Commentary Magazine


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.

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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