I love a good story. In order to have a good story you need the necessary ingredients: a protagonist that is preferably an underdog, some sort of conflict or dilemma, drama, suspense — maybe a good plot twist — and most importantly, a villain. Every good story has a character that you just love to hate. From Nurse Ratched to Emperor Palpatine, from Bill Sikes of Oliver Twist to Biff from Back To The Future, we all love a good villain. The most satisfying stories also seem to be the ones whose premises are black and white. Good against evil, the righteous against the unjust — these are the ones that resolve themselves into a nice and neat ending that leave us content that everything does work out in the end and that justice will always prevail. We like these black-and-white story lines because the real world is precisely not so delineated. It is complex and confusing, an interconnected web of cause and effect that at times just seems to manifest itself as complete chaos. This is the precise reason, I believe, why it is so tempting to succumb to the allure of conspiracy theories.
Conspiratorial thinking is also seductive to us because, as humans, our brains are hardwired to detect patterns and correlate causes to their effects; it’s what we’ve evolved to do. It benefited our ancestors to find signals in the noise. Maybe that rustle in the bushes was just the wind and we ran away for no good reason, but when you start to grow skeptical of rustling bushes, all it takes is one lion to eliminate you from the gene pool. Being skeptical wasn’t a great survival tool for the majority of our species’ existence, and there wasn’t much selective pressure for critical thinking skills from an evolutionary perspective.
So here we are, enjoying all the spoils of modern life, no longer worrying about lions lurking in our hedges, but instead trying to navigate and rationalize the chaotic world around us. Between the banking system failing, families in debt, endless foreign wars, government surveillance, crime rates rising, and the ever present threat of a terrorist attack, concerns about lions would seem rather quaint. The modern world is no longer the simplistic, cut-and-dried place it may have once been, and the fact that it is so tumultuous and complex is very unnerving to people. What we yearn for is a simpler world and that is basically what conspiracies give us: a simple narrative that is easy to understand once you can “wake up” and see what is actually going on.
On the surface a conspiracy theory would seem to only complicate an event, but at its core lies merely a simplification. People really don’t like to believe that just one lone nut can actually assassinate the most powerful man alive and alter the course of history. It just doesn’t feel right to us. There is no suspense, no escalation in the drama, no resolution, just a nut with an Italian rifle and a dead president. What we want is closure — or at the very least, a satisfying reason. We want a secret cabal of powerful people that run things from behind the curtains taking down a president because he wouldn’t play ball. We want the CIA involved because Kennedy wouldn’t expand the military-industrial complex. At the very least, we will accept a lousy mob hit over campaign contributions and backdoor deals that JFK never followed through on. Now, that’s a story.
The same reasoning rings true for the nineteen jihadists who hijacked those planes on that horrible day in 2001. It is unbearably unsettling that such a small, yet well- funded group could wreak so much havoc on our society. The notion of an attack based upon archaic religious beliefs and lousy foreign policies carried out decades ago by individuals like Henry Kissinger just doesn’t make for a compelling case. Even though Bin Laden did make a great villain, his motivations were either too complex, or too archaic, depending on what you want to believe were his actual motivations. A better villain, better yet, villains, would be the dynamic duo of Bush and Cheney, who constructed an impossibly elaborate scheme to propagate their war machine into the oil fields of Iraq and settle old scores with Saddam Hussein. I will not argue that the Bush administration did act opportunistically after the attacks and did make some awful decisions, but I would apply the old axiom of never attributing to conspiracy what can be explained by incompetence.
This is the basis of skepticism and critical thinking. There exists a principle of reasoning known as Occam’s razor, and what it basically tells us to do is ask ourselves, “What is most likely?” If you are walking down a snowy street and see hoof tracks you would conclude, based on your knowledge of current biology, that they were more likely made by a horse than a unicorn. Now, I am fully aware that there are and have been actual conspiracies and downright atrocities committed by our government and others. I am not naïve nor do I believe we live in a world where everyone is completely honest and doesn’t possess ulterior motives; I acknowledge every claim I have encountered that was supported by compelling evidence. False flag operations such as the Gulf of Tonkin and Project Northwoods are great examples to look up if you have never heard of them before. The current debacle sparked by Edward Snowden is another excellent illustration of our government secretly destroying our Fourth Amendment rights.
The world of conspiracy theories can get very nutty very quickly, and can range from President Bush orchestrating 9/11, to President Bush, along with the Windsors, the Rothschilds, and Oprah, actually being part of an alien race of reptilians from Mars that seek world domination. I am afraid that I am not making that last part up. A man named David Icke believes this and he maintains a surprising number of followers. Look up the wild claims for yourself. An older conspiracy idea known as “chemtrails” has been gaining popularity again lately. This is a claim first broadcast in 1996 by a man named Art Bell, who hosted a late night radio talk show called Coast to Coast. Apparently a picture had surfaced of what looked like the inside of a commercial passenger jet with all the seats taken out. Where the seats were supposed to be sat very large tanks that ran the length of the cabin on both sides. These tanks were very bizarre and quite honestly, very creepy. The photo ignited speculation as to what the containers could be and listeners started calling in on the phone lines commenting on how the condensation trails left by aircraft seem to linger far longer than they ever remembered. To set the back story a bit, realize that a condensation trail is that line of white cloud that sometimes trails behind an aircraft in flight. These lines are called contrails for short, and are nothing more than the moisture in the hot exhaust from the engine condensing into ice crystals as it is super-cooled at high altitudes. These crystals form into what are essentially elongated cirrus clouds and are completely benign.
Art Bell and his listeners were quick to associate the photos of questionable airline tanks with callers’ vague recollections of contrails seemingly dissipating more rapidly when they were kids, thus sparking the birth of the chemtrail conspiracy. This conspiracy theory suggests that the government is using unmarked passenger jets to spray some sort of chemical agent into the skies. Now, the reasons why conspiracists believe they are doing this range wildly. Some say that it is a weather control agent to block the sun and halt global warming. Some say they are spraying aluminum and barium to suppress the immune systems of healthy individuals as a population control device. Others would argue it is a mind control agent to keep the unsuspecting populace docile. Still others maintain that it is an activator compound manufactured by Monsanto, a giant agricultural company that creates genetically modified seeds for more robust and disease-resistant crops. They believe that when enough people ingest the genetically modified food into their bodies these airborne activator compounds will . . . well . . . do something really bad.
Once the conspiracy train starts a rollin’ it can really get out of hand. I will admit the chemtrail conspiracy is an extremely entertaining idea and it would make a great movie plot, but there is simply no compelling evidence for any such assertion. At this point, you may be asking yourself about the photos of the scary looking tanks and wondering what they could possibly be. The mundane truth is that those are water tanks that the manufacturers of aircraft use to test the weight and balance of their planes. The water can be pumped around to simulate various seating configurations to make sure the aircraft stays within the allowed envelope of its weight and balance limitations. So just remember, it is great to have an open mind, just don’t have it so open that your brain falls out.
Editorial note: The first few issues of the Independent Gazette included a section titled Believe it or Not and by popular demand we are bringing it back. It was a forum to voice the opinions of those who questioned the “official story.” In a time when most view real journalism as dead, when distrust in government by its own citizens is at its highest level in modern times, and when a press is seemingly more interested in corporate profits than reporting the whole story, we find it more important than ever not to squash public debate. We prefer to encourage it, and do not fear retribution by corporate interests, or being unjustly labeled. Our goal is to print all sides of a discussion, and as long as the opinions of those submitting their view of a subject are respectful, they will make this column. We here at the Independent Gazette feel it is not the role of the newspaper to sway your opinions by slanting the news, but by allowing the free flow of information and discourse. George Orwell’s statement might be more poignant today than ever before: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act.”