The problem with conspiracy theories

For an elite — be it a monarchy, an aristocracy, a military regime, or a government — to exercise and sustain its power, its power needs to operate largely unquestioned. A population will acquiesce to the dictates of a ruling power for only so long as most people believe they possess less power than their rulers. Otherwise, why would the many consent to being controlled by the few?

For this reason, the propagators of conspiracy theories, while presenting themselves as political rebels who by “exposing the truth” challenge the power of the state, actually have the opposite effect. They breed political apathy, presenting state power as so pervasive and so absolute in its control over the affairs of the world, that protest can never actually rise above symbolic acts of defiance. Alex Jones can engage in the political theater of alerting the world to the supposedly nefarious deliberations of the Bilderberg meetings, but the global elite continues refining and implementing its diabolical plans — because that’s what global elites do.

I grew up in a country that used to be occupied by an imperial power, that country being Britain and the power being the Roman Empire. Close to what later became the border between England and Scotland, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a wall to “separate the Romans from the barbarians.” It’s not the most imposing of walls — nothing in comparison to the Great Wall of China — and since the Romans had succeeded in taking control of large swaths of Europe, one wonders, what kind of threat could the Picts, the “barbarian” tribesmen north of the wall, possibly pose to Rome’s military might?

Recent excavations on both sides of the wall have revealed the existence of stable native settlements suggesting that day-to-day life was relatively peaceful both to the south and north. The wall’s purpose may have been much more symbolic than defensive. Having occupied an island, the Romans may have built the wall, purely for the sake of creating a border.

Then as now, borders act as constant reminders that our freedoms are circumscribed by governments. Hadrian’s Wall may have served no other purpose than showing the natives who was in charge by controlling when gates would be opened or closed and carefully monitoring who passed through them.

States still cling just as strongly to the symbols of power — symbols that communicate: we’re in charge.

This is why terrorism poses a threat. Terrorists have negligible military strength — the power they wield is by casting doubt on power and making governments appear ineffectual. Counter-terrorism thus mirrors terrorism itself in as much as it attempts to reinvigorate the symbols of power and make losses of control appear momentary.

The underlying reality upon which neither terrorists nor governments nor conspiracy theorists want to cast light is the degree to which no one is control.

This week we witnessed one of those rare occasions when the veil suddenly falls away and politics as a sometimes farcical exercise in make-believe, suddenly becomes transparent.

On Monday, CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan, asked Secretary of State John Kerry: “Is there anything at this point that his [Assad’s] government could do or offer that would stop an attack?”

We all now know how Kerry responded and the unintended sequence of events that followed.

Somewhere, there may be a few conspiracy theorists who even at this moment still cling to some notion that a master plan is being enacted — that Brennan’s question was planted; that we are witnessing another ruse. But she isn’t a dumb reporter. She has degrees in foreign affairs and Middle East studies, has studied Arabic and reported from across the region. The question she posed needed asking and no doubt it could have been posed by others, yet Kerry’s offhand response made it clear that this was not a question for which he had a prepared answer. Nor did he have any sense about where his answer might rapidly lead.

The fact that Kerry’s faux proposal, after having been dismissed by the State Department, would then be seized on first by the Russians, then the Syrians, and then the White House, revealed the completely opportunistic way in which each player was operating.

If Brennan’s question had really been planted, it must have been planted by a secret Russian-Syrian-American cabal — and that being the mother of all conspiracies, I guess we’d better include the Israelis.

In reality, no one could have predicted that Kerry would have taken Brennan’s question. He could have turned to someone else and now instead of debating the likelihood that a plan to decommission Syria’s chemical weapons can be agreed upon and carried out, we might instead be considering the political consequences of Obama soon facing a defeat in Congress.

Such is life, stitched together by adventitious events which form the twists and turns of the unexpected. Things happen and we call them opportunities, frustrations, and disappointments. We plot a course, stay on course, veer off course; purpose sometimes seeming crystal clear while at others shimmering like a mirage. All the while we hope that in the grander scheme of things there must be some design and yet periodically we get stabbed by a sense there might be none.

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