On the anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, many are talking about the lingering anomalies that surround the event and its aftermath. Many more are also asking why Americans are so prone to believe in conspiracy theories. Last night on Real Time, Bill Maher and others waxed intellectual on the idea that people project their fears—which stem from a fear of chaos, randomness, and ultimately death—onto proposed explanations for world events. JFK couldn’t have just been killed by a lone man with delusions of grandeur (“slightly bored and severely confused,” as Ben Gibbard wrote); someone as big and important as the president must’ve been taken out by an equally big and important force.
But what nobody seems to want to talk about is that many Americans believe in conspiracy theories because of the long and well-documented history of the government—via agencies like the CIA—pulling the strings behind the scenes, not just in foreign policy by in domestic affairs. In other words, people believe in conspiracy theories because many of them have turned out to be true. (What, exactly, do you think the CIA, FBI, NSA, etc. are doing all day?)
As Saul Elbein points out in his article “Skeptics Gone Wild” in the Texas Observer:
…ever since JFK died in Dallas, the American system has been rife with examples of powerful people co-opting it for their own purposes. The Joint Chiefs of Staff really did propose to Kennedy, in 1962, a series of “false flag” terrorist attacks against American citizens to provoke a war with Cuba. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson really did lie to Congress, saying that North Vietnamese had attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Richard Nixon, leading up to the 1968 election, really did promise the North Vietnamese that if they dropped out of peace talks with the South he’d get them a better deal. It wasn’t Nixon’s last attempt at stealing an election.