News & Politics

Line Between Conspiracy and Skepticism Getting Harder to Draw

We need to avoid becoming victims of our own suspicion.

So Naomi Wolf thinks the Isis beheading videos may not have been genuine. In a series of Facebook posts over the weekend that also included theories about an ebola-driven military quarantine of US society and fake ballots in the Scottish referendum, she crossed over into conspiracy territory. Vox has already published a takedown; expect more to follow.

While it is difficult for Western media to fully verify the authenticity of the videos, it seems beyond reasonable dispute that real people have died, and after outrage from friends and colleagues of the victims Wolf pulled one of her posts. But scrolling through her Facebook page I was interested to see something from Australia: a reference to a story by my colleague Paul Farrell on our recent bout of security fever.

It’s not a conspiracy: we’re living it right now. Over the last two months we’ve had massive police raids on the homes of Muslims, a proposal to segregate women wearing Islamic dress at Parliament House, and a snap decision, with no public debate, to send our military to fight Isis.

“We are losing Australia ... do you all not see the connection between Isis hype and draconian loss of freedoms in the west? Is it not so obvious?” Wolf posted. It’s hard not to sympathize with her; the line between skepticism and conspiracy theory, especially on national security issues, seems harder and harder to draw.

And we have reason to be skeptical. The current panic has been accompanied by press reports about allegations, later withdrawn, of an attack by “men of Middle Eastern appearance” on a uniformed soldier; of a planned terrorist beheading in Sydney’s busy Martin Place (no evidence of which has been subsequently brought forward). Numan Haider, a young Muslim man who attacked two police and was shot dead, was reported as having threatened Tony Abbott, the prime minister – an assertion police have never publicly confirmed.

Many of these stories appear to have been the result of backgrounding by security services, or the police. Some feature anonymous counter-terrorism sources. Can the public ever actually know the true extent of the terror threat as a result? The tangible result of the raids, involving hundreds of police, has been underwhelming: one Sydney man charged with “conspiracy to commit acts in preparation for a terrorist act,” another two from Brisbane charged with, among other things, preparing “incursions into a foreign state,” and a fourth, from Melbourne, charged with making payments to Jabhat al-Nusra. Another was fined after pleading guilty to relatively minor offences of possession of a weapon and of ammunition.

In a separate post replying to critics, Wolf said she asks for “the story behind the news story” because her time on two presidential campaigns gave her a closeup view of the cynicism of politics:

If I did not witness as a political consultant that national politics is most often -- almost always -- the deal coming before the narrative or the bill ... I would not know to look deeper at the news; and people who assume the dominant narrative MUST BE TRUE and the dominant reasons MUST BE REAL are not experienced in how that world works.

In one sense, of course Wolf is right: it would be staggeringly naive to think the government doesn’t lie to us or conceal the truth. But relentless skepticism is also naive: power can also be exercised honestly and for the public good.

Skepticism eats itself if we think that all power is a conspiracy. Sensible people start to claim that there is no threat at all from homegrown terrorists – that it’s really a contrived “distraction” from domestic politics or somesuch – or, in Wolf’s case, to question the reality of ISIS' terror acts altogether.

We’d be better off if we stopped trying to draw a line between skepticism and conspiracy altogether. Instead, let’s acknowledge that since the September 11 attacks, it has become a feature of governments to repeatedly accumulate more power in times of crisis. If that resembles a conspiracy, perhaps it’s because the demands for proportionality, transparency and accountability in security matters made since the fall of the World Trade Centre have gone unheeded by those in authority. We don’t need the “story behind the story,” we need public agencies to tell us the story, plain and simple.

If anything, security matters have become more obscured from public view in the last decade. This was one of the themes WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange anticipated in a 2003 essay that described governance itself as a kind of conspiracy. That includes exemption from scrutiny; Australia now has laws that will criminalize journalists if they report on certain intelligence operations. Undermining this situation on a mass scale was one of the aims of WikiLeaks, in part to change the public’s expectations about what we are entitled to know from our governments.

Of course, Assange had this logic turned back on both his own organization and personal life: conspiracy theories about WikiLeaks itself are common – is it a front for the CIA, or the Russians? – and people openly speculate about the reason Assange has sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. Our skeptical view, paradoxically, has to involve a generous giving of the benefit of the doubt, remaining open to the possibility that power can be used for virtuous purposes. Without it we become victims of our own suspicion.

It’s fair to say that the state increasingly operates in a “state of exception”—where basic legal rights can be suspended in the name of an emergency that threatens the public—while maintaining that Western societies also face real threats. Doing so doesn’t require us to entertain notions of a conspiracy or plot; we can see this suspension of our ordinary lives happening all around us.

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