they are doing.

However, I do not agree that it follows, as Carroll implies, that all of this makes the question of what really happened on 9/11 irrelevant. If things were not as we have been told on 9/11, I want to know. It is something we need to know. Now, some of the conspiracy theories floating around about the events of September 11 are very big, bad, and scary. Some of them are, frankly, pretty unbelievable. I hope all of them are simply built on a bunch of coincidences that do not mean anything. Still, given some of the things that have gone on since then - passage of certain provisions of the Patriot Act, more and more government secrecy, warrantless wiretaps (didn’t anybody learn anything from the Nixon administration?), the seeming nonchalance with which certain folks in the government regard the use of torture, among others - I want to be very sure that those theories are built on nothing but coincidence.

At this point, I’m not quite sure which frightens me more - that there are enough of Carroll’s “coincidences” around for people to find enough material to float these theories in the first place, or that from what I’ve observed about how some of the people in my government appear to think and operate, it isn’t that big a stretch for some of the theories to start sounding rational.

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