A brief overview

Almost everybody loves a good conspiracy story. Such tales are the bread and butter for thriller and adventure writers the world over and shift millions of copies of fiction every year. But what about true-life conspiracies? What has caused the massive upsurge in the popularity of conspiracy theories in recent years?

It has often been said that the best conspiracies are the ones we know nothing about. After all, what good is a conspiracy that is common knowledge? However, we cannot talk about something of which we know nothing (although many might argue that point!), so we shall continue.

To begin with, it should be noted that conspiracies have been around for as long as humans have walked the Earth. No doubt Caveman Ugg conspired with his mates to take the credit for Caveman Agg’s discovery of fire, but it was with the advent of civilisation that conspiracies began to hit the headlines, so to speak. When ancient city-states began to spring up, their rulers often found themselves at the sharp end of ambitious conspirators. Who can forget Julius Caesar’s demise at the hands of Brutus and his chums?

It was in modern times, though, that the cult of the conspiracy theorist began to really take off. Arguably, it all began on a sunny, November day in Dallas, Texas in 1963, when the presidential motorcade of John Fitzgerald Kennedy made its way through Dealey Plaza. Shots rang out. People screamed. The president was hit. Thus began a series of events that would perpetuate the most famous conspiracy theory of our time.

It would be pointless to retread all the angles of the JFK assassination, as almost everybody knows the main theories: the lone gunman, the CIA, the FBI, the military/industrial complex, the Cubans/Soviets, even aliens. Almost everybody has had the finger pointed at them over the four decades since that winter’s morning. That the official report by the Warren Commission was met with such scepticism by many only bolsters the conspiracy in many quarters. But the theories persist and this makes the murder of JFK the quintessential conspiracy theory of our time.

Since then, the conspiracy theory has become a part of everyday life. These days, every national and international tragedy births a whole new set of theories, be it the death of Diana – Princess of Wales, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even the Asian Tsunami of 2004. There is one factor that has fuelled the conspiracy network more than any other – the internet.

Countless millions of people across the globe have access to the internet and it has become a fast and easy way to get your views and opinions shared with a worldwide audience. No matter how far-out or wacky your theory may be, there are those who will agree with you. There will also be an equal or greater number who will vociferously disagree, of course. 

So, why is the conspiracy theory such big business? Why do we love to hear them? Is it because, deep down, we have a natural distrust of government and/or authority?

That may actually be closer to the truth than you realise. The modern conspiracy web formed in the sixties, at the height of Flower Power and the Vietnam War. Young people in America had become disillusioned with their government’s foreign policy in SE Asia and the peace marches and demonstrations that occurred were unprecedented in the short history of the United States. Never before had so many voiced their dissatisfaction of their leaders’ decisions and America was shaken to its very core.

With the resignation (and subsequent pardoning) of President Nixon in 1974 after the Watergate Scandal, the public’s malcontent with public office was complete. Never again would the office of President of the United States of America be a symbol of freedom and democracy. Instead, we would see the decline of public trust in elected officials gather pace.

Some have suggested that this decline culminated with the election of George W Bush in 2000, the Floridian ‘hanging chads’ and a Supreme Court ruling handing victory to Bush over the man whom had been declared winner only hours earlier, Al Gore (who garnered more votes than Bush, but still lost due to the Electoral College system).

Then came the first disaster of the internet age – the attack on New York and Washington of September 11th, 2001. With the destruction of the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon severely damaged, within hours conspiracy theorists had set up websites declaring that the hijacked passenger jets had been flown by remote control or that the Twin Towers had been deliberately toppled from within or that it had been a missile that had struck the Pentagon. The lists were endless.

It certainly didn’t help that the Bush government immediately lashed out and invaded Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban government, but failing to catch (to this day!) the leader of the terrorists accused of the attacks, Osama Bin Laden. Then Iraq was blamed for being an ally of Al Qaeda, even though we now know that the US (in the form of the CIA) has more links with that terrorist organisation than Iraq has ever had.

The 9/11 ‘movement’ is gathering pace and there are countless websites and newsletters that explain in graphic details how these terrible atrocities were not only allowed to happen, but may have actually been planned years in advance. George W Bush was so rattled by the theories that he even mentioned in a speech that followed the tragedy that ‘outrageous conspiracy theories should not be tolerated’.

The thing about conspiracies, though, is that they do exist. Everybody knows this. From Guy Fawkes’ conspiracy to blow up Parliament, to the notorious Operation Northwoods, in which the US military had plans to destroy American aircraft and blame it on Cuba, to the Iran-Contra Scandal, conspiracies are part and parcel of modern politics, warfare and espionage.

Conspiracy theories could be said to come in several forms. There are the minor conspiracies (although those involved might argue), which might include things like a newspaper setting up a public figure or celebrity to provoke a scandal (as recently happened with the England head coach, Sven Goran Eriksson). Then there are the middle range of conspiracies, which, while popular, do not really affect our everyday lives, such as conspiracies about governmental liaisons with extra-terrestrials or even the JFK assassination. Then there are the major conspiracies. These are the ones that do affect people, such as the conspiracy to send troops into Iraq based on false intelligence that led to a war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Then there was the Enron scandal, in which a group of conspirators within the upper echelons of the company set out to defraud its investors by making false profit reports. The company collapsed and thousands of people were robbed of their life savings. These events happened. They are not conspiracy theories. They are true conspiracies. A person or persons actually conspired to make these events occur in the hope that they could get away with it.

What angers many conspiracy theorists is that even when their theories become facts, they are still labelled as oddballs or troublemakers, but the truth is that today’s conspiracy theory could become tomorrow’s breaking news headline.

So, who are these conspiracy theorists? Are they simply sad and lonely individuals, ensconced in darkened rooms, grinding their axes? Far from it (although I have no doubt that a few are…). Conspiracy theorists come in all shapes and sizes, from government officials, to military personnel, to the average bloke in the street who just wants to find out what the hell is going on. The same can be said for conspirators.

One thing’s for certain, as long as there are people walking this planet, there will be conspiracies and conspiracy theories for years to come.

© 2006 Steve Johnson


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Updated 16th August, 2012