Almost immediately after the attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent taking and killing of hostages at a Jewish deli elsewhere in the city, people around the world began showing support for the slain journalists, for free speech, for Jews, and for Muslims by posting on Twitter and Facebook, holding vigils, marching in the streets, writing opinion pieces. Simultaneously, others began spouting alternate theories of events, all sharing the belief that the attack in Paris was a ‘false flag’ operation. False flag ops are defined as ‘covert operations designed to deceive in such a way that the operations appear as though they are being carried out by entities, groups, or nations other than those who actually planned and executed them.’
A number of sites online claim to provide “Hard Proof the Terrorist Attack in France is an Absolute Hoax,” videos ‘proving’ that the police officer who was shot and killed was not actually shot, ‘experts’ discussing how and why the brothers could not have been the actual perpetrators, and much more. In this alternate universe, the events in Paris, up to and including the million-person solidarity march, were not what they seemed and were in fact a conspiracy to deceive perpetrated by the French government, President Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Islamic State, Mossad, Zionists, Hollywood, the Illuminati, the Saudis, all of the above, and/or a shadow-figure no one can name but is sure exists. And while the boogeyman on each site might be different, what they have in common is the core suspicion of ‘corporate’ media, any government or government official, and anyone who does not agree with their version of events.
The details of any given theory are not the important part; what matters is the underlying, shared belief that something hidden and dark and frightening underlies what we see. ‘Things are not as they seem’ is the common refrain, and people from all walks of life are singing it.
Conspiracy theories arise after every significant event, especially tragic ones (and sometimes for no reason at all), and purport to offer the ‘real truth’ about: the April 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon; the resignation of Pope Benedict in 2013; the December 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut; the July 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, CO; the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the US on September 11, 2001; the car crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed in 1997; contrails caused by aircraft exhaust….
The list is endless and according to Doctor William Dewan, who researches and teaches classes on conspiracy theories, they are “for better or worse, now firmly established in our mass media and political arena… mainstream.”
Lest we attribute these beliefs to crazies or some peripheral group, it behooves us to look at the popularity of the basic belief structure in popular culture. Countless books, films, and TV shows (think X-Files, 24, The Da Vinci Code, The Matrix, JFK, The Prisoner, Scandal, et al.) hinge on the desire to believe that the surface is the lie, the dark truth is buried deep, and the world and everything that happens in it are controlled by invisible hands.
These invisible hands, the theories tell us, are controlling us as well. Unless we fight back, unless we rail against the dark and reveal the machinations behind the headlines, we risk our own annihilation. For believers, this mission to reveal often becomes more dangerous than the conspiracy itself. The fervency is strong enough to string together inconsistencies as proof, and the very things that substantively refute the conspiracies are framed as being manufactured by the hidden power behind the scenes so as to deliberately mislead. Photos, videos, witness statements, police reports, and news analyses are dismissed as lies, and clues in the case become fodder for even more conspiracy.
Dr. Dewan tells us that these conspiracy theories are so prevalent, in part, because they answer real questions and address real fears. In a world that appears random and in which violence erupts seemingly out of nowhere, these theories offer black and white causes, and “establish clear roles of victims and oppressors.” This can be more appealing than the truth that the causes of headline-grabbing events on the world stage, especially violent or shocking ones, are manifold, messy, nuanced, and not easy to pin down. Believing that the French government somehow planned, pulled off, and subsequently profited from the attacks on Charlie Hebdo may not have a basis in reality, but it offers a “familiar, comfortable… ‘us versus them’” dynamic to many who seek some way to understand the structures of power that average citizens have no access to.
For most people who stumble upon them, these theories are dark fantasies dreamed up by a strange, convoluted illogic, and easily dismissed. But they are more than just mistaken viewpoints or crazy ramblings; they are focused fear, directed hatred, and potential breeding grounds for more violence. At their centers lie the murmurings of another potential attack, with another conspiracy theory to follow. The cycle continues.
Dismissing them is a mistake. We need to take them seriously. Not because the perspective they offer is correct, but because they offer a glimpse into a worldview controlled by discontent, unease, distrust, and fear. That these seem to be the dominant emotions in our perceptions, our policies, and our politics is worth considering.
Which conspiracy theory do you believe?
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