Pentagon Attack Highlights Growing Conspiracist Anger

Pentagon Attack Highlights Growing Conspiracist Anger
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Is it a surprise that an angry citizen, John Patrick Bedell, attacked the entrance to the Pentagon? Was it a surprise that an angry taxpayer flew his small plane into an IRS office? These and other acts of violence are linked to a form of apocalyptic conspiracism rampant in the United States.

On Huffington Post I have been writing a series of essays on the roots of right-wing populist rage, as well as the dynamics of apocalyptic conspiracism. Last summer I warned that the combination of burgeoning conspiracy theories coupled with rising populist rage and anti-Obama scapegoating would likely lead to some individuals acting out in apocalyptic violence. They would feel justified because they were acting "before it was too late" to save the nation from an imagined sinister plot.

My report was titled Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, & Scapegoating. It lead to a lengthy interview of Fresh Air with Terry Gross on National Public Radio where I explained that in some cases this was tied to a right-wing populist version of economic libertarianism with its roots in the writings of Friedrich A. von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and John T. Flynn. These older studies have been wrapped in contemporary conspiracy theories about socialist medicine and fascist government repression that not only spread through the population but are highlighted by right-wing media demagogues such as Glenn Beck.

Here is an excerpt from the report:

While conspiracists tell compelling stories, they
frequently create dangerous conditions as these
stories can draw from pre-existing stereotypes and
prejudices. Cynical movement leaders then can
hyperbolize false claims in a way that mobilizes dangerous
forms of demonization and scapegoating.

People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes
act on those irrational beliefs, and this has
concrete consequences in the real world. Angry allegations
can quickly turn into aggression and
violence targeting scapegoated groups.

Conspiracist thinking and scapegoating on a
mass scale are symptoms, not causes, of underlying
societal tensions; and while conspiracism needs to be
opposed, the resolution of the grievances themselves
is necessary to restore a healthy society.

Whether conspiracist claims are circulated by
angry populists or anxious government officials, the
dynamics generated by conspiracy theories are toxic
to democracy.

Between the inauguration of Barack Obama as President in January and June of 2009 there were nine murders allegedly carried out by persons intertwined with white supremacist or antisemitic conspiracy theories. With the attacks on the IRS office and the Pentagon, we can see acts of violence from persons not directly involved in organized insurgent supremacist groups, but emerging from the angry right-wing populist angst that spawned the Tea Bag and Town Hall protests. Note that I am not implying that these movements are identical or working together. What I am describing is a broad dynamic in which the likelihood of violence is increased by the apocalyptic conspiracy theory narrative in which it is suggested that time is running out to save America from some form of tyranny.

The Tools of Fear have four core components:

Apocalyptic Aggression

Conspiracy theories are the mechanism by which these Tools of Fear are spread across a society stressed by social, economic, or political turbulence.

Here is how Toxic to Democracy descibed these dynamics:

Dualism is an overarching theme or "metaframe"
in which people see the world as divided
into forces of good and evil.

Scapegoating is a process
by which a person or group of people are
wrongfully stereotyped as sharing negative traits and
are singled out for blame for causing societal problems,
while the primary source of the problems is
overlooked or absolved of blame.

Demonization, a process
through which people target individuals or
groups as the embodiment of evil, facilitates scapegoating.
Even the most sincere and well-intentioned
conspiracy theorists contribute to dangerous social
dynamics of demonization and scapegoating.

Apocalypticism, also a metaframe,
involves the expectation that dramatic events are about
to unfold during which a confrontation between good and evil will
change the world forever and reveal hidden truths.
Apocalyptic Aggression occurs when scapegoats are
targeted as enemies of the "common good," and this
can lead to discrimination and violent acts.

Bedell was a fan of the economic theories of Hayek, which in the contemporary Tea Party movement has been transmogrigied through conspiracism into the basis for the claim that Obama's plans for Big Government are a form of collectivism that like socialism and national socialism (Nazism) lead inexorably to totalitarian rule. Thus Obama is both Stalin and Hitler. This is a lurid misrepresentation of what Hayek actually wrote. Nonetheless, this conspiracist claim is circulated by Glenn Beck and in the book Beck promotes, Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg.

Bedell followed Hayek and the ultra-conservative libertarian Austrian School of economists through the work of Ludwig von Mises and his cyber-shrine on Wikipedia and the organization that sports his name, the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.

Bedell also followed the theories of the 9/11 Truth Movement. According to a post by Bedell, the U.S. government under Bush was responsible for the terror attacks on 9/11:

This organization, like so many murderous governments throughout history, sacrifice of thousands of its citizens in an event such as the September 11th attacks, as a small cost in order to perpetuate its barbaric control. This collection of gangsters would find it in their interests to foment conflict and initiate wars throughout the world in order to divert attention from their misconduct and criminality. The true nature of such a regime would find its clearest expression in Satanic violence currently ongoing in Iraq.

This is a typical version of the classic "New World Order" conspiracy theory that traces back to the late 1790s. The phrase "Satanic violence" might add a subtext of religious apocalypticism. Bedell appears to have cobbled together his worldview from right, left, and libertartian sources, falling primarily on the right side of the political spectrum. However, it is the conspiracism--whether from left, center, or right--that supplies the apocalyptic energy for the acts of violence. The major current audience for these types of conspiracy theories is networked by right-wing media demagogues who must share some moral responsibility for these acts.

Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, is co-author with Matthew N. Lyons of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. He has studied and written about the Political Right for close to 40 years.

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