A Critique of Conspiracy Theories

by Benjamin Studebaker

Increasingly just about any time anything tragic happens there will be some number of people who will immediately jump to the conclusion that the government did it. 9/11? An inside job. Newtown school shooting? A government plot to take our guns. Boston Bombing? A false flag operation. The most recent one that spurred this post is the killing of Ibragim Todashev, a Chechen immigrant whom the FBI chose to question as part of its investigation of the Boston Bombing. He was questioned by an FBI agent and two state troopers. The FBI says that Todashev attacked their agent, presenting an imminent threat to that agent’s life, and as a result the agent chose to shoot him. Corroborating the FBI’s account, the agent was hospitalised with injuries. Regardless, the FBI is investigating the incident.Yet, despite this, some people think that the FBI just went into Todashev’s home and killed him for some reason, or no reason, and that this incident suggests that our government is totalitarian and just goes around shooting people all the time. Why do people believe these conspiracy theories?

Key to the conspiracy theory mentality is the belief that the state is a monolithic entity with inhuman characteristics. The people who buy into these conspiracy theories do not think of the government as a collection of people, each of whom is very human and can be expected to act as any human being would act. They instead think of it as some kind of psychopathic hive mind which acts more like some kind of evil super-rational computer from a bad movie.

What possible motive could the state have for bombing the Boston marathon? The same reason it supposedly blew up the twin towers–to keep people afraid. Can you imagine how monstrous the people who run the state would have to be for them to think in this way? Does anyone truly believe that the people we elect are malicious psychopaths? George Bush certainly does not strike me as a malicious psychopath who orchestrated 9/11–Bush loves this country and cares deeply about it, he’s just a bumbler who routinely made mistakes in evaluating what course of action was in the US national interest. Nor does it seem the least bit likely that Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or someone else in the administration would desire to blow up buildings for political purposes. These guys were so proud that there hadn’t been another terrorist attack on their watch, and the policies they pursued to achieve that goal were often silly or ridiculous, the kinds of policies you enact if you’re having an emotional overreaction to something which you had nothing to do with. It’s very easy to just come back to Hanlon’s Razornever attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity.

The way the authorities shut down the entire city of Boston while they went on that manhunt for the alleged bombers is similarly characteristic not of an emotionless psychopath or group of psychopaths killing people for some nefarious end but of deeply concerned, emotionally frazzled government officials earnestly trying to prevent more bombings. It was crude and bumbling, neither brilliantly planned nor brilliantly executed. The shooting of this Todashev character is much more likely the result of an investigation that did not proceed as intended than it is a deliberate home invasion and execution.

These conspiracy theorists do not consider just how many psychopaths we would need to have in the government for it to act in the way they imagine it does. Not only would the decision-makers need to be psychopaths, but all of the underlings, all the people carrying out those decisions, would have to obey them unquestioningly. Soldiers often obey ethically suspect orders, but do we really imagine that your run of the mill government agents are happy to plant bombs in major American cities, no questions asked? Do the conspiracy theories suppose that every last one of these underlings is just afraid or intimidated? The government is not a video game. It’s not as if the higher ups are all Darth Vaders, capable of force-choking underlings who leak their psychopathic plans to the press or refuse to carry them out. Authority does not equal ass-kicking.

Many of them are inspired by a libertarian streak. They read dystopian novels like 1984, and assume all governments and all people who are part of the government to be sources of endless, soulless malevolence. They don’t treat government officials like real people, they treat them like the subhuman nameless villainous mooks of literature and cinema. They think it is perfectly acceptable to scold government agencies for not giving people like Todashev a fair trial before they shot him (ignoring that, if what the government says is true, this would have entailed allowing Todashev to kill the agent) while simultaneously denying that fair treatment to government agents themselves. They don’t take seriously that they are calling into question the integrity of real people, people who are just as worthy of fair treatment and the presumption of innocence as anyone else. I’m sure the FBI agent who pulled that trigger and went to the hospital found the incident all rather traumatic, but the conspiracy theorists will not give him any due consideration as a fellow citizen because he wears a badge.

Conspiracy theorists want the world to be like their books and movies. They want a black and white world where there are big organisations that act with malevolence and cause all of our problems. Why do they want the world to be like this? Because it’s simpler. It’s easier to just assume that the big, faceless organisation is out to get you than it is to really think about how it works or how the people within it feel. It’s easier to use narrative labels, to pick out villains and heroes, than to really take seriously the moral complexity of the world in which we live.

Ironically, conspiracy theorists will always accuse those of us who don’t believe them of failing to think ourselves, of “blindly trusting” the institutions in question. Their black and white view has blinded them. “Blindly trusting” and “blindly accusing” have one thing in common–they are both blind views. The government often makes mistakes, it often messes up, because many of the people in it are not competent. It does not, however, deliberately do awful things, and often times, when it does make a mistake, it’s a systemic or structural failure. You can almost never pin causation on one individual and label that person the bad guy.

We grow up with narratives that are very black/white, that are very villain/hero, and so it’s a natural sociological consequence that we become inclined to view the real world that way. But there is no truth in such simplistic art, and if we want to live in a truly fair, just world, we have to remember that “the government” is full of people, too.