The nature of conspiracy theories | Ott’s Observations


A friend was recently sharing with me how impacted she was by watching the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, with intent to stop the certification of a presidential election.

An entire nation had joined her, unable to tear themselves away from a TV for hours of that day. The only similar experience for her was the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on our country. Again, an entire nation was glued to the TV watching airliners crash into tall buildings and the inevitable collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

Being older, I added one additional traumatic event from my life experience, that being the assassination of President John Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. An entire nation spent three days glued to their TV, watching from the first reports from Dallas through to the funeral ending at Arlington National Cemetery. I was 9 years old, sent home early from school that Friday, and remember my mother crying throughout the weekend. I can still hear the drum cadence of the funeral procession in my head.

Each of these events spawned multiple conspiracy theories. Millions of Americans believe the re-election of President Trump was stolen from him, which justifies in their mind the insurrection we witnessed at our Capitol. As obvious as it seemed to most that Arab terrorists were responsible for 9-11, there were a surprising number of Americans that believed our government was behind the attack in order to justify going to war in the Middle East. Almost half of Americans who witnessed the JFK assassination still subscribe to a variety of conspiracy theories … that the Russians did it, or the Cubans, or the CIA, or the mafia.

As a young adult, 10 years after the assassination, I was sucked into the conspiracy theories. I embraced the one about the mafia putting out a contract on JFK. His father, Joe Kennedy, started making money as a bootlegger during Prohibition, cozy with the mob.  The Chicago mob may have helped him carry Illinois in the 1960 election, the state that clinched his election victory. The mob had invested heavily in Cuba as a future Las Vegas, then Kennedy backed away from displacing Cuba’s communist leader, Fidel Castro. As president, Kennedy appointed his brother Robert to be the attorney general, who promptly used the Justice Department to crack down on organized crime.

Many years later, after poring through multiple JFK conspiracy books, I read a book about the psychology of conspiracy theories. The author explained that the randomness of traumatic events in life can frighten people more than the events themselves.  Such events make them feel powerless, unable to do anything to change a horrific situation. A conspiracy is actually more comforting to them because it is a plan and someone is in control.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized I had been sucked in.  I had been unable to accept that a self-important loser like Lee Harvey Oswald could change the course of history. 

Instead of reading more conspiracy books, I decided to dig into the Warren Commission report. Knowing an entire nation wanted to understand what had happened, President Lyndon B. Johnson created the Warren Commission, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, to comprehensively investigate the Kennedy assassination and report what the facts supported. 

Newly aware that I was psychologically predisposed to believe there was an assassination conspiracy, I more neutrally and objectively learned what the commission had learned. I found my peace with the idea that a bottom-feeder like Oswald really did change history.

Based on my experience I’m encouraging my fellow citizens of Monroe County to take a step back, take a deep breath, and just consider that your human nature and psychological make-up might be making you vulnerable to a conspiracy theory about the 2020 election. Yes, it is easier to believe in a nefarious plot than to accept that a majority of Americans rejected a president you adored. 

Is it so hard to believe that a few million Americans who voted for Trump in 2016 voted against him in 2020 when for four years he behaved and spoke in a manner for which you would discipline your children? Is it so hard to believe that mail voting enabled millions of poor people to vote for the first time because they didn’t have to take off work from a minimum wage job or take a bus to a polling place?  

Might it be possible that one of the most narcissistic leaders in our history has created a conspiracy theory to serve his self interest because he can’t accept he lost?

It’s important to learn from history. To deny what actually happened deprives us of that important education.

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