A broad generalization: There was a time when the average American naively (or reflexively or lazily) believed everything the government told them. Conspiracies were almost unheard of. Today, the opposite seems to be true. Nobody believes anything the government tells them, and conspiracy theories are almost as common as celebrity divorces.
One could argue that the media are partly responsible for this shift in perception. For one thing, given that media revenue stands in direct proportion to viewership and readership, a lurid, sensationalized story will always trump a boring one. People tend to prefer scandals to analysis. For another, it's the job of the media to remain skeptical, to question the government, to challenge it. Indeed, we need more of it.
But let me throw out two examples of tragic events that, had the salient facts not become immediately known, could have provided conspiracy buffs with enough gas to fly to the moon.
The first is John Lennon's murder, in 1980. People forget that the Nixon administration attempted to have Lennon deported, having classified him as a "subversive undesirable." If the man who killed Lennon (the hapless Mark Chapman) had escaped and never been identified, there is no way in hell the Lennon assassination would ever be considered anything but "political."
If Lennon's killer was never found, they would not only still be writing books about it today (books that dwelled on bizarre coincidences and intricate connections, and claimed to rely on "secret, firsthand" testimony), but anyone who dared suggest that maybe Lennon was simply killed by some deranged young man with a handgun, would be ridiculed, showered with derision.
On its face, that suggestion would be taken as patently absurd. "Are you crazy?" they would say. Are you joking? An act this momentous and profound -- an act that snuffed out the life of an internationally revered entertainer and peace advocate -- couldn't have been perpetrated by some "nobody."
The second example is John Hinckley, the former mental patient who tried to kill President Reagan, 1981. Hinckley (later acquitted by a Washington D.C. jury that ruled him "not guilty by reason of insanity") walked up to Reagan on a city street in broad daylight and, despite being guarded by six Secret Service agents, shot him five times. One of the bullets was lodged two-inches from Reagan's heart.
Just imagine if Hinckley had escaped clean and was never identified. Just consider that for a moment. It goes without saying that the list of suspects would have been longer than your arm. Everyone -- from the CIA to the FBI to the Mafia to the Soviets to the Iranians to the KKK to the Teamsters to the Screen Actors Guild -- would have been considered potential culprits.
In fact, the only theory that wouldn't be given credence would be the one that actually explained it. A deranged man, with a desire to kill the president, bought a pistol, learned where Reagan was scheduled to appear, brazenly walked up to him and, despite half a dozen Secret Service agents, was "lucky" enough to get off five shots.
But again, had Hinckley been able to run away and was never identified, no one in his right mind would have believed that a "common citizen" (much less an "insane" man) could have pulled it off. That simply doesn't happen. The heavily guarded president of the United States of America doesn't get shot point-blank by some ordinary "loser."
Just as a person as vibrant and charismatic and "significant" as JFK doesn't get assassinated by a self-loathing, half-baked ideologue whose sole mission in life was to "make a name for himself." (drumroll, please) Anyone who thinks Lee Harvey Oswald couldn't have done it needs to think again.