How Conspiracy Theories Can Kill

  • November 14, 2018
Conspiracy theories

Maddie McGarvey/Bloomberg/Getty

“HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” declared the post on the social media site Gab, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.  Screw your optics, I’m going in.” 

Just minutes later, Robert Bowers, who is believed to be the author of that post, entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and opened fire on congregants, allegedly shouting “All Jews must die.” Before police were able to take him into custody, Bowers had killed 11 people and injured six more, including several officers. Bowers has been charged with dozens of federal and state crimes for the shooting rampage.

An examination of the posts and reposts on the Gab account attributed to Bowers suggests that Bowers is a white supremacist and vehement anti-Semite who believed in the common white supremacist conspiracy theory that Jews are engineering mass migration to Europe and the United States to pollute and eventually destroy the white race.

 A few days prior to Bowers’ murderous attack, a package containing a pipe bomb was found in George Soros’s mailbox, near his home outside New York City.  The package turned out to be one of at least 15 bombs allegedly mailed by a fanatical Donald Trump supporter from Florida, Cesar Sayoc, to a variety of public figures who have been outspoken in their opposition to President Trump. Luckily, the bombs were all intercepted and/or failed to explode. Sayoc currently faces five federal charges related to threats and explosives.

Why was Soros one of the targets?  Soros, a wealthy philanthropist noted for donations to progressive causes, has long been the focus of right-wing conspiracy theories, many of them anti-Semitic in nature, which falsely accuse him of a wide range of nefarious activities. Over time, subscribers to such conspiracy theories have increasingly moved from explicitly anti-Semitic and anti-government fringe groups into the mainstream. In mid-October, for example, Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida inaccurately claimed that Soros was paying people to join the caravan of migrants who are traveling from Honduras to the United States.

Two terrorist attacks, two conspiracy theories. 

The Power of Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories, rampant in the United States, have an unusual power to motivate people to action. Some conspiracy theories are associated with various right-wing or left-wing ideologies, while others transcend ideology, like those surrounding the 9/11 attacks or the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Under the right circumstances, such theories can motivate people to violence, especially if the conspiracy theories single out specific people or organizations as the villains.

Even the most far-fetched conspiracy theories can trigger a violent reaction by fanatical true believers.  In 1996, for example, several UFO conspiracy theorists on Long Island tried to kill local Republican Party officials through a radiation poison plot because they were convinced the government had covered up the existence of UFOs. 

More recently, in June 2018, a Nevada man, Matthew Wright, triggered a brief armed standoff with law enforcement when he blocked the bridge at Hoover Dam with a homemade armored car. Comments and actions by Wright before, during and after the incident suggested his action was motivated by a strange, pro-Trump conspiracy theory known as QAnon. Wright has been indicted on Arizona state charges of terrorism, aggravated assault, unlawful flight and misconduct involving weapons.

Most extremist movements develop or depend on conspiracy theories to some degree.  In the United States, extreme right-wing movements have a particularly close relationship to conspiracy theories.  Anti-Muslim extremists promote “sharia law” conspiracy theories, for example, to increase anti-Muslim animus, while anti-immigrant border vigilantes justify their patrols with conspiracy theories about Mexican drug cartels waging a secret invasion of the United States.

For some right-wing extremist movements, conspiracy theories lie at the heart of their extreme worldviews.  The modern white supremacist movement, for example, centers its beliefs on the notion that the white race is in danger of extinction from growing numbers of non-white peoples who are controlled and manipulated by a nefarious Jewish conspiracy.  Anti-government extremist movements such as the militia movement and the sovereign citizen movement are based on conspiracy theories that focus on the federal government.

As a result, much of the violence stemming from white supremacists and anti-government extremists can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to such conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories often sharpen anger that extremists already feel to the point where they become willing to take violent action. 

One of the best examples of this is Timothy McVeigh, the architect behind the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the worst act of domestic terrorism on American soil.  McVeigh—who had ties to both anti-government extremists and white supremacists—was motivated in large part by outrage over the actions of the federal government during its standoff with the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, in 1993. During the standoff, McVeigh even traveled to Waco to protest at the scene. Subsequently, McVeigh’s anger over Waco only increased, thanks to Waco-related conspiracy theories that painted the federal government as villains.  One influence on McVeigh was Linda Thompson, an Indiana attorney and pioneer of the militia movement. McVeigh watched her conspiracy videotape, Waco: The Big Lie, numerous times, and even gave copies to others.

Conspiracy theories are particularly able to motivate people to action if they can point to specific people, places or institutions as being behind the conspiracies in question. This practice gives extremists—or even non-extremists who strongly believe such theories—places to explore or victims to target.

A Calendar of Conspiracy

Over the years, conspiracy theories have motivated many people to take action, even illegal action, particularly trespassing, harassment and threats.

Occasionally, conspiracy theories have played a role in more violent acts, even including attempts at murder or terrorism.  The below incidents are a sampling of serious, conspiracy theory-driven incidents from the past two decades:

  • Pizzagate:  During the presidential election campaign of 2016, right-wing propagandists relentlessly promoted a conspiracy theory that claimed a pedophile sex-slave ring connected to prominent Democrats was being operated from a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. Reacting to the “Pizzagate” theory, a North Carolina man, Edgar Maddison Welch, drove to the restaurant in December 2016 with the intent of “saving” the children ostensibly held captive there, and opened fire inside the restaurant. Thankfully, no one was hurt before Welch was arrested. Welch—sentenced in 2017 to four years in prison for his act—subsequently admitted he had made an “incredibly ill-advised decision.”
  • HAARP: In November 2016, police in south Georgia arrested two men, Michael Mancil and James Dryden, Jr., reportedly because the men were collecting dozens of weapons as part of a plot to travel to Alaska to attack HAARP, the High-Frequency Active Aural Research Facility, a scientific facility where, according to decades of anti-government conspiracy theories, scientists were testing mind control and conducting other nefarious research.
  • Islamberg:  A Tennessee anti-Muslim extremist, Robert Doggert, was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison in 2017 for a 2015 plot to burn down a mosque and attack a small gated community of Muslims in New York known as “Islamberg,” which for years has been the target of conspiratorial Islamophobic allegations that it is actually a terrorist training camp.
  • George Soros:  In 2010, Byron Williams plotted to attack the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation, a charitable organization, based on his belief that George Soros used the organization “for all kinds of nefarious activities.”  Williams had been influenced by anti-Soros conspiracy theories promoted by Alex Jones and Glenn Beck.  California Highway Patrol officers stopped Williams for erratic driving while he was on his way to the Tides Foundation, and Williams engaged the officers in a shootout before surrendering (he was eventually sentenced to more than 400 years in prison).
  • Narco-conspiracies: In March 2010, John Patrick Bedell drove across the country from California to Washington, D.C., where he launched a shooting attack at a Pentagon security checkpoint, wounding two Pentagon police officers before being killed by return fire. Bedell believed in an array of conspiracy theories but was particularly motivated by the idea that a Marine Corps colonel who died in 1991 had been murdered by the government, operating under the control of a malevolent narco-conspiracy.
  • Bohemian Grove:  The Bohemian Club is a longstanding private men’s club in northern California that hosts an annual two-week-long event at its campground, Bohemian Grove, an event that attracts a variety of prominent figures from government, media and business.  Over the years, conspiracy theories have emerged about global control and manipulation, similar to those targeting the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group and the Council on Foreign Relations.  Various far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists charge that the Bilderberg Group is a shadowy force seeking to control world events, exerting allegedly dominating powers of international influence to promote a "new world order" under their control. Bilderberg leaders are said to be members of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations -- groups which themselves are often central players in far-right conspiracy theories of secret efforts at domination of the world's political and financial institutions and the press. In 2002, motivated by the belief (derived in part from an Alex Jones video, “Dark Secrets of Bohemian Grove”) that attendees were conducting human sacrifices, a Nevada man, Richard McCaslin, snuck onto the Bohemian Grove property with firearms and edged weapons, setting fire to one of the buildings before being arrested. McCaslin later said he had been prepared to kill people if necessary. Since his release from prison in 2011 he has been involved in promoting other conspiracy theories.
  • New World Order:  The core conspiracy theory within the militia movement is that the federal government is collaborating with a shadowy global conspiracy, dubbed the New World Order, to strip Americans of their freedoms and render them slaves. In 1997, an underground militia cell formed, led by Kansan Bradley Glover, dedicated to attacking U.S. military bases that were allegedly hosting New World Order troops. After surveilling various bases, the cell decided to attack Fort Hood, Texas, on July 4, 1997, because it erroneously believed Chinese troops were based there.  A major terrorist attack was averted by two undercover Missouri State Highway Patrol officers who uncovered the plot. The perpetrators were arrested.