Conspiracy Theory and the Boston Marathon Bombing

As a “hate expert,” I am less interested in the who, what, or why of yesterday’s terror bombing at the Boston Marathon finish line (you can take this to the bank: it was a person or persons who hates the US, and who at some point, whether driven by personal demons or ideology, concluded that maximally-publicized maimings and killings would advance their cause), than about the people–also driven by personal demons and/or ideology–who are certain that they already know all there is to know.

If you’re a hammer, as the saying goes, you see nails. Naturally Pamela Geller sees Arabs and Jihad (and of course she identifies herself and Robert Spencer as the attack’s real victims–“the Twitter hyenas are rushing to blame Robert Spencer and me, as if we originated the idea that a jihadi did this,” she writes). Alex Jones sees both the hand of the US government in the attack and an occasion to boost his profile (when he was still vamping on his radio show yesterday afternoon, he connected the incident to the falling price of gold; by this morning, the consensus in Alex Jones land appears to be that this is a “planned event to justify a TSA lockdown…. the run-up to the TSA occupation of America, which has always been the goal of Obama”).

Dan Bidondi, a host of Alex Jones’s Infowars, managed to inject the phrase “false flag” into a question to Governor Deval Patrick at one of the police press conferences yesterday.

Atlantic Wire has a good rundown of “false flag” accusations and conspiracy theory.

Indignation junkies on the right are angry that the likes of Charles Pierce used his Esquire blog to point out that the date was Patriot’s Day; Jim Hoft rushed up a post headlined “Awful… Esquire Mag Blames ‘Patriots Day’ Supporters for the Boston Bomb Blasts.” For the record, this is what Pierce really posted. Pretty temperate, all things considered.

Obviously, nobody knows anything yet, but I would caution folks jumping to conclusions about foreign terrorism to remember that this is the official Patriots Day holiday in Massachusetts, celebrating the Battles at Lexington and Concord, and that the actual date (April 19) was of some significance to, among other people, Tim McVeigh, because he fancied himself a waterer of the tree of liberty and the like.

Also for the record, the Waco siege ended April 19, which, not un-coincidentally, is also the date of the Oklahoma City bombing. If the date was that important to the bomber(s), I’d think they would have gotten it right, but that’s just my two cents. Of course April 15 is also Tax Day–and there are a number of militant right wing groups who style themselves tax protestors. Back in 2009, the Tea Party (not a militant group per se, though many Tea Party members have much to say about guns, tyranny, and the necessity of armed uprisings) designated April 15 as a day of protests and resistance.

Who else are people blaming? The lead post on the extreme anti-Semitic site Wake From Your Slumber this morning is headlined “Mossad Pulls off Boston Marathon Attacks.” Mossad’s handiwork, the piece goes on to explain, is discernible in the attack’s “use of deceptive tactics.” For example, the explosives used were “barely military-grade in terms of the depth of the explosives that would amass the kill counts” (who writes this stuff? they could really use an editor). Something tells me that if the bombs had been made of the highest grade C-4, that would have also pointed to Mossad, because who else has access to it and can move it around the US–and is callous enough to want to kill so many innocents?

I could go on, but there isn’t much point. Most of the people I quoted are professional demagogues and haters…. They are like actors who can cry on command, or pop stars who deliver the same spontaneously exuberant performance night after night. They don’t have to work themselves up into a lather when something like this happens; they know exactly what to say and they say it–and pretty soon the echo chamber of the Internet and the 24/7 news channels disseminates it around the world.

More interesting to me, as someone who has struggled to understand the underlying psychology of conspiracy theory, are the ways that civilians rush to make sense of the inexplicable. A couple of months ago, a woman in my neighborhood was killed as she walked out of a bakery where she’d just bought some cookies. The driver of an SUV had passed out and driven up on the sidewalk, possibly because he’d gone into insulin shock. The comments on the neighborhood blog were rife with speculation and anger: the police don’t investigate pedestrian fatalities (true); the drivers of the vehicles that kill them are almost never prosecuted (true); diabetics should be aware of their condition before they get behind the wheel (true); someone should be punished (maybe). No one blamed the victim that time, but when another woman was killed by a left-turning truck as she rode her bicycle through a green light, many posters took the time to note–in a public forum that the victim’s family members were likely to read–that they have frequently biked that route themselves and are always careful at that exact corner, because drivers are always turning without looking.

All of it is true, none of it is crazy or hateful–but to me it’s revealing that so many people feel the need to broadcast those thoughts out loud. What they are saying, in effect, is that the world is still rational and meaningful, even if terrible things happen from time to time. There is always an explanation; there are never victims, only martyrs or fools, and someone is always to blame. It’s a spontaneous act of theodicy, as if they all want to let God off the hook–and/or to reassure themselves that they are too smart to ever be a victim themselves.

I’m not criticizing the tendency; I’m just noting it. Alex Jones wouldn’t have the megaphone or the resonance that he has if there wasn’t a little bit of him in all of us.


35 thoughts on “Conspiracy Theory and the Boston Marathon Bombing

  1. Forty years ago, when I first became interested in right-wing conspiracy narratives and their adherents, I mistakenly thought that patient and respectful discussion and careful exegesis of what was being presented as “evidence” would bring my antagonists to acknowledge the grave flaws in their arguments and conclusions.

    However, ultimately I discovered that my assumptions were totally divorced from reality.

    As I wrote in my essay about the nature and purpose of conspiracy theories:

    “The substantive content of a political conspiracy theory is often completely irrelevant to the underlying purpose of the theory and, in any event, there is no possible way to refute or disprove most such theories to the satisfaction of its authors or adherents because most political conspiracy theories are constructed to be self-sealing so that contradictory data can be instantly dismissed, ignored, or de-valued. The reason is because the theory functions as a problem-solving device but the actual “problem” has virtually nothing to do with the details regarding people and events which are part of the conspiratorial narrative.

    The actual “problem” which political conspiracy theories seek to address is explaining one’s sense of impotence—i.e. providing plausible reasons for why one’s values, ideas, policy preferences, and political candidates seem to be repeatedly ignored, disparaged, violated, or defeated – particularly over long periods of time. Consequently, the conspiracy theory expresses the rage felt when a person perceives himself or his group as persistent “losers” in all matters of importance.”

    1. I think it’s universal, with the caveat that conspiracy theory takes on different casts in different places (in authoritarian countries, the ruling elite often uses it to justify their own power and secure their hold on it; in the US it tends to be the fallback position of former elites who fear that they’ve lost or are losing their powers and privileges, as Ernie notes above).

  2. Well I know that it is impossible for anyone In a conspiracy paradigm to actually find out anything that is remotely true -simply because honest investigation is just that-it doesn’t have a ready made conclusion. We can speculate on this all we want . It is true that the bulk of terrorism carried out in America has been done by the far right in America. We know the amount of hate and militia groups has gone through the roof since Barack Obama has been president. Yesterday was Tax Day and Patriot Day in some places in America. I think the last mile of that race was dedicated to the victims of Newtown. Also other terrorist acts and mass killings have occurred in and around April 20th which is Adolph Hitler’s birthday. That is no proof of anything -just areas where there are patterns. And I do have a conspiratorial and paranoid mindset myself because friends of mine and myself were looking into Broadway Shows for April 20th and one show we seemed to all be interested in is “Motown” -which we could not get tickets for however-I was worried about seeing it on April 20th because it is Hitler’s birthday-so I seem to be able to get into that conspiratorial paranoid mold myself!

  3. I was browsing your book, Art … and it’s obvious you have put a good deal of thought and effort into what you have to say. I am curious when the follow-up book on left-wing progressive hate is to be published? For to me, the saddest fact in our country is that this “new hate” which you describe seems ubiquitous across the entire political spectrum. No exceptions.

    1. Eric I am just going to say most of us don’t operate on a “Faux Noise” Manichean mentality-most thinking people know it is never that simple and sometimes there are more than 2 sides and sometimes there is actuality only one rational side. Why don’t you go and research why left wing groups commit terrorism-there is plenty of information about it. And if one gets extreme enough -no matter what side it is -they can become paranoid and violent. Why don’t you actually read his book Eric-you people seem to think that what you need to read can be put one page or by skimming it-like George Bush.

    2. There are hateful progressives no doubt (I’ve borne the brunt of some of their hatred myself, as regular readers of this blog will know).

      But a lot of “right wing populist” groups–by which I mean the likes of the John Birch Society, ultra-Patriot militias, racial separatists, and even some unapologetic fascists–are literally premised on hatred–they identify an enemy that is irredeemably evil and blame them for pretty much everything. In my book, I mostly talk about groups that were fixated on One Worldists–whether they were identified as Illuminated Masons, Papists, Jewish bankers, billionaire Bolshevicks, or shape-shifting Lizards.

      Though they are nowhere near as radical themselves, a lot of Tea Party and even GOP partisans borrow some of their rhetoric from such extremists. I think an Aristotelian might say that hatred is an “accidental” attribute of some progressive groups but is the “substance” of some right wing ones.

      I’m not dogmatic about this and I’m sure you can find exceptions. But to say that all Jews are Zionists and that all Zionists want to steal Christians’ money and reduce them to slavery is a programmatic hatred. To say that the country’s economic problems are completely the result of foreign-born and minority moochers is a programmatic hatred. To say that George W. Bush is a bad person and a war criminal or that Obama is a war-monger and a closet-fascist is nasty and mean-spirited but of a different ontological order.

      1. Arthur: I would disagree slightly with your message in the sense that I do not think that the Birch Society is “premised upon hatred”.

        The JBS is not an explicitly racist or anti-semitic or xenophobic or hateful organization. As you probably know, many very prominent Americans have joined or endorsed the JBS — and it has welcomed members of all racial and ethnic and religious backgrounds. It expels members that reveal any sort of bigotry — although it has been slow to recognize those folks on too many occasions.

        Of course, one has to make rational distinctions between the membership of a group versus the content of official positions associated with an organization.

        Every large organization attracts weirdos and wackos as well as boarding parties that think they can manipulate other members into supporting some particular noxious agenda.

        I would amend your comment to this:

        The JBS is premised upon irrational conspiratorial predicates and conclusions and sometimes its most zealous members express that irrationality in highly venomous ways.

        In my experience, Birchers perceive the world in Manichean terms. They have a problem recognizing that there are honorable, decent, principled, thoughtful and entirely patriotic alternative and competing points of view — but their animus is not based upon “hatred” — if by that you mean to link the JBS to racial and religious bigots or neo-nazis, fascists, and assorted Hitler-admirers.

      2. Ernie has a point though of course there are various degrees of subtlety here. So I think it might be obtuse (I’m not saying Arthur is obtuse) to draw equivalent degrees of hate between Hitler worshippers and the JBS, it seems equally obtuse to overlook the subtle “us vs them” mentality inherent to the JBS philosophies.

        For that matter, whenever we start along the path of seeing someone else as evil we tend to forget that in their circumstances, with their life experiences, biochemistry, and so on, we would very likely become the same evil that we abhor. Recognizing the essential sameness of the human condition is a philosophical prerequisite for tolerance, and as Arthur so aptly points out, no one is truly immune from the tendency to demonize that which poses our own views on the world in an oppositional light.

        Becoming aware of this we can sit down through the subtleties of hatred to its roots in ignorance. And I do believe, in a sense, those who adhere to progressive philosophies have gone a bit futher from the accessible but eventually deluded mindset that what we think is right because we think it.

        To even join a “group” of any kind (religious, political, national, ethnic) is to create a subtle form of polarity against those who are not part of the group. And what is that but an extension of good vs evil? This is not an argument for homogeneity, but merely a recognition that there is no easy solution to, in fact perhaps no solution to hate at all until we recognize that there is no great distinction between what we are and what we hate.

      1. At some point I am going to attempt to write a chapter for my JBS Report which addresses why the Birch Society is often described as a “hate” organization.

        You suggested a VERY important question, i.e. what is “accidental” versus “substantive”. What helps us accurately and fairly make such judgments?

        I have struggled with this for many years — perhaps because I have had so many contacts with JBS members/supporters (and officials) whom I recognized as decent, moral, and intelligent individuals. But I also have had debates with Birchers who were venomous and incapable of rational thought.

        Highly ideological people (left or right) believe that they possess (and should share) the Ultimate Final Truth [UFT] which they have “discovered”.

        If you combine UFT with a conspiratorial mindset, it seems impossible for adherents to believe that their perceived opponents have any remaining redeeming human qualities. This is where your “accidental” vs “substance” question arises.

  4. I am not particularly interested in how the John Birch Society perceives themselves -more interested in how they are perceived. I had done some reading on the presidential election of 1964 and much of the rhetoric then was similar to a lot of the more recent far right rhetoric. And we do know this was the apex of the John Birch Society and they were out there for Goldwater and they were saying the same nasty disgusting things the teabaggers are saying today. Look -they were extremely paranoid and continue to be-if you read their literature is almost comical except people believed that stuff. I know Welch was a genius however like many groups-his followers were far from the genius level. We all know that “states rights” was a code for keeping minorities oppressed. As far as I am concerned anyone who believed or believes the nonsense they came up with must lack good critical thinking skills. Phyllis Schlafly, Ann Coulter, and Laura Ingraham are well known lawyers but anyone who gives anything they say any credence as far as I can see is not all that well informed.

  5. Conspiracy theory is innate to human nature, if not the animal kingdom at large. Much more puzzling to me is the psychology behind militant skeptics. Perhaps it’s a form of conspiracy theory. “Hate” may play a role as well. Deriding conspiracy theorists sometimes devolves into making fun of their subjects almost to the point of bullying.

    As an example, I used to be a fan of a certain skeptic who tackles the ancient alien bunk. Lately, however, the site has turned into a series of insult posts and name calling. It has made me understand that the real motive may not have been to inform and educate, but merely a chance for the author to strut his stuff and try and show how smart he was compared to those dumb asses who believe such and such. Me thinks he really hates these people, for whatever reason(s).

    1. Terry: A careful examination of the history of political conspiracy theories (the ultra-coherent ones which posit specific individuals or groups behind all adversity) will reveal to even the most casual observer that they ALL eventually devolve into “insult posts and name calling” because they are constructed to be Ultimate Final Truth “explanations”. Consequently, critics and skeptics will eventually be dismissed as ignorant fools or even worse, “agents” of the conspiracy whose purpose is to create confusion and divert attention from the conspirators!

      On many occasions I have proposed the following challenge to devout believers in conspiracy theories:

      1. Select a theory which you are 100% confident is totally false.
      2. Contact the author(s) or a random sample of the adherents of that theory and present your best evidence to falsify the theory.
      3. Then report back if the author(s) or adherents accept your evidence and publicly acknowledge that their theory was bogus.
      4. Repeat steps 1-3 several times for other theories which you are 100% certain are false and then let us know your overall results.

      If you discover that none of your arguments is ever accepted by any conspiracy proponent. then what does that tell you about the inherent nature and purpose of conspiracy theories?

      OR, alternatively, suppose you discover that after you perform this test 10 times, you are successful only once or twice. Then what conclusion should be drawn?

      1. I successfully debunked the famous “three world wars” letter of Pike to Mazzini a while back. It has since become one of my most linked to articles. The evidence I presented was so overwhelming that it has convinced many in conspiracy circles. Two conspiracy theorists who had believed the myth were personally contacted by me, and changed their position publicly. Others of their own volition posted it all over the place and it convinced many more and continues to do so.

        Some debunkers may have similar sound evidence for other things as well, but I think the fact that I’m a person who runs a conspiracy site, and known for my thoroughness, they at least stayed and read it.

        I’ve also debunked the Jesuits=Illuminati myth as well. Unfortunately, it falls of deaf ears for the anti-catholic crowd. No matter what you say to them, they just call you a tool of Rome. They have to be the most un-intellectual bunch I’ve come across. No critical thinking at all. It used to get me mad, but now I feel sorry for them and try and ignore their ALLCAPS tirades.

        Come to think of it, I also debunked the “Rockefellers are Crypto Jews” myth as well. It got picked up by anti-jew forums and convinced many there as well.

        I suppose a lot of it depends upon who the debunker is and what their history is.

      2. Another thing I would add: conspiracy theorists can’t stand the self-aggrandized “conspiracist” experts. Myself included. In the plethora of words generated, books and papers, the particulars and substance of claims always takes a backseat to endless ruminations on the thinking behind the dreaded conspiracists. It’s not helpful and I don’t see the point unless your trying to define a type of unrecognised mental illness – which it is not. It’s natural and probably serves a biological function as yet precisely identified.

        Many of the interactions we’ve had before Ernie – the ones that devolved into antagonism – stemmed from your insistence upon concentrating on the psychology of conspiracists. You have a lot of good info on the birchers but I’m afraid your constant preoccupation with why conspiracy theorists think the way they think (on a generalized level – a lumping together), will, and does severely limit your audience.

      3. Terry:

        This comment by you…

        “I’ve also debunked the Jesuits=Illuminati myth as well. Unfortunately, it falls of deaf ears for the anti-catholic crowd. No matter what you say to them, they just call you a tool of Rome. They have to be the most un-intellectual bunch I’ve come across. No critical thinking at all”

        …Is precisely what my experience has been for more than 4 decades with conspiracy adherents of all types!

        So when you criticize me for my supposed “insistence upon concentrating on the psychology of conspiracists” — I really don’t understand your point.

        I guess what you are saying is that it is VERBOTEN to make conclusions from decades of experience consisting of MANY HUNDREDS of discussions/debates and online exchanges?

        A general “lumping together” is not problematic IF the available evidence supports one’s generalizations.

        As I pointed out in my previous message here, it is extremely rare for conspiracy adherents to be willing to discuss their methodology without them spewing venom and hostility against anyone who even dares to ask them about it!

        Also, please note my previous reply to Arthur in this thread where I specifically exempted Birchers from his generalization which someone like yourself probably would characterize as a “psychological” attack or a “mental illness” argument based upon Arthur’s “lumping together” Birchers with other groups that were “premised upon hatred”.

        Furthermore, I have repeatedly defended not only the JBS but people like former Cong. Ron Paul and the entire Tea Party Movement from hostile, brain-dead left-wing critics.

        I think our disagreement may stem from your unwillingness to recognize what underlies repeated patterns of irrationality and hostility and anti-intellectualism which often recurs in conspiracist narratives.

      4. I AM unwilling to concentrate on patterns of thinking. For one I don’t really care what makes someone think the way they think. If I know that they are wrong I do my best to meticulously break down the facts and leave it at that. One can’t debunk everything, but the one’s being debunked will certainly pay attention if their metal states are not called into question.

      5. Terry, your comment that you are not interested in patterns of thinking is very perplexing for several reasons. Let me briefly tell you why:

        1. First of all, let’s define our terms. A “pattern of thought” is defined as follows: “a habit of thinking in a particular way or making certain assumptions, usually positive or negative.”

        2. Given that definition, the illogic of your last sentence becomes manifestly apparent, i.e. someone who has a habit of rejecting contrary evidence because of the pre-existing assumptions they bring into every discussion is certainly NOT going to “pay attention” to whatever “debunking” evidence you want to present.

        3. Let me give you a recent example from my own experience with a former neighbor of mine. I have discussed him previously in this forum when Arthur and I had an exchange regarding people who are uncomfortable with social norms.

        My former neighbor is an extremely well-read person. In many areas, he is much more intelligent and well-read than I am. His political beliefs might best be characterized as extreme left and he engages conspiracy arguments at the drop of a hat.

        A few weeks before he moved (to New Orleans now) we had a discussion and I asked him to identify what source he relied upon for a statement he made to me. He started referring to Howard Zinn. I then said something like: “Oh, you mean the Marxist historian”? That description initially ENRAGED my neighbor. Why? Because his pre-existing assumption or his habit of thinking required acceptance of HIS sources of information — because those sources are what my neighbor uses to arrive at what he considers reality. He objected to my use of the term “Marxist historian” — even though Zinn, himself, acknowledged that he was a Marxist! [In fact, Zinn was a member of the Communist Party for many years.]

        4. I bring this example to your attention because it illustrates why pre-existing patterns of thought or habits of thinking are VERY important to understanding
        (a) what somebody believes,
        (b) WHY they believe what they believe, and
        (c) perhaps most importantly, the LIMITS of your or my ability to present evidence which will be accepted as credible or worth serious consideration

        5. With respect to conspiracy adherents — virtually every debate/discussion I have had with devout conspiracists ultimately devolves into an epistemological debate, i.e. what is considered relevant evidence, what sources are deemed reliable or credible — and how to weigh and evaluate the significance of whatever data is presented.

        It is IMPOSSIBLE to penetrate most conspiracist arguments for the very reason you have correctly identified in your messages, i.e. there frequently is an irrational and anti-intellectual predisposition (aka pattern of thought or habit of thinking) which prevents contradictory evidence from being accepted.

      6. Terry, one postscript to my last message:

        You may have seen me explain this before. The reason I started making hundreds of FOIA requests to the FBI and I have spent many thousands of dollars acquiring FBI files over the past 30+ years is precisely because of your suggested approach. I knew from my numerous contacts with Birchers and like-minded conspiracy adherents that they often recommended or effusively praised the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, as our nation’s most knowledgeable, authoritative, and reliable source of factual information about the communist movement (and about internal security matters generally).

        Consequently, I thought it was possible for me to totally eliminate ALL “name-calling” and ALL “ad hominem” arguments, and ALL disagreements about what constitutes indisputable “fact” — if I used the very source which Birchers insisted was the most credible and authoritative.

        In fact, in the mid-1980’s, after I received the first 20 sections of the FBI HQ file on the Birch Society (out of a total of 60 sections), I prepared a 6-page summary of what I had discovered. I also prepared a separate 4-page summary regarding someone whom the Birch Society had described as a Communist sympathizer, i.e. Harry A. Overstreet — whose 1958 book (What We Must Know About Communism) was described by Robert Welch as “pro-Communist double-talk”. [Incidentally, the FBI provided considerable public source documents and editorial assistance to Overstreet on his 1958 book. The Bureau’s Chief Inspector at the time (their expert about the communist movement) helped write Overstreet’s book and J. Edgar Hoover recommended it!!!

        I then sent both of my summaries to most of the men who were then members of the JBS National Council along with about 80 other JBS members (chapter leaders, section leaders, Coordinators). Altogether, about 100 Birchers received my summaries regarding FBI files on the JBS and Overstreet.

        I enclosed a brief questionnaire with my JBS summary and a postage-paid reply envelope. My questionnaire focused entirely upon whether or not my summary changed the thinking of any JBS member either about Hoover and the FBI or about any of the subjects discussed in my summary.

        Not even one JBS member replied or returned my questionnaire! Not one!

        Now — here is where you and I have our disagreement.

        1. As you’ve made clear, you could not care less WHY Birchers believe what they believe.

        2. You probably have no interest in why not even ONE Bircher returned my questionnaire.

        3. However, MY experience with conspiracy adherents over the past 40+ years has been that they REFUSE to candidly acknowledge the existence of data which is inconvenient for their arguments. They are not willing to candidly acknowledge errors in their statements or evidence.

        4. You may recall my Albionic “debate” with South Carolina JBS chapter leader John Perna during which he falsely claimed that Dan Smoot had been on the JBS National Council “for decades” — when the reality (as confirmed by senior JBS officials) is that Smoot was never even a JBS member much less on their National Council “for decades” — but Perna refused to graciously admit his error—EVEN WHEN another person published a reply from a senior JBS official which proved my point! In other cases, I offered to contribute $1000 to any charity of Perna’s choice if he would simply provide factual evidence to support his absurd statements. Of course, he refused my challenge.

        5. So, bottom-line is this: YOU can pretend (it you prefer) that there is no underlying “pattern of thought” which is responsible for these situations — but no serious student of conspiracy arguments and their adherents would challenge the factual basis of my “generalizations”.

  6. Some New Atheists too (

    Smugness, name-calling, and pomposity are personality flaws in individuals; when they provide the impetus for a “movement” they’re something else entirely. Michael Moore’s post reminded me of all the progressive newspaper bloggers who jumped the gun on Jared Lee Loughner. One would like to think that our thought leaders, at least, are the last to grab their pitchforks and torches.

    1. You have a good point Arthur-Smug atheists are no more palatable to me than smug religious fundamentalists. Didn’t Loughner plead guilty to those crimes? I brought up Tax Day, Patriot Day and the birthday of Hitler merely speculating on a possible connection and if this the extent of what Moore said-then I wouldn’t get to bent out of shape about. However you indicated in a post Arthur that calling George Bush a war criminal is mean spirited-I disagree -there is certain substantiated information that lead people to identify him with this term and I have no problem with any criticism of Obama that is fact based either.

    2. The atheists caused quite a commotion during the TedX fiasco, successfully censoring the Hancock and Sheldrake talks recently. Religious fundamentalism and militant atheism have a lot in common – propensity for censoring contrary knowledge and the exercise of whatever power they have to accomplish it. Both camps would be equally disastrous if they held absolute power in a dictatorship.

      1. Terry, your observations are correct in my judgment. Now…..if we were to consider the underlying reasons why militant atheists and their supposed opposite (religious fundamentalists) “have a lot in common” particularly with respect to their joint desire to “censor contrary knowledge”– wouldn’t we be falling into YOUR dreaded category of making “generalizations” (perhaps even psychological or mental health generalizations) ? Would THAT be so terrible?

    3. It might be pointed out that the words “mob” and “movement” in English both arise from the same basic concept of large groups of people in motion.

  7. Of course Loughner is guilty; what I was referring to were Kos’s notorious “Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin” Tweet and Krugman’s almost instantaneous “the odds are that it was [political].” Giffords father blamed the Tea Party too, but he was a family member, not a member of the media. People on the right took tremendous offense at Kos and Krugman, since no hard facts were in as of yet–and as it turned out, Loughner was completely insane (though most likely not uninfluenced by the political zeitgeist). As for GWB and Obama and mean spiritedness, I was trying to evenhandedly distinguish between a hurtful (though not necessarily untrue) ad hominem and a global assertion about a whole class of people.

    1. Because of the recent events in Boston, broadcast media did not give much attention to the recent release of the report by the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, here:

      A very compelling case can be made (based upon facts and law, not speculation or partisan name-calling) that George Bush and Dick Cheney should be in prison. Unfortunately, our countrymen no longer have the moral capacity to demand accountability for our political leaders or, for that matter, for CEO’s of large financial institutions.

  8. In further reply to Terry Melanson, I copy below something I wrote many years ago to someone who challenged me in a Yahoo conspiracy discussion group:

    In my experience, adherents of political conspiracy theories are rarely willing to specify what methodology (i.e. rules of evidence and logic) that they agree should be applicable to all “theories”. The reason for this reluctance (and hostility toward anyone who asks) is because they do not want any specific rules to apply to whatever they propose should be considered.

    Fiction writers are free to fabricate whatever characters, thoughts, and motives will move their story-line to its pre-determined conclusion. However, verifiable factual evidence is the province of NON-fiction writers and this presents what many conspiracy adherents believe is a too onerous evidentiary burden to meet.

    Consequently, fiction writers want the freedom to plant seeds of doubt and suspicion because they know that such seeds, once planted, can be trusted to grow. In fact, one of the most compelling elements of conspiracy theories is their ultra-coherence, i.e. everything “fits” into whatever narrative is being created. There are no loose ends, no ambiguities, no contradictions, no puzzles, no inadequate or inconclusive “evidence”.

    Furthermore, the motives of the actors in their theory are always expressed as ultimate “good guys” vs ultimate evil “bad guys” because most political conspiracy theories are morality plays — and not actual fact-based arguments.

    Every genuine theory must be falsifiable but most political conspiracy theories are constructed to be self-sealing so that no amount of contradictory evidence is ever regarded as adequate to falsify the theory. That is why you will search in vain for conspiracy theorists who analyze contradictory evidence and then acknowledge that their theory was fundamentally flawed and/or should be discarded. Instead, it is always proposed that the critic or skeptic is “brainwashed” or, perhaps, even “an agent” of the conspiracy spreading “disinformation”.

    Lastly, the issue is not whether or not there are conspiracies. Obviously, there are. The issue is whether or not all of history should be interpreted as a conspiratorial undertaking. Many contemporary conspiracy adherents are merely repeating arguments that were first proposed 80 years ago — so we are asked to believe in the continuous existence of a massive conspiracy involving hundreds or thousands of participants and witnesses — but, somehow, “hidden” and not exposed.

      1. I’m not sure whom you include in (or exclude from) “monolithists”.

        Making fact-based generalizations is an entirely reasonable way to interpret available evidence. It does not preclude making subsequent adjustments and revisions based upon new evidence.

        As you stated in one of your messages, some people are automatically extremely hostile toward critics of their beliefs or theories and they are unwilling to engage their critical thinking abilities. THAT is also a generalization, my friend. THAT is also an entirely reasonable statement to make – based upon YOUR experiences.

        I do not accuse you of any intellectual deficiency just because you arrived at such a generalization based upon your experiences. I just don’t understand why you don’t think I am entitled to make the same sort of generalizations based upon MY experiences? OR from my review of conspiracy literature over the past 40 years?

  9. If I can step in for a second, I just want to say that Ernie and Terry both rise miles above the stereotypes of the “monolithism” (is that a word?) that one so often encounters in the writings of debunkers and conspiracists alike. I don’t always agree with either of you, but I am continually refreshed by the clarity, thoughtfulness, and humanity of your posts.

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