01/24/2012 03:22 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2012

Can We Give Those Conspiracy Theories a Rest?

Some people still believe the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was a political "inside job," planned and orchestrated by George W. Bush and company to provide the U.S. with grounds for launching a full-scale invasion of Iraq. Our reasons for wanting to invade were (1) to introduce democracy to the Middle East, (2) to provide additional security for Israel, (3) to gain control of Iraqi oil, and (4) to pay back Saddam Hussein for trying to kill Bush's dad.

When you challenge that theory -- when you say it's ludicrous to believe the White House would stage such a thing -- they remind you that political conspiracies have been around since well before the House of Medici. Grow up, they say. But it's not a matter of growing up. The problem with conspiracy theories, especially the big, ambitious ones like this caper, is that they tend to raise more questions than they answer. They ignore the reasonable and plausible, and go straight for the sensational.

One example: If the goal was to get American approval for the invasion of Iraq, why didn't these masterminds at least supply the perpetrators with Iraqi identities? Believe me, if my friends and I had planned something like this, the first thing we would've done is make sure the terrorists carried Iraqi IDs. And as we all know, the perps who brought down the towers were Saudis. It seems minor, but it speaks volumes.

Polls show the majority of Americans still believe the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy. They believe the Warren Report was badly flawed (if not a cover-up) and that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. But when people insist it was impossible for someone like Oswald -- a confused and emotionally unstable 24-year old ex-marine -- to pull off something as complicated as the assassination of a U.S. president, I direct their attention to John Hinckley.

On March 30, 1981 (seventeen years after the Kennedy assassination, with presidential security much improved), Hinckley, a timid, 25-year old former mental patient, casually walked up to Ronald Reagan in broad daylight on a busy Washington D.C. street (surrounded by Secret Service agents) and fired six shots at point-blank range, one hitting Reagan in the chest, missing his heart by an inch. So much for the theory that presidential assassinations have to be "complicated."

Consider what would have happened if Hinckley had then turned the gun on himself, leaving us with no clue as to why he did it (remember his obsession with actress Jodie Foster?). We can only imagine the conspiracy theories that would've proliferated as a result. Indeed, Geraldo Rivera would still be on TV today. And pity the fool bold enough to have suggested that this Hinckley dude was just some nutcase who had acted alone, because that explanation would've been dismissed out of hand.

Hard as it is to beat a murder rap by pleading non compos mentis, Hinckley did it. The jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Think about that. Even though it's been proven to us that a clinically insane man is capable of walking up to a U.S. president on a city street and shooting him, we still can't bring ourselves to accept the notion that Lee Oswald acted alone.

Despite overwhelming evidence implicating Oswald, we still cling to the belief that Kennedy's murder can only be explained by appealing to a shadowy, wildly bizarre conspiracy that involved everyone from the Cubans, to the CIA, to the Mafia, to shady New Orleans businessmen to Lyndon Johnson himself. No wonder Oliver Stone saw the opportunity for a lurid movie.

I'm not suggesting I know more than the average person. Far from it. All I'm saying is that it's clear we don't always need a proportionately grandiose theory to explain a grandiose act. Sometimes momentous things get done by dreary, ordinary people.

If Timothy McVeigh hadn't been caught, we'd still be looking for the guys who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. And it's safe to say that those guys' profile would be "radical Arab Jihadist," and not "white, 26-year old, homegrown ex-Army."

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ('It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor') was a former union rep. He can be reached at