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The Paranoid Style: Conspiracy Theories Gain Traction

Domestic terror attacks of the last several months share an unsettling commonality - the perpetrators were all motivated by conspiracy theories

In West Memphis, Ark., a man and his son shoot two police officers to death after being pulled over. In Washington, D.C., one man murders a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, while a year later another badly wounds two Pentagon police officers. In Austin, Texas, a man commits suicide by flying his small airplane into an IRS building, setting off an inferno and killing an employee. In Pittsburgh, a man murders three police officers called to his house.

What do these men have in common? What could have motivated them to murder, often dying themselves in the bargain?

In each case, they were motivated by conspiracy theories.

James von Brunn, who killed the museum guard in June 2009, believed that Jews controlled the world, including President Obama. Joseph Stack, who died in the February 2010 crash in Austin, thought that government "thugs and plunderers" were destroying the country and that the IRS had no right to tax U.S. citizens. John Patrick Bedell, who a month later tried to kill two police officers near the Pentagon, saw America as being in the grip of a narco-conspiracy whose protagonists had murdered an Air Force colonel. And Richard Poplawski, who shot to death three officers called to his home by his mother in 2009, was certain the government was planning gun confiscation, martial law and concentration camps.

In this issue, we take a hard look at what historian Richard Hofstadter famously called "the paranoid style in American politics." We dissect the top 10 conspiracy theories of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement and talk to a leading scholar of such thinking. We report on a Russian English-language TV news show that is obsessed with U.S. conspiracy theories. And we examine, in great detail, the bizarre ideology of "sovereign citizens," a branch of the resurgent Patriot movement that believes most Americans have no obligation to obey laws, regulations or tax codes, especially those imposed by the federal government.

Jerry and Joseph Kane, the father-son pair who murdered two West Memphis police officers and badly wounded two more this May before being shot to death themselves, were true believers. They had traveled the country giving seminars in a practice that supposedly allows people to avoid home foreclosure — one of many sovereign-citizen schemes popping up around the country. The strength of their beliefs was reflected in the angry rants of the elder Kane's common-law wife, Donna Lee Wray, who didn't seem to spend much time grieving. Instead, in line with sovereign theory, she demanded $1 million from those who wrote about the case (including me) for each time they mentioned her "copyrighted" name.

How does this kind of conspiracist thinking lead to violence?

Michael Barkun, a professor emeritus at Syracuse University and the author of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, said that most of those who believe in such theories end up convinced that anyone who disputes their ideas "is just another part of the plot. They're either members of the conspiracy or lackeys of it. Everything is connected to everything else. What may be utterly mundane to us has sinister connotations for the conspiracy."

Eventually, Barkun said, everyday life "becomes magnified into a battle with the forces of evil, and people develop a psychological investment in their worldview. They come to believe that they know the truth, but that evil forces are out to destroy them. So in the end, these theories can be used to legitimate violence, in the sense that they tell the believer he is an embattled minority who represents righteousness."

Mark Pitcavage, the director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, said there are two basic ways that conspiracy theories lead to violence. "The first way is less common, but more direct," he said. "It's clear that Richard Poplawski's actions, for example, were substantially motivated by antigovernment conspiracy theories about gun confiscation, martial law and concentration camps — the holy trinity of conspiracy theories. More broadly, conspiracy theories affect a much larger number of people by creating an atmosphere of paranoia, distrust and disbelief that can contribute to someone deciding to undertake violent acts."

Most experts agree that conspiracy culture has been spreading rapidly in this country — the appearance of large numbers of "birthers" and "9/11 truthers" is testimony to that. And while the vast majority of those people will certainly never lash out with criminal violence, a small and desperate minority will. By itself, that should be reason enough for all of us to squarely take on these claims and call them out for what they really are: disingenuous and dangerous lies.