Conspiracies Or Institutions: 9-11 and Beyond

(1) What Is a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory?

The most common definition of a conspiracy is two or more people secretly planning a criminal act. Examples of related conspiracy theories include belief that JFK was assassinated by rogue CIA elements attempting to ward off unwanted liberalism; that negotiations between the United States government and Iran to release American hostages in Carter’s last year failed because Reagan aides secretly struck a deal with Iran to hold the hostages until after the election; or, more recently, that 9-11 was a plot by a rogue CIA/Mossad team cunningly engineering rightward alignments in the United States or Israel.

A broader definition of conspiracy includes legal acts that are, however, sufficiently misleading. For example, even if the U.S. president and his top aides could legally perpetrate the secret 9-11 attacks, doing so would still be a conspiracy. Legal assassination disguised as an accident or secretly pinned on someone else might also fit the second, broader definition because it’s not just secret, but actively deceptive. But no definition of conspiracy, however broad, includes everything secret.

People often secretly get together and use their power to achieve some result. But if this is always a conspiracy, then virtually everything that happens is a conspiracy. When General Motors executives get together and decide what kind of Chevy to produce next year, it would be a conspiracy. Every business decision, every editorial decision, even a university academic department getting together in a closed session to make a personnel decision, would be a conspiracy. Conspiracy would be ubiquitous and therefore vacuous. Even in the broadest definition, there must be some significant deviation from normal operations. Thus, no one would call all the secret acts of national security agencies conspiracies. Spying is sufficiently normal and expected that no one calls it a conspiracy.

Most business decisions and government policy decisions are made in secret but are only deemed a conspiracy when they transcend "normal" behavior, either by working against the norms of surrounding institutions, in the narrow definition, or by manipulating and actively imposing wrong perceptions, in the broader definition. No matter what definition we use, we don’t talk of a conspiracy to win an election when the suspect activity includes only candidates and their handlers working privately to develop effective strategy. Seeking to win an election, even secretly, is operating "normally" within the bounds of surrounding institutions. We do talk about a conspiracy, however, if the electoral behavior includes stealing the other party’s plans, spiking their Whiskey Sours with LSD, having a campaign worker falsely claim he or she was beaten up by the opposing camp, or other exceptional activity transcending electoral institutions or actively misleading and manipulating events.


(2) What characterizes conspiracy theorizing?

Any particular conspiracy theory may or may not be true. Auto, oil, and tire companies did conspire to undermine the trolley system in California in the 1930s. Israeli agents did secretly attack Western targets in Egypt in 1954 in an attempt to prevent a British withdrawal. The CIA did fake a shipload of North Vietnamese arms to justify U.S. aggression. Conspiracies do happen.

But a conspiracy theorist is not someone who simply accepts the truth of some specific conspiracies. Rather, a conspiracy theorist is someone with a certain general methodological approach and set of priorities.

Conspiracy theorists begin their quest for understanding events by looking for groups acting secretly, either outside usual institutional norms in a rogue fashion, or, at the very least to manipulate public impressions, to cast guilt on other parties, and so on. Conspiracy theorists focus on conspirators’ methods, motives, and effects. Personalities, personal timetables, secret meetings, and conspirators’ joint actions claim priority attention. Institutional relations largely drop from view.

Thus, conspiracy theorists ask "Did Clinton launch missiles at Sudan in 1998 in order to divert attention from his Monica troubles?" rather than seeking a basic understanding of U.S. foreign policy. They ask "Did a group within the CIA kill Kennedy to prevent his withdrawing from Vietnam?" rather than examining the shared Vietnam assumptions and policies of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, as an examination of institutions would emphasize.

Because personalities matter so much in conspiracy theories, attention focuses largely on what one individual said to another, whether a phone conversation implicates so and so, the credibility of this or that witness, and who knew what when. Suspicion abounds. For conspiracy theorists, no sooner does something happen, then a conspiracy is suspected. Is there a new disease called AIDS? A biological warfare lab must have created it. Did Clinton aide Vincent Foster appear to commit suicide? Someone must have killed him. Did flights TWA 800 and Airbus 587 crash? There must have been a missile involved.