RALL: Conspiracy Logic and TWA Flight 800

Pierre Salinger says that he has an August 22nd Secret Service report that proves that TWA Flight 800 was shot down accidentally by the U.S. Navy.According to the former Kennedy Administration press secretary, Navy ships testing missiles off the coast of Eastern Long Island in July assumed that all flights in the area were flying at 21,000 feet, so they used 13,000 feet as their test altitude. Flight 800, however, had taken off late from JFK Airport, and was flying lower than previously scheduled in order to avoid another plane.Air traffic controllers, in "a tragic error," neglected to advise the Navy, Salinger said, and a Navy missile blew up the plane. This scenario jibes with dozens of calls to the FBI from witnesses who claimed to have seen a streak of light heading towards the plane just before the blast.Salinger acknowledged that the alleged Secret Service memo has been posted to the Internet for two months, but said he had waited until the elections to speak out, presumably to protect the incumbent Democratic president. "The truth must come out," he told reporters in Cannes, France, on November 7.Not surprisingly, the government has treated the ex-ABC News correspondent like some bizarre conspiracy theorist. "The United States military did not shoot a missile at this airplane," New York FBI chief James Kallstrom scoffed. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall attacked Salinger "not only for causing consternation and pain to families of the victims but also for the fact that a once well-respected journalist would seize information he now admits was third-hand at best and try to promote it as some scoop of his." Clearly, the government was not pleased about the Salinger bombshell in light of recent efforts to pin the explosion on mechanical failure.Navy mouthpiece Lieutenant Commander Rob Newell responded that the nearest warship, the USS Normandy, an Aegis-type missile cruiser, was 185 miles south of the crash site. He said it wasn't testing weapons, and its radar was set to a maximum range of 130 miles. The Normandy, Newell says, "couldn't even see the TWA plane." Newell said a Navy P-3 Orion anti-submarine plane was in the area, about 80 miles away, but said it doesn't carry missiles. Jane's All The World's Aircraft, a standard military reference text, states that the P-3 is capable of carrying missiles.Whether those 230 people were blown out of the air two miles above the Atlantic Ocean by a terrorist's bomb, a mechanical failure or a missile gone awry, there's something painfully amusing about the spectacle of government officials scrambling to deny the "friendly-fire" theory. Why do Americans persist in believing in outrageous theories about government crimes, accidents and cover-ups? Their standard defense is: We're too nice to do such things. And if you don't buy that one, try this: We're too dumb -- the government is just too disorganized to pull off a conspiracy.The thing is, monstrous government conspiracies are now considered historical fact. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson led Congress into a mammoth escalation of our involvement in Vietnam after North Vietnam fired at American ships in the Tonkin Gulf. More than 50,000 dead soldiers later, historians of all political stripes accept that the Tonkin Gulf incident was a fiction, a scam invented by LBJ to get us into the war. Why assume that today's officials are any different than the ones who lied to us about that?During the late 1960s, the FBI decided to put the radical Black Panther Party out of business. At the time, the nation was told that the Panthers had shot back at agents coming to arrest them and had gotten killed for their trouble. A few years later, it came out that the only shooting had come from the FBI side. According to autopsies, the black nationalists had been shot in their beds, sleeping.The 1972 election saw political skullduggery assume epic proportions, as the Nixon Administration sandbagged the man they perceived as being its most dangerous Democratic opponent, Edmund Muskie. GOP operatives phoned New Hampshire primary voters at 3 in the morning, urging them to vote for Muskie. George McGovern won the Democratic nomination, but just to make sure, Nixon's henchmen broke into his running mate's shrink's office and leaked his private records to the press, forcing McGovern to choose a new veep. If America had any decency whatsoever, McGovern would be allowed the four-year term he was cheated out of back in 1972, but as things are, he's long-forgotten. Nixon, of course, died a statesman, and one wonders why voting matters in a country with such manufactured elections.The American government has admitted to overthrowing the governments of Argentina, Iran, Panama, Chile and countless other nations. It tried to kill Fidel Castro with cigar bombs, train Laotian hill-tribe people to fight the Vietnamese, tapped millions of phones and opened millions of letters. There's never been a satisfactory explanation for the JFK assassination or the killings of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. They tested dangerous drugs on prisoners and soldiers without their consent. Oliver North testified on national television that the Reagan-Bush Administration imported cocaine for sale on American streets to fund illegal weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras. A secret plant irradiated the residents of downtown Cincinnati for decades, with tacit government approval. Just last week, the Pentagon admitted that it's been covering up the extent and seriousness of Gulf War Syndrome for the last five years. With that stellar record, it's not exactly shocking that many blacks think the government invented AIDS as a form of systematic genocide, or that they buy into the recent San Jose Mercury-News series accusing the government of dumping narcotics on the inner cities. Eight percent of voters supported Ross Perot in the last election; maybe the Texas billionaire's story about the government's plan to disrupt his daughter's wedding sounds a little wacky, but it's completely conceivable.Trust is fragile. Every time the government tells people a tax is temporary and later opts to make it permanent, every time it promises a public work that doesn't get built and every time some newly-declassified document proves that our leaders lied about something 15 years ago, citizens learn that their leaders are both malicious and dishonest. Unfortunately, the credibility gap between politicians and the public they supposedly serve has rarely been more extreme than it is now. That's half of the reason why, even if Pierre Salinger turns out to be wrong about TWA Flight 800, Americans are so easily persuaded by conspiracy theories. The other half is that they often turn out to be true.

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