Whether or not Jared Loughner is mentally ill, it’s clear that his shooting rampage last weekend, which took six lives and critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was motivated, at least in part, by his conspiratorial views of the U.S. government. According to his friends, he believed that Washington faked the moon landing and orchestrated the 9/11 attacks; that the Federal Reserve was a Jewish plot; and that the government was trying to control his brain through grammar.
Wacky as they may seem, the anti-government conspiracy theories that appear to have partially inspired Loughner have a long tradition in the United States. Conspiracy theories may be a globalized phenomenon, but Loughner’s particular brand of government paranoia is purely all-American.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans primarily worried that their republic was vulnerable to foreign conspirators. They particularly feared Masons, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews, viewing them as seditious groups that followed the instructions of an alien power.
These conspiracy theories produced some powerful political movements in the United States: The Anti-Masons dominated New England politics in the 1830s, and the anti-Catholic American Protective Association boasted hundreds of thousands of members in the 1890s. Sometimes, conspiracy theories had lethal consequences: Some paranoiacs lynched alleged plotters and burned their churches.
Suspicion of other races, religions, or ethnicities is still the common currency of conspiracy theories elsewhere in the world — the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that thrive in Arab countries are a case in point. In the 20th century, however, American conspiracy theories underwent a fundamental transformation. No longer were conspiracy theorists chiefly concerned that alien forces were plotting to capture the federal government; instead, they began to argue that the federal government itself was the alien force.
Some Americans had very legitimate reason to believe that the government was conspiring against them. Beginning in World War I, the U.S. government began to create and expand the agencies it needed to carry out secret operations. The modern surveillance state was born during World War I, as the government criminalized dissent with the Espionage Act and Sedition Act and empowered Bureau of Investigation agents to spy on potential dissidents. As the government grew, it gained the power to conspire against its citizens, and it soon began exercising that power.
After the end of World War II, new, more powerful secret agencies — including the CIA — sprang up to wage the trench battles of the Cold War. Locked in an existential struggle with the Soviet Union, the country’s secret warriors believed in using any means necessary to fight the forces of godless communism. But because the government plotters were not accountable to anyone except their fellow agents, their plans sometimes distorted into bizarre form.
By the height of the Cold War, government agents were plotting with the mafia to kill Fidel Castro, dropping hallucinogenic drugs into the drinks of unsuspecting Americans at random bars, and debating the possibility of launching fake terrorist attacks on Americans in the United States. Public officials denied potentially lifesaving treatment to African-American men in medical experiments, sold arms to terrorists in return for American hostages, and faked documents to frame past presidents for crimes they had not committed.
Given the U.S. government’s commitment to openness and democracy, light was eventually cast into the dark corners of the secret state. In 1975 and 1976, the special Senate investigating committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, known as the Church Committee, exposed and documented crimes and abuses by the CIA and FBI. For many Americans, the most popular and most distressing revelations involved the CIA program of drug-testing and mind-control experiments known as MKULTRA. The news of these experiments inspired generations of psychotics to wonder whether the voices in their heads really came from CIA headquarters.
The Church committee spurred a series of congressional and journalistic investigations of other secret government conspiracies. Many Americans were now ready to believe their government could be involved in nefarious plots. Church and his successors had hoped to restore faith in government by revealing its mistakes, but instead they helped accelerate Americans’ post-Vietnam spiral into apathy and cynicism.
By the 1990s, conspiracy theories about the government transcended race and ideology. Suspicions about long-hidden government plots appealed to black separatists and white supremacists, to left-wing activists and right-wing militias, to anarchists and neofascists. Conspiracism bent the political spectrum and fused its extremes into an endless circle of paranoia.
The Internet allowed conspiracy theorists to find and link to one another’s ramblings, giving hope to those who believed, in the words of The X-Files, that “the truth is out there.” To spread their theories, skeptics in the early 20th century needed to crank hand-operated printing presses and, in one famous case, fling their tracts from the windows of tall buildings. But by the late 20th century, anyone with a computer could potentially address an audience of millions.
As the 20th century neared its end, the anti-government skeptics infused their theories with a millennial sense of urgency. “The wolf,” said popular conspiracy writer Milton William Cooper, “is at the door.” The X-Files‘ many devoted fans agreed with one character’s assessment of the federal government in the show’s fifth season: “No matter how paranoid you are,” she explained, “you’re not paranoid enough.” No one could say that about Jared Loughner, cluttered with a toxic jumble of left- and right-wing conspiracy theories, his sources ranging from Marx to Hitler to heavy metal.
In fact, Arizona has, by some measures, become a ground zero for anti-government conspiracy theories. Loughner lived in a politically polarized state in which the federal government’s policies, from health care to immigration, were excoriated by mainstream politicians as evidence of a tyrannical plot against liberty. And these theories took root beyond Arizona’s borders. Throughout the United States, conspiracists rage against the alleged subversion of their country by “un-American” forces that reside in the U.S. government itself.
Conspiracy theories may seem to thrive on the margins of American politics: When historian Richard Hofstadter diagnosed a “paranoid style” in American politics in the 1960s, these views were easily characterized as fringe. But they become central when they gain powerful sponsors in the media and politics who inject their paranoid theories into the body politic. These conspiracy theories can be ridiculed in pop culture, but they will eventually lash out against reality — as they tragically did last Saturday.