In early March 2010, a 36-year old man from California, John Patrick Bedell, drove east on a murderous mission. Reaching Washington D.C., by March 4, that evening he drove to the Pentagon, parked his car in a convenient parking garage, then walked to a heavily-used entrance guarded by a security checkpoint with two Pentagon police officers checking identification cards.
Bedell reached into his pocket, but instead of an ID card, he pulled out a 9mm semi-automatic pistol (he brought along two and many ammo clips) and almost immediately opened fire, wounding both officers. The two officers, despite being injured, were able to return fire and critically injured Bedell, who died shortly thereafter.
In the aftermath of this startling attack, people have rushed to understand the motivations and background of the shooter. Why would he have embarked upon this suicidal mission? What turned him into a lone wolf terrorist?
The answer seems to lie in the power that conspiracy theories have to motivate people to take action, including acts of the most extreme and dangerous types.
Idealism and Conspiracism
An ADL investigation into the mindset and beliefs of John Patrick Bedell reveals a man who idealistically sought to change the world into a cherished libertarian utopia, but who was also convinced that the current world was run by dark forces and malignant conspiracies.
Bedell's background was in science and engineering; most recently, he had been a graduate student at San Jose State University. He clearly spent much of his time engaged in software programming.
In his politics, Bedell was a right-wing libertarian, a devotee of the right-wing libertarian Ludwig Von Mises Institute and a fan of libertarian economist Murray Rothbard. In a podcast he made in late 2006, he characterized himself as having "an intense personal desire for freedom." These interests led Bedell to turn his programming skills to the task of transcending, in his own words, "the destructive regimes that have fastened themselves upon the world." He tried to create a Linux-based computer operation system he dubbed "Rothbardix" that would somehow link market forces and economic calculations with criminal justice. He also came up with a plan to create software for an information-based currency. However, these plans proved abortive, being neither realistic nor achievable.
More important than the free-market and information-based libertarian utopia Bedell hoped to help bring about, though, was his view of the current world, which to Bedell was dark and full of sinister, manipulative, and even murderous forces.
Bedell's interest in conspiracy theories seems to have gone back years; as early as 2003, he reviewed a book on Amazon.com that he recommended to students of the "secret history" of the United States. Based on his own Amazon "wish list," it is clear that he was fascinated with conspiracy theories surrounding the history of the Bush family, as well as 9/11 conspiracy theories.
On Wikipedia and elsewhere, Bedell explained his own views. The key date for Bedell seems to have been 1963, the year that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. To Bedell, this was actually a coup, bringing about an illegitimate regime that in succeeding decades maintained itself in power "through the global drug trade, financial corruption, and murder, among other crimes." According to Bell, the conspiracy that had taken over the United States operated an "illicit, large-scale, state-protected pharmaceutical commerce" that enabled a "self-perpetuating criminal enterprise to dominate the security apparatus of the state and thereby subjugate society as a whole."
Bedell's conspiracy-oriented beliefs led him far and wide across the ideological spectrum. In 2007, for example, he attempted to insert into a Wikipedia article on Dick Cheney a reference to claims by conspiracy theorist Cathy O'Brien, who in the 1990s published a book popular among right-wing anti-government extremists that claimed she had been held as a mind-controlled sex slave by high government officials.
However, one of the conspiracy theories that seems to have affected Bedell most deeply in recent years is one that surrounded the death of a Marine Corps colonel, James Sabow, in California in 1991. Ruled a suicide (in several different investigations), the death was turned into a conspiracy theory by the colonel's surviving brother, David Sabow, and his attorney, Daniel Sheehan, who has been known for decades for his association with far left-wing causes and cases. Sabow and Sheehan alleged that the colonel had been murdered by the government, to prevent him from talking about alleged illegal drug trafficking at the base where he was stationed. These ideas were publicized in Orange County newspapers in the mid-2000s when Bedell lived there.
This particular theory fit in neatly with Bedell's own beliefs about the United States being under the control of a narco-conspiracy. "Exposing" the conspiracy became an obsession of Bedell's in 2006-2007 and he repeatedly tried to insert his conspiracy viewpoints into different articles on Wikipedia, causing other Wikipedia editors repeatedly to admonish him or to remove his changes or additions. In frustration, Bedell coined the term "suppressionism" to refer to these actions; he described it as a Wikipedia philosophy of deleting articles related to conspiracy theories, and compared Wikepedia editors to Nazis suppressing evidence of concentration camps.
Conspiracy Theories Cause People to Act
It may well be that Bedell's fixation on Sabow's death, as well as his conviction that Sabow was murdered as part of a major conspiracy involving the military and the government, were responsible for Bedell's attack on the Pentagon in March 2010. By his own admission, he was "very disturbed" that Bedell's "civilian superiors" (and here Bedell hyperlinked these two words to the President and Secretary of Defense) and their successors had been able to continue their alleged actions.
It is not a leap to think that Bedell might abandon utopian software solutions for a more sinister means of affecting the government. Unfortunately, in recent decades, conspiracy theories have repeatedly proven a potent motivational factor in a number of violent acts. Sometimes, people obsess so much with "uncovering the truth" that any act that they think might do so becomes justifiable, even if illegal or violent. Other times, conspiracy theorists become so upset that the American people do not acknowledge the reality of these conspiracies that they seek ways to "wake them up" or "shock them awake." And in some cases, it is not so much the conspiracy itself but the perception of an alleged cover-up of the conspiracy that drives people to action—to strike back against those perceived as conducting the cover-up.
Unfortunately, people can be driven to action even when the conspiracy theories are totally outlandish. In 1996, for example, several UFO conspiracy theorists tried to kill Long Island Republican Party officials through radiation poisoning, because they were convinced of a government cover-up of UFOs. The conspiracy theories don't have to be generally convincing; they only have to convince a single person willing to act on them.
Dozens of criminal acts, including murders and acts of terrorism, have been committed by people, extremists and otherwise, partially or wholly motivated by conspiracy theories. Just a few examples include:
- Richard Poplawski: In April 2009, a young white supremacist allegedly ambushed and murdered three Pittsburgh Police Bureau officers, in part motivated by a growing hostility towards law enforcement motivated by anti-government conspiracy theories about gun confiscation, martial law, and concentration camps in America.
- James Von Brunn: In June 2009, an elderly white supremacist attacked the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., killing a security guard. Von Brunn was motivated by Holocaust denial conspiracy theories. Decades earlier, in 1981, he had attempted to take board members of the Federal Reserve hostage because he believed in the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jews controlled the American banking system.
- The Mountaineer Militia: In October 1996, a number of members of the West Virginia Mountaineer Militia were arrested on weapons charges connected to a plot to blow up an FBI fingerprinting facility in Clarksburg, West Virginia. They were motivated in part by anti-government conspiracy theories. "Most if it is based on half-truths and misinformation," one militia member later sorrowfully admitted during his sentencing two years later. "I'm sorry I had anything to do with it."
- Timothy McVeigh: In April 1995, anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 men, women and children, and injured hundreds more. It was the second worst terrorist act ever to occur on American soil. McVeigh had been transfixed by anti-government conspiracy theories alleging that the U.S. government had conspired to deliberately murder members of the Branch Davidian religious sect at Waco, Texas, in 1993.
- David Lewis Rice: In December 1985, right-wing extremist David Lewis Rice broke into the home of a prominent Seattle attorney, subdued the attorney and his family, then repeatedly stabbed and slashed at them, killing the attorney, his wife, and their two children. Rice was motivated by anti-Semitic and anti-Communist conspiracy theories about plots to institute "one world" rule, and chose his target because he thought the attorney was a Jewish Communist (he was neither).
Many people tend to dismiss conspiracy theories and their adherents as odd or crazy. While it is understandable why they might not take the theories themselves seriously, it is dangerous indeed to dismiss the effects that they can have on their followers. Just as extremist ideologues can motivate their followers to political violence, just as radical groups like Al Qaeda can motivate their followers to take extreme actions on religious grounds, so too can conspiracy theories motivate people to violence based on the powerful hold that the conspiracies have on their minds.