Conspiracy Con

A California conspiracy conference draws hundreds and earns its promoter thousands while popularizing a series of myths

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Who is running this planet?

Hundreds of people seeking answers to that question and a myriad of related mysteries gathered here this June under the auspices of the three-day ConspiracyCon 2011, the 11th annual event of its kind. While they didn’t agree on the exact nature of the dark forces confronting America, most seemed to see the enemy in similar terms — secret, powerful, and bent on destruction.

“This group of connected people — some call them Illuminati, the powers that be, the global elite — are working together in concert through their own institutions and their own secret societies, whose decisions affect all of us, but they answer to none of us,” said Brian William Hall, the California promoter, conference organizer and 9/11 “truth movement” guru who sold tickets for $99 a day, or $219 for his special “conspiracy weekend package.” Their decisions “make us toxic and make us slaves, and that is the matrix in which we live,” he said.

Behind the evils that confront us, Hall explained, are shadow governments and secret societies — “the very powers we try to expose when we pierce that veil at this conference to determine who is running the planet.”

Most people see the world in more complex, if less reassuring terms, a place where no one is really in control, but where competing forces affect humankind in exceedingly complicated and difficult-to-predict ways. Not the conspiratologists. For them, the answer is usually simple – even if few agree on just what it is.

Many used the conference to reinforce their beliefs and bond with others who are convinced that the federal government, corporations, Jews, Communists, the Catholic Church, secret societies like the Illuminati, shadow governments or even space aliens are working to do something very bad to the rest of us. Very often, the conspiracy-mongers agreed that these evil forces want to create a “New World Order” bent on crushing America, its people and their remaining freedoms.

Some of the conference theorizing was benign, focused on such topics as the giant structures of gold that Jose Escamilla said his “vector symbology” studies had found on the moon, or the “gentle” bigfoot creatures that Kewaunee Lapseritis said had stayed secret through their connection with extraterrestrials and UFOs.

But in other cases, it seemed more serious.

“For some people, conspiracy gatherings and conventions are merely entertainment from the day-to-day harshness of a difficult world,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State at San Bernardino. “But for others, conspiracy theories, gatherings and websites are something more. It’s part of a folklore by which they identity themselves and organize their beliefs. It helps funnel anger and skepticism, but also provides order to a world that is oftentimes frustrating and confusing.

“For the last group of people — those on a hair-trigger either from cognitive impairment or because they’re extraordinarily angry — these conspiracy theories can be a bridge and catalyst to a more violent response.”

In the upscale hotel conference room where the conference was held, vendor H. Michael Sweeney was pitching self-authored books and DVDs that he sells on what he calls his “pro-paranoid” website. While reluctant to assign names to the mind-control agents and foreign powers he claims are out there, he did mention the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group — two international organizations that are frequently identified as evil conspirators by both the antigovernment “Patriot” movement and many anti-Semitic and racist groups.

“It’s kind of difficult to give a one-two-three answer, but you can see them at work every day,” said Sweeney, who was wearing one of the “Armageddon Machine” T-shirts he sells, when asked about the identity of the evildoers. The “end game” of these forces, he said, is to “seat the anti-Christ.”

And how would that be accomplished?

“The most direct route would be to have more serious terrorist attacks, so the government can declare martial law, suspend the Constitution and have the military shoot citizens who don’t surrender their firearms,” he explained. (Such theories are touted by members of militias and other Patriots, who also typically believe that the government has built concentration camps as part of its plans to force Americans into the New World Order, a kind of one-world socialist government.)

Ken Stern, who studies anti-Semitism and the radical right for the American Jewish Committee, said mainstream issues, such as gun control, can lead people to assorted conspiracy theories, many with an anti-Semitic bent. Anti-Semitism itself is conspiracy theory, Stern added, “a belief that Jews conspire to harm non-Jews, and an explanation for what goes wrong in the world.

“So even though many conspiracy theorists, such as the UFO buffs, are harmless, a culture which accepts conspiracy as truth can help lead people to hateful acts or hate group activity,” Stern said.

One ConspiracyCon speaker, Douglas Duane Dietrich, talked about the batch of “Satan’s crusaders” he says he encountered in the 1980s while in the U.S. Army, stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco. Not only did Satan’s men, who had blood-inscribed pentagrams on their rifles, conduct secret occult experiments on humans and dogs and then make him destroy the evidence, Dietrich told the crowd — they also engaged in the sexual abuse of children at Army daycare facilities.

Two other speakers attempted to debunk the “official versions” of what happened on 9/11, claiming events on that historic date, too, have been covered up by a government conspiracy.

Steven E. Jones, a former physics professor at Brigham Young University who likens himself to Galileo, said his scientific studies have convinced him that planted explosives, not jetliners, brought down the Twin Towers and a third building — still another secret government conspiracy and cover-up.

If that wasn’t enough red meat for the 9/11 “truthers,” former White House aide Barbara Honegger took to the podium to say that she’s uncovered proof that it was nano-thermite explosives, not a jetliner, that damaged the Pentagon. She knew that, she said, in part “because no Arab DNA” was found in the ruins. “It was a highly secret, highly specialized, covert Joint Special Operations Team undertaking, a red-white-and-blue, smoke-and-mirrors, pre-emptive self-attack planned and executed under the cover of hijack-scenario, emergency-response exercises.”

Honegger said she believes the Pentagon bombing that day could have been carried out by the same Navy Seal team that recently killed Osama bin Laden. Behind it all, Honegger suggested, are forces she didn’t further identify who want to push their “global domination agenda.” After her talk, Honegger was mobbed by enthusiastic autograph-seekers.

Nearby, other vendors hawked everything from palmistry (“We’ll read a left palm for $9, a right for $9, and both for $15”) to a wall full of UFO videos (“You know the government is hiding the truth”). For $35, attendees could lie down under a fireproof blanket (with a fire extinguisher nearby) and have a burning candle placed in their ears for an “ear coning” to remove parasites and — you guessed it — government-made toxins.

One exhibitor sold purely natural skin treatments while another offered up bottles of “magnascent” iodine to those who worry about mental retardation or other ills. Still another handed out leaflets encouraging homeowners to oppose “smart meters” — those nefarious devices being used increasingly by utilities to remotely read natural gas and electric usage at residences. The meters, naturally, are seen as yet another government invasion of privacy, certain to cause radiation health effects and very likely to be used to involuntarily cut your power.

It was a weekend of worrying and finger pointing. But at least one smile was apparent — that on the face of promoter Brian Hall, the man who organized the well-attended and, presumably, lucrative conspiracy conference.

Nearby, a sign put up by hotel workers to help participants find their way seemed to say it all: “Con-Con,” it read, without further elaboration.