While on a vacation to Texas a few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Dealey Plaza in Dallas and, with it, the sixth floor depository museum. (For those unfamiliar with the place, Dealy Plaza was the site where President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and the sixth floor of the depository building—an orange hued building on the plaza's southwest corner—was the building believed to have been the point from which the assassin fired.) I had always wanted to visit the site, especially after having visited Ford's Theater in Washington D.C. a few years ago, not because I have a morbid fascination for assassinated presidents, but because of the sense of history one gets when visiting such places. It feels as if time itself has come to a stop and you are being permitted to peek behind the curtains of a distant past, a feeling heightened considerably by the fact that neither Ford's Theater nor Dealey Plaza have changed much since the day they became infamous in American history. It's almost as if God Himself has created little time capsules that we can enter into once and a while just to get a sense of our own past.

For those who haven't had the opportunity to visit Dealey Plaza, all I can say is that it's a fascinating experience. From the sixth floor depository building one can look down directly upon the route the motorcade took that fateful November afternoon fifty years ago and can almost picture in their mind the crowds that cheered the stately procession down Dallas' busy downtown section, as well as get a sense of the chaos, shock and confusion that erupted mere seconds later. From the street level itself, the scene is even more eerie as one gazes up at the window from which the assassin allegedly fired or studies the street from the hidden confines of the grassy knoll. Unlike Ford's Theater, in which Lincoln's box is cordoned off and completely inaccessible, one can actually stand on a white 'x' painted on the road that marks the spot where the popular president was gunned down and see what he must've seen in his last seconds of life. I strongly urge anyone who has even a modicum of interest in American history to visit the place and see if they don't come away with a renewed link with the past for themselves.

Another element I also found interesting about Dealey Plaza was that it harbored a menagerie of book hawkers and DVD sellers all intent on convincing me to buy something that would explain "what really happened that day." Of course, what I'm referring to here are the conspiracists who have built a cottage industry around the belief that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone that day, and who have largely built their lives around the idea of convincing others of that belief. They are the true believers of the conspiracy movement, men and woman who not only genuinely believe with all their heart that President Kennedy's assassination was more than the random act of a disturbed man, but that their own government was complicit in covering up that fact. In some ways, "conspiracyism" has all the earmarks of a religious cult, complete with its own literature, leaders, firmly established dogma, and an absolute conviction in the correctness of its own beliefs. No Mormon or Jehovah's Witness missionary could be more dedicated.

Naturally, not all people who believe that Kennedy's assassination was orchestrated and then covered up by the government are quite so zealous. Most who believe it—and the museum stated the percentage of Americans convinced that Oswald did not act alone at over 70%—are quite normal and intelligent people. (NOTE: While 70% is the percentage of Americans that believe Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone, that does not mean that 70% of Americans believe the government was necessarily behind the assassination. Believing one does not mandate that a person believe the other.) They are not the type who would normally fall for anything quite so remarkable were it any other event, but in this case many buy the premise without even thinking about it, and if 70% of the population believes something is true, it must be true-right?

Of course, the Kennedy assassination is not the only conspiracy theory around. The Roswell Crash and Area 51 remain hot subjects in the conspiracy trade, as does the belief that the government is covering up what it knows about UFOs in an attempt to protect the people from the startling truth that Earth has become a haven for extraterrestrial activity. Then there are those people who imagine the tragedy of 9/11 to have been not a mindless act of terrorism but a carefully orchestrated affair designed to give the government a free hand to go after terrorism around the world (or, in some circles, to give George Bush a pretext to seize dictatorial powers, though they are at a loss to explain why he didn't do so.) Other conspiracies are older and work from the premise that there exists a type of "shadow government" composed of secret billionaire financiers who are either already running the planet or are in the process of taking it over. A quick trip through the internet can even locate individuals convinced that the Earth itself is a hollow sphere with people living inside it, or that it is flat, or that the moon landings were all cheesy Hollywood productions designed to cover-up the embarrassing and politically unpopular fact that we lacked the technological acumen required to actually get to the moon.
The world is overrun with conspiracies it seems, which leads me to wonder just what's wrong with me? Why don't I buy off on all this stuff? Why am I so quick to accept the Warren Report as fact, or consider Project Mogul a reasonable explanation for the cover-up at Roswell, or believe that human beings really have stepped foot on the moon? What is it that makes me such an easily deceived dupe? Am I hopelessly naïve or simply too afraid to accept the idea that our government is really an evil, manipulating entity intent on slowly siphoning off our civil liberties?

I suppose the problem is simply that I lack the faith to be a conspiracist. You see, in order to accept that a conspiracy is afoot requires tremendous faith in the ability of the United States government (or the United Nations or the Illuminati or whatever secret organization you believe is responsible) to keep the most extravagant secrets under wraps for decades at a time. Unfortunately, I'm expected to believe this of a government that can't even keep the contents of top secret CIA reports or the latest advances in stealth technology secret for long. When one considers that the break in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in 1972 was initially orchestrated and known to less than a dozen people and even they couldn't keep the secret for more than a few weeks, it makes it difficult for me to believe that this swollen, bureaucratic mess we call the American government has the ability to cover up something as big as the murder of its own president or faked moon landings. I just can't buy it.

The idea becomes even more improbable the larger a conspiracy becomes, especially when one considers how many thousands of people would have to be involved to make it work. Imagine how many hundreds of scientists, security personnel, politicians (and their staffs) and other leaders, witnesses, technicians, and journalists either have to be kept in the dark, cowed into silence (or "eliminated" if you are a true conspiracy buff) or be otherwise willing to participate in these cover-ups to make something like Roswell or 9/11 work. Do we really imagine that people individually or the government/military/intelligence services/whomever collectively are capable of that level of competency and that not a single person would eventually produce the "smoking gun" that would bring the whole crazy facade down? If you believe that, you have far more faith in the government, the military, or human nature than I.

The problem, I think, is that conspiracists generally work from the premise that the simplest explanation is always the wrong one, that cover-ups are common, and that most people will accept almost anything as long as it comes from "experts" or "eye witnesses," especially if it happens to conform to preconceived notions. (Every conspiracy theory I've ever encountered had a pantheon of "witnesses" who knew more than they should and panels of impeccably credentialed "experts" who are more than willing to testify to the truth of almost anything under the sun.) In other words, it is based, for the most part, on ignorance of how things really work and a ready willingness to believe anything that is "dark", controversial, strange, or unusual as fact.

I sometimes catch myself wondering if some of these people really believe their own propaganda. Listening to a radio talk show recently, I was fascinated by a gentlemen who went on in some detail about how the CIA and other government agencies have been responsible for nearly every tragic event in American history, preplanned most terrorist attacks (including, most recently, 9/11), and "got rid" of those who knew what was going on before they could squeal. To back his claims he produced a veritable laundry list of alleged "witnesses" who were willing to testify and named names and dates with wild abandon, all designed to convince his listeners that their government was roughly comparable to that of Nazi Germany's.

It was an impressive performance, and for one already convinced that conspiracies were ubiquitous, it sounded quite credible. What the radio host never asked, however, was if this evil government was so efficient at covering its tracks, how come this fellow, who had been unveiling these conspiracy theories for years, has been allowed to go on blowing the whistle for as long as he has. One should imagine he would have been silenced some time ago (with his demise made to look like an accident, of course) rather than be permitted to write books and haunt the airwaves with his nefarious charges. This suggests to me that he isn't particularly concerned with his safety (or perhaps he has a martyr complex) or that he doesn't really believe all the crap he's putting out himself. Just an observation….

Unfortunately, challenging a particular conspiracy theory is generally a waste of time because the conspiracist is not interested in facts. 9/11 is a good example of this; even after hundred of experts (engineers, mechanics, scientists, etc.) looked over the evidence and agreed that the destruction of the WTC was an act of foreign terrorism, hard core conspiracists still refused to accept their appraisal, preferring instead to take the word of the one or two fellows who see evidence of malicious tampering. The question that is never satisfactorily answered is how is it that literally hundreds of structural engineers, architects (many involved in the design of the WTC back in the 1970s), and research scientists, using the latest computer models and having access to countless witnesses and even the twisted remains of the World Trade Center towers themselves, come to the conclusion that it was the fire generated by the aircraft that hit the buildings that brought the structures down rather than pre-set charges-as the conspiracists contend-and all be wrong? Are they stupid? Are they lying? Is every one of them on the government dole (or, perhaps, part of the larger conspiracy itself?) It simply doesn't make sense that they would all be wrong about something so important, and therein lays the conspiracist's Achilles Heel: logic. Once one explores a particular theory closely, it invariably crumbles. Most simply cannot stand up to the relentless heat of careful scrutiny and, like the flimsy house of cards they are, they eventually fall of their own weight. One needs only maintain a healthy dose of skepticism (or, at least, objectivity) and a good sense of logic to bring most conspiracy theories down, for they can survive only if one accepts everything at face value, rejects all contradictory evidence, and takes the word of a handful of self-proclaimed "experts" as to what "really" happened. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of people perfectly willing to do precisely that.

Some might maintain this to be an unfair example and rightfully point out that only a tiny percentage of Americans actually believe the government was behind 9/11. Fair enough. Let's return to one, then, that most Americans do agree has validity-the JFK assassination. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence that there was more than a single gunman in Dealey Plaza that day comes from what is known as the "magic bullet" theory so popular with Kennedy assassination buffs. For years it was maintained that the bullet that pierced both President Kennedy's throat and came to lodge in Governor Connolly's thigh had to make an abrupt mid-air course change in order to do what the Warren Report says it did (a point repeatedly emphasized in Oliver Stone's JFK—perhaps the one movie that did more to breathe life into the multiple gunman theory than anything else). Of course, since bullets can't make directional changes in mid-flight, the only alternative is that the men were hit by separate bullets fired by a pair of gunmen firing from two different positions, thereby making the Warren Report either an example of grotesque bureaucratic incompetency or a diabolical attempt to hide the truth. However, through the use of modern computer technologies and by making reference to the Zapruder film (the only moving pictures that capture the entire assassination sequence frame-by-frame), ballistic experts have demonstrated precisely how a single bullet could, in fact, take the very trajectory the Warren Report initially postulated, illustrating once more that with just a little digging, the answers can be found. The problem with conspiracists is that they aren't concerned with learning the truth as much as they are in maintaining a cherished belief, which is why some still hold to the "magic bullet" theory long after it has been thoroughly repudiated by science. Apparently belief is more important than truth to some people, just as has been true since human beings first became capable of speech.

Another good example is the Roswell incident. In what has become one of the most famous pieces of American folklore, a flying saucer supposedly crash landed on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, with the craft and its dead alien occupants being subsequently examined and carted off to some secret military facility somewhere for further study. But doesn't logic dictate that even if an extraterrestrial craft did crash in the New Mexico desert in 1947, wouldn't there have been some attempt by their fellow extraterrestrials to attempt to recover or, at a minimum, destroy the wreckage precisely to prevent their technology from falling into the hands of "primitives"? And is it logical to somehow imagine that the secret could have been maintained by so many people over so many years without the truth coming to light long before it supposedly finally did. (The Roswell story didn't become widely known until 1978, when physicist and self-proclaimed UFO expert Doctor Stanton Friedman interviewed Major Jesse Marcel, one of the men originally involved on the recovery of debris in 1947. To date no one has managed to present even a tiny shred of physical evidence such an event actually occurred, yet it remains one of the most enduring of all UFO legends and has been the inspiration for a myriad of television programs and science fiction novels ever since.)

The other problem with most conspiracy theories is that they generally lack physical evidence, relying instead on whole legions of "witnesses" (most of them second, third, or even fourth hand) or "experts" willing to testify that a particular chain of events took place (despite the fact that not a one of them were there when it happened). For conspiracy minded individuals, no evidence is necessary as long as there are "witnesses" or "experts" to bolster the claims, but claims without evidence is nothing more than a story (or, in many cases, a hypothesis). The problem is that conspiracists work from the premise that it is for others to disprove their claims rather than for them to prove them, turning the entire debate onto its head.

That's not to say that all conspiracist's are lying. In many cases, what they have done is simply misinterpret events and jump to erroneous conclusions. To return to the Roswell "incident" once again as an example, it is evident that "something" did crash in the New Mexico desert in 1947 and there was a good deal of military effort in keeping whatever that something was secret; that it was a spacecraft from another world, however, appears to be hugely presumptuous. This is especially true after 1995 when the Air Force finally declassified details about Operation Mogul, a top secret effort to listen in on potential Soviet atomic weapon testing by mounting highly sensitive microphones on weather balloons and sending them high into the stratosphere. Obviously, the government did not want the Soviets to know we had the means of detecting atmospheric atomic testing halfway around the world and so when one of these balloons came down during a thunderstorm on a ranch near Roswell, a lid was naturally put on the event. Since this security lock-down included having unidentified people doing all sorts of mysterious things in the middle of the night and having potential witnesses being threatened, it is easy to imagine the military was hiding something far more remarkable than a mere "weather balloon." As such, since there really was a genuine government cover-up, it is easy to let the imagination run wild, which is what apparently happened in this case.

And this is just one aspect to consider. Imagine the number of people that would need to be involved to keep such a secret for the last sixty years: military officers, government scientists, security personnel…the list is extensive; are we to imagine that out of that veritable army of people "in the know" about the Roswell crash, both those at the time and in the subsequent years since, that none of them would have come forward to "produce the goods?" I should think at least a roll of film taken by a bored scientist would have made it out by now. And, finally, all logic evaporates when the overall rationale for this elaborate cover-up is considered: there would be much greater benefit in revealing the fact that the government was in possession of an alien spacecraft than there would be in keeping it a secret, especially when one considers the impact it would have on science, attitudes about the universe we live in, and things as pedantic as NASA's budget. (In fact, when asked about a possible Roswell saucer, NASA engineers frequently lament the fact that it isn't carted out into public view, for then they would finally have the sort of resources and budget they have only previously dreamed of.) In effect, at some point the cover-up becomes self-defeating and even, in many cases, detrimental to higher government goals (i.e. a robust space program.)

The point I'm making is that while there really are government secrets and attempts to suppress information is a fact, that is not evidence that they are covering up anything as grandiose as a crashed saucer or a presidential murder. They are simply standard operating procedures for a government that has a vested interest in controlling the flow of information to its citizenry, especially where matters of national security are concerned. (I can testify to this first-hand when, as a graphic artist working on top secret government proposals for a local aerospace firm, I was amazed at how even the most mundane details of a project became tightly guarded secrets. In the realm of government proposals, absolutely everything-regardless of how minor-is considered privileged information. One of the running jokes at the time is that after we finished a job, we couldn't even discuss the alphabet because we had used letters from it in the proposal.)

Of course, all of this would not be so important if believing in conspiracies was essentially harmless. Unfortunately, while some are relatively innocuous (the belief in a flat Earth or faked Moon landings, for instance), some would have profound implications for our society and even humanity itself were they true. Consider what it means if the government really had a hand in bringing down the World Trade Center or in assassinating its own president; it would mean that my country is evil, my leaders corrupt and part of an insidious plot to take over the world, and even that the military is an instrument of terror. Were I really to imagine my government guilty of such duplicity, deceit, and pure evil, logic dictates that I should not want to live here any longer, much less participate in the political process or even pay my taxes. To put it more simply, if you really believe your government is doing all these things and you continue to support it, you are no better than they are and, indeed, might even be more morally culpable, since you know the truth and still choose to look the other way. Conspiracists refuse to recognize this fact or take the time to follow their assumptions through to their logical conclusions, and so maintain a sort of consequence-free indifference to the implications of their beliefs, thereby clearly demonstrating the morally vacuous nature of their arguments.

Even more frightening than those who do not take their beliefs through to their logical conclusions, however, are those that do and end up battling ATF agents from a religious compound in Waco or blowing up Federal Buildings in Oklahoma City as a result of it. The David Koreshes and Timothy McVeighs of the world are not created in a vacuum; they are manufactured by being fed a steady diet of paranoia, fear, and hatred by those as self-deluded as they are. The fact that there are those people who will believe the worst about their own government without question and are quite willing to resist it to the death or strike back in the belief that they are doing the country a service by killing a bunch of bureaucrats sitting in a Federal office building must be taken into account. What you believe about your government will impact your actions and perspectives about the world around you whether you are aware of it or not. It is simply unavoidable, and a fact that conspiracists have yet to acknowledge or take any responsibility for.

Second, conspiracy theories prevent us from using our powers of deductive reasoning and instead teach us to take the word of others about events that have profound implications. This is always a dangerous thing to do, for when we fail to look at a question objectively before making up our minds, we will fall for almost anything and, in doing so, surrender the opportunity and, indeed, the obligation, to think for ourselves. Additionally, conspiracists use subtle pressure to make one feel somehow stupid if they don't immediately accept their "facts" at face value and will frequently turn to ridicule and scorn against those who would dare challenge their assumptions and logic. As such, many feel pressured into believing things that "experts" tell them without doing the necessary mental gymnastics required to come to the truth. Of course, there is no guarantee that one might not still embrace a faulty premise even after looking over the evidence; it's just that one is less likely to do so if they are aware of the fact that they are capable of being deceived even by those of good and noble character who themselves have chosen to believe a lie.

Third, conspiracies make use of the most negative emotions and energies of a society-fear and paranoia-to sow the seeds of destruction. Most people naturally feel a disconnect with their government and their military (as well as have almost no idea of how either operates) which makes it easy to imagine all sorts of nefarious going-ons occurring behind closed doors. Conspiracists expertly tap into this natural distrust of things larger than ourselves and know how to shape public perceptions with a mastery that P.T. Barnum would envy. They are master manipulators and shapers of public perceptions, resulting in an even greater distrust emerging between the people and their leaders. In that, then, conspiracists are either purposely or unknowingly fulfilling the agenda of terrorists by destroying social cohesion and producing a society that not only distrusts its own government, but holds it in contempt. Such is precisely the atmosphere terrorists wish to create, for in doing so social chaos results, further reducing our ability to effectively counter those forces that wish to destroy us. I am always amazed that so few commentators point this out to their long-winded conspiracy guests when they launch into their latest diatribe. Makes one wonder how we made it this far, doesn't it?

And, finally, believing conspiracy theories is bad because it makes it easier for a real conspiracy to be perpetrated on an unsuspecting public. In other words, if one already assumes conspiracies abound, they are less likely to recognize a real one when it comes along. For example, the people of Europe were so used to Jewish conspiracy theories being used to explain nearly every mishap that befell Europe for centuries that they didn't find the Nazi's anti-Semitic propaganda all that shocking and so failed to foresee the horror Hitler and his henchmen were to unleash upon Europe. Even though many accepted the notion that the Jews had been behind Germany's defeat in the First World War and that there was a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, most simply didn't believe that Hitler was really going to exterminate them and so they didn't stand up and fight for the liberties of all Germans when the Nazis rose to power and began to systematically deprive the Jews (and, eventually, many other German citizens) of their civil rights. It proved to be a miscalculation that cost the Germans dearly, as it did much of Europe, the echoes of which we are still dealing with today.

So what does all this mean? Should we simply refuse to believe anything we're told and go about our way convinced that we possess an accurate worldview? Of course not. We are dependent to a large degree on what we are told simply because we can't all be experts on everything or be everywhere at once. In order to learn anything, then, we must accept the opinions and observations of others as accurate whenever possible. If not, we would have to discount every traffic report, any historical event we did not personally witness, and even tomorrow's forecast, resulting in us finding ourselves constantly stuck in traffic, ignorant of history and the lessons it has to teach us, and getting caught in rainstorms. In other words, we need to accept the words of others in order to learn things and, frequently, to avoid trouble.

However, it does mean that we need be aware and cautious. Look for simpler explanations before embracing the more complex ones (i.e. which is the simpler explanation, that Oswald acted alone or that he was an unwitting pawn in some sort of shadowy underworld attempt to kill the president of the United States?) Ask questions (how good is the evidence? Can it be corroborated by independent, objective sources? Is there another possible explanation for what was witnessed? For that matter, how reliable are those witnesses, do they have an agenda and, most important of all, is there something in it for them in terms of notoriety or money by coming forward with their story?) Remember, conspiracists (and movie makers who produce box office hits based off conspiracy theories) make money-and, in some cases, even their very living-off this stuff, so let the buyer beware. Additionally, it must be recognized that the real motivation that energizes these people is not material gain, but the knowledge that they know things the average poor slob is too apathetic or ignorant to know, thereby making them superior. There is an immense ego-boost inherent in imagining yourself smarter and more knowledgeable than others which, when combined with the opportunity for some notoriety and even material gain, can be irresistible to some people. We are dealing with human nature here, and that can be the most dangerous thing in the world when not kept in check.

Conspiracy theories and the beliefs they spawn about our nation and the world around us are a poison that makes us numb to real threats to our freedoms. Just as the boy who cried wolf one too many times paid for his foolishness with his life, I'm afraid it would be easy for us to do the same if we allow the conspiracy wolf into our home. Eternal vigilance is the price and only guarantor of freedom, whether that threat comes from outside ourselves or from within the depths of our own propensity to believe that which is not true. Both are equally dangerous, and each needs to be guarded against with equal diligence. To do otherwise is to invite the wolf in.