Believing in conspiracy theories is rather like having been to a grammar school: both are rather socially awkward to admit. Although I once sat next to a sister-in-law of the Duke of Norfolk who agreed that you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers, conspiracy theories are generally considered a rather repellent form of intellectual low-life, and their theorists rightfully the object of scorn and snobbery. Writing in the Daily Mail last week, the columnist Melanie Phillips even attacked conspiracy theories as the consequence of a special pathology, of the collapse in religious belief, and of a ‘descent into the irrational’. The implication is that those who oppose ‘the West’, or who think that governments are secretive and dishonest, might need psychiatric treatment.
In fact, it is the other way round. British and American foreign policy is itself based on a series of highly improbable conspiracy theories, the biggest of which is that an evil Saudi millionaire genius in a cave in the Hindu Kush controls a secret worldwide network of ‘tens of thousands of terrorists’ ‘in more than 60 countries’ (George Bush). News reports frequently tell us that terrorist organisations, such as those which have attacked Bali or Istanbul, have ‘links’ to al-Qa’eda, but we never learn quite what those ‘links’ are. According to two terrorism experts in California, Adam Dolnik and Kimberly McCloud, this is because they do not exist. ‘In the quest to define the enemy, the US and its allies have helped to blow al-Qa’eda out of proportion,’ they write. They argue that the name ‘al-Qa’eda’ was invented in the West to designate what is, in reality, a highly disparate collection of otherwise independent groups with no central command structure and not even a logo. They claim that some terrorist organisations say they are affiliated to bin Laden simply to gain kudos and name-recognition for their entirely local grievances.
By the same token, the US-led invasion of Iraq was based on a fantasy that Saddam Hussein was in, or might one day enter into, a conspiracy with Osama bin Laden. This is as verifiable as the claim that MI6 used mind control to make Henri Paul crash Princess Diana’s car into the 13th pillar of the tunnel under the Place de l’Alma. With similar mystic gnosis, Donald Rumsfeld has alleged that the failure to find ‘weapons of mass distraction’, as Tony Blair likes to call them, shows that they once existed but were destroyed. Indeed, London and Washington have shamelessly exploited people’s fear of the unknown to get public opinion to believe their claim that Iraq had masses of anthrax and botulism. This played on a deep and ancient seam of fear about poison conspiracies which, in the Middle Ages, led to pogroms against Jews. And yet it is the anti-war people who continue to be branded paranoid, even though the British Prime Minister himself, his eyes staring wildly, said in September 2002, ‘Saddam has got all these weapons ...and they’re pointing at us!’
In contrast to such imaginings, it is perfectly reasonable to raise questions about the power of the secret services and armed forces of the world’s most powerful states, especially those of the USA. These are not ‘theories’ at all; they are based on fact. The Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Office of Naval Intelligence, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Defense Intelligence Agency and other US secret services spend more than $30,000,000,000 a year on espionage and covert operations. Do opponents of conspiracy theories think that this money is given to the Langley, Virginia Cats’ Home? It would also be churlish to deny that the American military industry plays a very major role in the economics and politics of the US. Every day at 5 p.m., the Pentagon announces hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to arms manufacturers all over America — click on the Department of Defense’s website for details — who in turn peddle influence through donations to politicians and opinion-formers.