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Bunkum and Debunk 'Em

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The wounded leader of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, left the country over the weekend for Saudi Arabia. The opposition is thrilled. But the country might still descend into chaos, and the biggest beneficiary may be the local al Qaeda chapter.

Or, at least, I believe that Saleh left and the opposition is thrilled. I'm not in Yemen at the moment. I didn't see Saleh get on the plane. I didn't see him arrive in Saudi Arabia. I haven't interviewed anyone in the opposition.

Like pretty much everyone outside of Yemen and many people inside the country as well, I'm relying on second-hand information provided in newspapers and on the Internet. I feel relatively confident that Saleh left the country -- this account has been confirmed by multiple sources. However, some sources note that he might simply seek medical care in Saudi Arabia and then return to Yemen. Many reports suggest that the opposition is delighted with Saleh's departure, and since his ouster has been a primary demand, I don't see any reason to doubt this conclusion.

The part about al Qaeda is much more difficult to verify. The U.S. government has certainly played up the threat of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the group has claimed responsibility for several failed terrorist attacks, including the attempted Christmas bombing of an airliner by a young Nigerian, Farouk Abdulmutallab. On the other hand, according to The Washington Post, "some in the opposition to Saleh have expressed skepticism about even the existence of" AQAP. Somewhere in the middle is Max Rodenbeck, who writes in The New York Review of Books that al Qaeda has become little more than a brand name and marginal offshoots like AQAP "have been relegated to merely proving their existence by killing now and then, or blowing something up." I'm inclined to side with Rodenbeck's interpretation, not because he lies in the middle but because it corresponds to my own understanding of the decline of al Qaeda over the last decade.

Now let's wade into even murkier waters. Conspiracy theorists have argued that the Christmas bomber was actually a plot designed by the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service. No, wait, the plot was hatched by Michael Chertoff, the former Homeland Security chief, in order to sell his body scanners to a petrified nation. Whoops, I miswrote: it was actually a rogue team inside the U.S. government that was running the Nigerian as one of their own agents. Or maybe, like in a Dan Brown thriller, it was all three!

Somehow, in this account of what's going on in Yemen, I've gone from the verifiable to the debatable to the downright nonsensical.

Scratch the surface of any story and you'll find rumors, hoaxes, and conspiracies. The conspiracy theory is the most intriguing of them all, for it combines total skepticism with total credulity. The same person will challenge every assertion made by the government or the mass media about Roswell or the Kennedy assassination, and then proceed to embrace the most cockamamie theory without even doing a minimum of legwork to test it.

Cyberspace is the perfect place for this contradiction to thrive, for it is both "the Petri dish for paranoids" and also the home of Snopes and other scam trackers. Wikipedia is a battleground between conspiracy hounds and the thousands of amateur sleuths who aspire to do at least as good a job as the fact-checkers at conventional encyclopedias (whether they do so is a matter of considerable debate, including within Wikipedia itself). The Internet is full of bunkum and debunk 'em. Like matter and anti-matter, they should cancel each other out. But the relationship more aptly resembles that between bacteria and antibiotics. Develop an effective tuberculosis vaccine, and the TB bacterium will develop a stronger resistant strain. The American body politic, weakened by successive waves of government lies, media oversights, and the relentless repetition of demagogues, is susceptible to these highly infectious theories.

Most toxic of all perhaps are the myths generated by 9/11. Over the years, I've received lots of letters about 9/11 and why it was an inside job. One recent letter insisted that Osama bin Laden was not behind the 2001 attacks, that an Israeli firm in the Twin Towers "received a fax warning them about the 911 attack that would come in a few hours" (which presumably allowed it to warn Israelis and/or Jews to evacuate the building), and that it was not a plane that struck the Pentagon on that fateful day.

Although bin Laden initially denied responsibility, an overwhelming amount of evidence surfaced that linked al Qaeda to the attacks (including, of course, bin Laden himself eventually claiming responsibility). As for the Israeli firm, Odigo, it did receive such a warning, but it was an instant message, not a fax. The message arrived at its office in Israel, did not identify the location of the attack, and was hostile rather than friendly. It in no way demonstrates that the firm, which didn't even have offices in the Twin Towers to evacuate, was part of a U.S.-Israeli plot to bring down the buildings. As for Flight 77, there were lots of eyewitness reports of its crash into the Pentagon in addition to calls made by people on board. And where exactly did the flight go if not into the Pentagon?  I could go on -- about the misrepresentations of the size of the hole in the Pentagon, other hoaxes involving advanced warnings of 9/11, and all the other fanciful theories about who was behind the attacks.

The "9/11 truthers" are as resistant to rebuttal as the right-wing "birthers." They both draw strength from their deep-seated distrust of government and the mass media. They believe not in Occam's Razor, which argues for building a case on the fewest new assumptions, but in Occam's Hairball, a partially digested lump of every new assumption that has stuck in their craw.

Long before the Internet, historian Richard Hofstadter warned of the "paranoid style" that periodically grips the American body politic and directs the crowd's fury at Masons or Jesuits or Jews or Communists. In his recently updated book on conspiracy theories, legal scholar Mark Fenster takes a more benign view. Such theories reflect populist suspicion about the concentration of economic and political power, a suspicion "that can have violent, racist, and antidemocratic effects (as well as salutary and democracy-enhancing ones) on the political and social order, but a strain that is neither independent from nor necessarily threatening to the country's political institutions or political culture." 

I agree that conspiracy theories do not threaten the status quo, for they usually distract attention from more serious and systemic problems (for instance, bridges and highways and buildings are collapsing all over the United States because of the defunding of infrastructure, and the Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth focus all their energies on explaining how an exploding plane could never make the Twin Towers collapse?). And yes, before you prepare your flaming emails, some conspiracies turn out to have a basis in fact (the Iran-Contra affair, for instance, or the right-wing mobilization to bring down Bill Clinton).

The danger of conspiracy theories lies not so much in whether they are right or wrong but in how they erode our democratic institutions. Instead of democratizing the state, conspiracy theorists tend toward a libertarian downsizing of government; instead of breaking the corporate control of the media, conspiracy theorists create their own dogmatic blogs and websites. Conspiracies sap our will, for who except Jesus or Keanu Reaves can stand up to The Matrix? In fact, conspiracies are the exception to the rule of big institutions, which err on the side of incompetence more often than not. Conspiracies overstate the power of the powerful. As the Iran-Contra affair demonstrated, even authentic conspiracies are fairly inept.

I fear that conspiracies have become the only way for us to organize the unruly flow of information that assaults us daily. We create all-encompassing, quasi-religious explanations to make sense of the supernova of our post-modern experience.

This desire can distort the compass of even that most skeptical of skeptics: the investigative journalist. The latest example is Annie Jacobsen. In her new book on that black hole of conspiracy theories, the top-secret military base in Nevada called Area 51, she tries to tie together UFO sightings, CIA black ops, Nazi scientists, and Soviet shenanigans in one neat package. The first part of the book, as Richard Rhodes assesses it in The Washington Post, does "an adequate if error-ridden job" of covering military history. Then, on the basis of a single unnamed source she spins a yarn in which "Auschwitz butcher Dr. Josef Mengele, the German aircraft-designing brothers Walter and Reimar Horten and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin conspired back in the late 1940s to scare America silly with a Nazi-Soviet flying saucer crowded with wobbly 13-year-olds with large, surgically altered heads. Except that the thing crashed. In a barren corner of New Mexico. Really." It's not just the Internet that generates crazy stuff.

Unbelievable things do happen. The Arab Spring. The earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown in Japan. The persistence of climate change denial. The political career of Sarah Palin. But even as our world edges into the fantastical, our explanations for these exceptional events should stay as close to the ground as possible. Everything else, to quote the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, is "nonsense on stilts."

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