Commentary Magazine


Topic: conspiracy theories

Kidnappings, Killings, and Conspiracy Theories

The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens by Hamas, and the subsequent murder of an Arab teen by Jewish extremists, actually underscored two fundamental differences between Israeli and Palestinian society. COMMENTARY contributor Eugene Kontorovich and the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens both addressed one difference–the societal response to such murders. But the second is no less important: Israeli police swiftly nabbed the suspected Jewish killers because Israelis are generally prepared to face facts, even when the facts point to a horrific revenge killing. Palestinians, in contrast, are so mired in conspiracy theories that many refused to even believe the kidnapping had occurred.

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The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens by Hamas, and the subsequent murder of an Arab teen by Jewish extremists, actually underscored two fundamental differences between Israeli and Palestinian society. COMMENTARY contributor Eugene Kontorovich and the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens both addressed one difference–the societal response to such murders. But the second is no less important: Israeli police swiftly nabbed the suspected Jewish killers because Israelis are generally prepared to face facts, even when the facts point to a horrific revenge killing. Palestinians, in contrast, are so mired in conspiracy theories that many refused to even believe the kidnapping had occurred.

This view started from the very top: Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki, for instance, said the kidnapping might be either “a childish game on Israel’s part, meant to attract attention,” or “part of a bigger game meant to turn the Israelis from aggressors into victims.” And as even Haaretz’s pro-Palestinian reporter Amira Hass acknowledged, many Palestinians agreed:

As long as the bodies hadn’t been found, a great many Palestinians believed no abduction had ever occurred. In their view, the kidnapping was fabricated to thwart the Palestinians’ national unity government, undo the achievements (from the Palestinian perspective) of the deal to free kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, and harm Hamas.

This is simply mind-blowing. For 18 days, thousands of Israeli soldiers searched for the missing boys round the clock, as did numerous civilian volunteers. Mass prayer rallies were held throughout Israel. The kidnapping dominated both politics and the media; even major geopolitical events like the Islamic State’s takeover of swathes of Iraq got second billing. Yet “a great many Palestinians” found it perfectly reasonable to think this was all part of a massive conspiracy–that Israel’s political and military leaders, media outlets, and even the boys’ own families and friends had conspired to virtually shut down the country for weeks for the sole purpose of harassing the Palestinians.

Like the glorification of murder that Stephens and Kontorovich discussed, this penchant for conspiracy theories over truth has serious implications for the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Take, for instance, the rampant Palestinian denial of any historic Jewish presence in the Land of Israel–the repeated references to the “alleged Temple,” the claim that Jesus was a Palestinian, and much more. This denial makes it psychologically almost impossible for Palestinians to accept a Jewish state’s existence. If you believe two peoples have historical rights to a land, sharing it is a reasonable proposition. But if you believe the other side has no rights at all–that it has simply stolen your land and dispossessed you–then allowing it to keep its ill-gotten gains is a shameful, virtually inconceivable concession.

Or consider the Palestinians’ claim that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would strip Israeli Arabs of their rights. In reality, this is ridiculous: Israel has defined itself as a Jewish state since its inception, but that hasn’t stopped it from granting Arab citizens full civil rights–more rights, in fact, than their brethren in the PA have. (Israel doesn’t, for instance, jail journalists for insulting its leaders.) But in the fever swamps of Palestinian conspiracy theories, where everything–even the kidnapping of three Jewish teens–is an Israeli plot to harm Palestinians, the idea that this Israeli demand is really a plot to strip Arab citizens of their rights is perfectly believable. And once having convinced themselves of this, they obviously can’t accept such a demand.

What all this means is that anyone who truly wants peace must do the opposite of what the West has done for decades: Instead of catering to Palestinian sensibilities by, for instance, avoiding all mention of Jewish rights in Jerusalem, the West must start demanding that Palestinian leaders publicly acknowledge, and educate their children to know, some basic truths about both the historic Jewish kingdom and the modern Jewish state. For only when Palestinians replace their feverish conspiracy theories about Israel with the truth will they be capable of making peace with it.

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Don’t Feed Conspiracy Fever

Earlier this week, I noted the way an understandable distrust of the government can morph into something altogether less healthy than the normal cynicism that any citizen in a free country should exercise about authority. A trio of scandals exposing outrageous behavior and lies on the part of the federal bureaucracy and elements of the Obama administration has led some Americans to inflate the revelations about the National Security Agency’s metadata collection into something out of George Orwell’s 1984. Such conclusions aren’t justified by these circumstances, but one can understand the argument. Less defensible is the willingness of many of us to view accidents through the paranoid prism of a whole generation of books and movies that have fed on a willingness of people to believe the government is nothing but an all-powerful conspiracy that will steal, kill and cover up with impunity.

Part of this tendency is the largely favorable reception that greeted a documentary purporting to prove the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996 was something other than an accident. The conceit of the film about a missile shooting the plane seems about as credible as the pseudo-scientific theories put forward about the murder of John F. Kennedy. But there is even less reason to believe the FBI and the rest of the government had any motive to cover up the true cause of the tragedy. Yet as off-kilter as that discussion has been, the questions being raised about the death of journalist Michael Hastings seem to be even worse. The Hastings case seems to be a textbook example of the way all too many of us seem to be willing to believe just about anything so long as it can be blamed on a dark conspiracy hatched by government evildoers.

It’s always sad to see a young and talented person such as the 33-year-old Michael Hastings cut down long before their time. People die in car accidents every day in this country, but given current trends in our culture, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that the death of anyone who had been involved in controversies would be treated as suspect. However, in the absence of any proof whatsoever that foul play was involved, one would hope that responsible journalists would avoid feeding a story that doesn’t appear to have any basis in fact. Yet, as Mediaite reports, both CNN and Fox News broadcast the unsubstantiated rumors that what happened to Hastings was a murder made to look like an accident. That was a mistake.

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Earlier this week, I noted the way an understandable distrust of the government can morph into something altogether less healthy than the normal cynicism that any citizen in a free country should exercise about authority. A trio of scandals exposing outrageous behavior and lies on the part of the federal bureaucracy and elements of the Obama administration has led some Americans to inflate the revelations about the National Security Agency’s metadata collection into something out of George Orwell’s 1984. Such conclusions aren’t justified by these circumstances, but one can understand the argument. Less defensible is the willingness of many of us to view accidents through the paranoid prism of a whole generation of books and movies that have fed on a willingness of people to believe the government is nothing but an all-powerful conspiracy that will steal, kill and cover up with impunity.

Part of this tendency is the largely favorable reception that greeted a documentary purporting to prove the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996 was something other than an accident. The conceit of the film about a missile shooting the plane seems about as credible as the pseudo-scientific theories put forward about the murder of John F. Kennedy. But there is even less reason to believe the FBI and the rest of the government had any motive to cover up the true cause of the tragedy. Yet as off-kilter as that discussion has been, the questions being raised about the death of journalist Michael Hastings seem to be even worse. The Hastings case seems to be a textbook example of the way all too many of us seem to be willing to believe just about anything so long as it can be blamed on a dark conspiracy hatched by government evildoers.

It’s always sad to see a young and talented person such as the 33-year-old Michael Hastings cut down long before their time. People die in car accidents every day in this country, but given current trends in our culture, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that the death of anyone who had been involved in controversies would be treated as suspect. However, in the absence of any proof whatsoever that foul play was involved, one would hope that responsible journalists would avoid feeding a story that doesn’t appear to have any basis in fact. Yet, as Mediaite reports, both CNN and Fox News broadcast the unsubstantiated rumors that what happened to Hastings was a murder made to look like an accident. That was a mistake.

It’s true that some in the military probably resented Hastings for the way his Rolling Stone profile ended the career of General Stanley McChrystal. But only in the counter-factual universe of the Bourne Conspiracy novels and the hundreds, if not thousands like it, would the Pentagon or some other force exact revenge for this offense or any act of aggressive reporting in this manner. There are countries where such things do happen, but contrary to what has become gospel in the fever swamps of the left and the right, the United States is not one of them. I’ve been a persistent critic of the Obama administration, but to assume that simply because Hastings’s last article was titled “Why Democrats Like to Spy on Americans” would trigger a murderous response from Washington is absurd.

Yes, it’s true that an out-of-control Justice Department did snoop on the Associated Press and Fox News’s James Rosen in leak investigations. But as wrong as that was, it is not murder and any attempt to draw analogies between the administration and the thugs that work for Vladimir Putin in Russia or any of dozens of other tyrants around the globe undermines an otherwise serious discussion about what is wrong in Washington.

In the absence of something more serious than paranoid rantings on the Internet about Hastings’s death, major news networks should not have given this non-story that sort of acknowledgement.

As I wrote on Wednesday, conspiracy theories provide us with a way to make events that are otherwise inexplicable make sense. It is easier to think about Hastings’s death or the crash of TWA 800 or even John F. Kennedy’s murder if we can fit them into our pre-existing prejudices about the world rather than to acknowledge them as horrifying instances of the vagaries of chance encounters with circumstances or lone killers.

The willingness to resort to conspiracy theories even in the absence of anything that remotely resembles evidence of wrongdoing is not a sign of mental health in an individual. It is even more troubling when such wild talk becomes normative in a society as a whole, as it has become in the Arab and Muslim worlds with regard to paranoia about Jews and vicious myths about the 9/11 attacks.

Our mainstream media needs to be very careful about validating signs of the same sort of psychosis here. Let Michael Hastings rest in peace. Those who wish to use his accidental death as a springboard for the latest round of crackpot conspiracy theories should give it a rest. The same applies to mainstream media outlets looking to boost their ratings by appealing to the fever swamp crowd.

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Scandals? Yes. Conspiracy Theories? No.

After the last couple of months of scandals, it’s hard to blame Americans who wonder exactly how far our cynicism about big government should go. With the Internal Revenue Service discriminating against conservatives and Tea Party groups, the Justice Department spying on journalists and unanswered questions still lingering about the Benghazi terror attack and the lies the Obama administration told about it, the government’s credibility has nose-dived along with trust in our institutions. These cases deserve to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb by Congress, and those who seek to minimize or rationalize the outrageous behavior we’ve learned about are sacrificing their own reputations for what appears to be partisan motivations. But even in this season of scandal, it’s necessary for thinking citizens to resist the temptation to believe every conspiracy theory that comes down the block or to impute the most evil motives to the government in every possible circumstance.

Understanding the difference between legitimate government scandals and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories is not always easy. That’s why so many Americans are assuming the worst about the National Security Agency’s accumulation of data about everyone’s phone calls. That’s especially true since many conservatives—most of whom were fierce defenders of the equally broad though perhaps not quite so transparent information gathering conducted by the Bush administration—have good reason not to trust the Obama administration. Yet that doesn’t relieve them of the obligation to assess the revelations of leaker Edward Snowden by the same criteria they did Bush’s actions. The same is true when we look at the latest conspiracy theory to float up to the top of the news cycle: the allegations in a new documentary that the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 that killed 230 people was no accident but rather the result of some external explosion that was subsequently covered up by the government. In both these cases, we do well to look closely at the charges of conspiracy but should not buy into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories just because we’re in a doubting mood about the government and the people who run it.

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After the last couple of months of scandals, it’s hard to blame Americans who wonder exactly how far our cynicism about big government should go. With the Internal Revenue Service discriminating against conservatives and Tea Party groups, the Justice Department spying on journalists and unanswered questions still lingering about the Benghazi terror attack and the lies the Obama administration told about it, the government’s credibility has nose-dived along with trust in our institutions. These cases deserve to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb by Congress, and those who seek to minimize or rationalize the outrageous behavior we’ve learned about are sacrificing their own reputations for what appears to be partisan motivations. But even in this season of scandal, it’s necessary for thinking citizens to resist the temptation to believe every conspiracy theory that comes down the block or to impute the most evil motives to the government in every possible circumstance.

Understanding the difference between legitimate government scandals and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories is not always easy. That’s why so many Americans are assuming the worst about the National Security Agency’s accumulation of data about everyone’s phone calls. That’s especially true since many conservatives—most of whom were fierce defenders of the equally broad though perhaps not quite so transparent information gathering conducted by the Bush administration—have good reason not to trust the Obama administration. Yet that doesn’t relieve them of the obligation to assess the revelations of leaker Edward Snowden by the same criteria they did Bush’s actions. The same is true when we look at the latest conspiracy theory to float up to the top of the news cycle: the allegations in a new documentary that the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 that killed 230 people was no accident but rather the result of some external explosion that was subsequently covered up by the government. In both these cases, we do well to look closely at the charges of conspiracy but should not buy into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories just because we’re in a doubting mood about the government and the people who run it.

The NSA intercepts sound ominous. But the closer one looks at the metadata collection, the harder it is to lump it together with the other scandals that have seized our attention this spring. The information obtained by the government is far reaching, but it is clearly intended as a way to monitor phone calls by known terrorist targets to people in the United States. Put simply, unless you’re getting calls from al-Qaeda operatives, the government won’t be tapping your phone or seeking to listen to your calls or read your emails. Given that Congress and the FISA court supervised the project it isn’t possible to argue that it was used to target political enemies of the administration or to unreasonably intrude upon the lives of ordinary Americans. Moreover, given the testimony from security officials about the way it helped stop more than 50 terror plots on the United States, it’s also difficult to argue that it was an extraneous fishing expedition which did not save lives.

One can, of course, dismiss those accounts of foiled plots, but unless you are willing to believe that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are really as dead as President Obama was fraudulently claiming during his re-election campaign, it is reasonable to assume that such plots did happen and—unlike the Boston Marathon bombers who slipped through the cracks of the system—were stopped. Suspicion of the government is as American as apple pie, but in wartime—and we have been at war with Islamist terrorists since before 9/11—we have no choice but to put our trust in the institutions set up to protect the homeland. Since it is clear those agencies have done a good job of preventing another 9/11 under both Bush and Obama, it is neither fair nor reasonable to treat them as if they were the Cincinnati office of the IRS. Conspiracies may exist, but they must have some rhyme or reason and be able to be proven. In this case, the theories about the use of this information being a nefarious plot doesn’t pass the smell test.

The same may well be true in the TWA Flight 800 case.

I haven’t seen the new documentary and will reserve full judgment about it until I do. But I have to confess that reports about the film and the comments from those who were tasked with the investigation about the theories it promotes leads me to be highly skeptical about its claims. I’m no expert about the case or about plane crashes. I’m agnostic about its specific claims about whether the plane could have gone down in the way that government agencies ultimately said it did. But I do know a thing or two about conspiracy theories.

They generally crop up because human beings always prefer to believe that senseless acts have not only a sensible explanation but also one that fits into their views about the world in general. That’s why liberals and left-wingers still claim that right-wingers killed John F. Kennedy even though there’s no evidence to back up that charge and the murderer was actually a Communist. Such theories help make an otherwise random and hard-to-understand world easier to live with.

In the TWA 800 case, the conspiracy theory doesn’t look like it will pass the smell test. The so-called whistle-blowers not only can’t explain how a missile could have hit the plane (since the pet theory about a U.S. Navy training exercise gone awry was sunk long ago) but why an FBI investigative team that was predisposed to think it an act of terrorism would have covered up such a conclusion. The only way to buy into the film’s thesis appears to be based on a blind distrust of government that doesn’t seem based in any hard proof. But it does give us a villain to blame that an accident based on faulty wiring doesn’t provide.

More to the point, we also know that the original promoter of the conspiracy theorist was a crackpot. Former White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger’s much publicized accusations of a cover up was based on recycled lies culled from the Internet, not, as he claimed, a government intelligence report.

The point about government misconduct is that sooner or later our democratic system and free press will ferret out the truth. We do well to be cynical about any government, but blindly assuming that everything it says is a lie is even more irrational than taking administration spin at face value. But merely assuming that the real world that we live in mirrors the fictional world of Hollywood conspiracy theory movies, in which the powers that be are always out to kill and cover up and everything we think we know is a lie, is not a reliable guide for understanding complex events. It is, in fact, a psychosis, not a blueprint for government accountability.

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Mearsheimer’s Conspiracies Get Wackier

On Sunday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation aired a feature examining the special relationship between Israel and the United States. The special included three academics and John Mearsheimer, of The Israel Lobby fame. Mearsheimer outdid himself.

Mearsheimer’s misreads why successive U.S. administrations embraced Israel from the Kennedy administration onwards. President Eisenhower, of course, sought to cast his lot with the Arabs—handing Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdul Nasser his greatest victory—but learned quickly that Arab states made poor allies. Israel may have been only one state among many in the Middle East, but each White House quickly learned that against the context of the Cold War, Israel had America’s back.

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On Sunday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation aired a feature examining the special relationship between Israel and the United States. The special included three academics and John Mearsheimer, of The Israel Lobby fame. Mearsheimer outdid himself.

Mearsheimer’s misreads why successive U.S. administrations embraced Israel from the Kennedy administration onwards. President Eisenhower, of course, sought to cast his lot with the Arabs—handing Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdul Nasser his greatest victory—but learned quickly that Arab states made poor allies. Israel may have been only one state among many in the Middle East, but each White House quickly learned that against the context of the Cold War, Israel had America’s back.

As Mearsheimer heads to the present day, he rehashes his usual talking “It’s also important to recognize that supporters of Israel have great influence in the American media,” he claims although, fortunately, he leaves out the lobby’s penchant for making Hamantaschen from the blood of Christian children.

That Mearsheimer claims, “there’s no meaningful Arab lobby” is risible, however. If one accepts Mearsheimer’s definition that “the lobby is a loose coalition of individuals and groups that work actively to push US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction,” then Mearsheimer might be called part of the “Hamas lobby” in America, as he and his friends seek to push the United States in the opposite direction.

It is when the radio host turns to the end of the Cold War that Mearsheimer takes his conspiracies to a new level:

There is no question that as a result of the 1979 revolution in Iran and the subsequent hostage crisis, that the United States had bad relations with Iran. However, the Iranians were very interested at different points in the 1990s and even in the 2000s in trying to improve relations with the United States, and the United States itself was interested in improving its relations with Iran. But this never happened and the main reason is that Israel was deeply committed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to making Iran the bogeyman for the United States and for Israel in the Middle East

Now, there certainly was optimism in certain circles once Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989 that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Rafsanjani would change Iran’s direction. That was reflected in George H.W. Bush’s inaugural address. But the elder Bush—even with Brent Scowcroft at his side—quickly learned that Iran was not serious. Israel had nothing to do with it.  The same lesson was learned by Austria and Germany, both sites of Iranian assassinations in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Of course, there was also the Khobar Towers attack. Mohammad Khatami, but Khatami’s attempts at may have charmed Mearsheimer even superficial reform foundered against the opposition of hardliners and regime-sponsored vigilante groups. Mearsheimer is ignorant if he does not realize that it was during the 1980s and 1990s that Iran revived its nuclear and ballistic missile program, and built a formidable base almost from scratch.  It was during the period that it solicited the assistance of rogue Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, as well.

Mearsheimer’s animus blinds him to reality, however, and so he continues:

The Israelis understood that in the absence of the Soviet Union there was no strategic room for a special relationship. So what was needed was to create a threat, a common threat. I think the Israelis concluded in the early ‘90s that Iran was that threat. And since the early 1990s, the Israelis have worked overtime to portray Iran as the second coming of the Third Reich and to make the argument that the United States cannot engage in diplomacy with Iran. And of course there are all sorts of evidence that that’s what’s happening today with regard to the Iranian nuclear program.

That’s right: According to Mearsheimer, the Israelis and the “Israel lobby” manufactured the Iranian nuclear threat so that Israel could entrap the United States. Never mind Iran’s repeated threats to eradicate the Jewish state. Here, Mearsheimer displays an obsession not only with American Jews, but also an almost racist condescension toward Iranians whom he does not credit as independent actors. Nor does Mearsheimer accept—perhaps his ideological blinders prevent him from seeing—Iranian aggression toward American troops or its aid and assistance to Al Qaeda including free passage for the 9/11 hijackers, or its increasing bellicosity in the Persian Gulf.

In every generation brings a new class of useful idiots who allow ideology to blind them to reality. In Mr. Mearsheimer, they have found their chairman.

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