Commentary Magazine


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.

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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