“The fringiest fringe in Fringeville?”


Over at The Awl, Maud Newton asks how scared we should be of groups like the Hutaree militia, which was recently broken up by the FBI for planning attacks on law enforcement.

On the one hand, she says, “When the Tea Party kicks you out of its massive tent, and neighboring militias dismiss you as a cult, you might just be out there on the fringiest fringe in Fringeville.”

On the other hand, she provides a terrifying catalog of militia-tastic things that are so close to the heart of our government that it almost makes me want to start a conspiracy theory about the conspiracy theorists. Here’s a few examples:

— Left Behind: Eternal Forces is a video game in which Born-Again Christians yell “Praise the Lord” after each UN Peacekeeper they kill. This one was shipped to servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan “with the  blessing of the Bush Administration.”

14% of Americans believe the anti-Christ currently resides in the White House.

— “The Oath Keepers” is a group of “men and women in uniform, including soldiers, police, and veterans” who “(vow) to disobey ‘unconstitutional orders from what they view as an increasingly tyrannical government.”

Scary? Yes. Understandable? I don’t agree at all with these folks. In fact, they scare me pantsless.

But bear with me while I try something:

My dad is the least conspiratorial man you would ever meet. He’s into neuroscience, Unitarian, charming, rational to a fault, and he sometimes wears khaki shorts with black socks. He’s as far from a militiaman as you can get.

That said, I will never forget the look on his face in 2001 when The New York Times reported that Lyndon Johnson knew that the Tonkin Gulf incident —  the event used by Johnson and Congress to start a war that cost the lives of nearly 60,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians — never happened. He was devastated. He couldn’t believe it. My dad the scientist sat at the table with me and we both started to question how justified we were in disregarding crazier conspiracy theories.

And while my father opposed the Vietnam war with all his might,  the Johnson saga was a terrible blow to him, having lived through the pain of the 60s and 70s. Never again, I don’t think, will he trust the government in the same way. I can’t even imagine what that blow would be like to people who had a more active role in that war. When you’ve given up so much working for a cause, what do you even do when it becomes official that it was all predicated on a lie?

And it’s not like that was the only major government fail in recent history: from Watergate to torture at Gitmo to extraordinary rendition to WMDs in Iraq to Iran Contra, each generation has at least one and usually several verifiable conspiracies  that are so terrible and so obvious that it’s hard not to start suspecting that the more questionable ones are true.

As such, though it seems counterintuitive, it’s hardly surprising that the most patriotic Americans — including those who are part of the government — don’t trust the government. It keeps doing terrible, evil, conspiratorial things, and understandably, Americans don’t want to align themselves with that evil, even those who have, though unaware of it at the time, directly been a part of it.

And for Christians — of whom there are many in this country — it’s not surprising that people look to their church for answers, and when their churches tell them that the devil is in the government, well, it makes some sense to them. If I were Christian, I might buy it. But then, if you’re fighting the devil, well … isn’t everything justified? And if you’re part of the government and you’re fighting the devil, doesn’t that give you the right to do anything, even create a conspiracy? Like torturing people or starting wars for false reasons?

Sounds like a cycle to me. So to answer Maud’s question: Yes, I think we should be terrified.

But this also gives us an out: if the government really wants to put an end to terrorism of all types, it would behoove those in power not to do evil, conspiratorial things, to break that cycle. Maybe a good first step would be to stop bombing people with robots?

If this interests you, see also Daniel Denvir’s Rumpus review of Voodoo Histories:The Role of Conspiracy Theories in Shaping Human History by David Aaronovitch.

Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →