In the immediate aftermath of the bombings in Boston last week, once initial shock wore off, and after my wife confirmed that her mother, who lives three blocks from the finish line, was okay (as it turned out, she was 100 yards from the first explosion but was unharmed), I joined the rest of America in wondering who could have done such a terrible thing, and why.
I admit, my first instinct was that it was some far-right gun nut, mainly because of the timing: the toothless background check bill had just been voted down, and the attack happened on Tax Day and Patriots’ Day — three different things freighted with great meaning to libertarians all coming together at once.
I was not the only one to jump to that conclusion, but it was hardly the only theory out there. Some people thought it obviously another Al Qaeda attack, and started combing photos from the blast site for brown faces. Alex Jones and the InfoWars crowd immediately — like immediately, the day of the bombing — confidently predicted that The Government had done the bombing and would frame a right-winger for the crime in an effort to gin up support for giving the TSA dominion over sporting events, or something.
Now that one of the perpetrators is in custody and the other is in the morgue, it seems increasingly clear that their uncle’s application of Occam’s Razor — the simplest explanation is usually the truest — to the puzzle was correct: they were just a couple of losers. Or at least, the older brother, Tamerlan, was a loser, and he dragged his baby brother, seven highly impressionable years younger, into a pointless act of violence that ended one of their lives and has ruined the other (to say nothing of the 250+ innocent people killed or maimed by their actions).
Like I said, my first guess was that the bombings were done by right-wingers to prove some kind of a point about gun control. “If the crazies can’t get a gun, they’ll use a bomb,” as the most cursory glance at any online gun-control debate will tell you, and paired with the anniversaries of the Waco siege and the Oklahoma City bombing and Tax Day, it seemed to make the most sense that someone was trying to prove that very sentiment. But when it turned out just to be an unbalanced, unaffiliated wacko and his worshipful little brother, I was more than happy to be wrong. The gun control debate, and every other political argument for that matter, is way too tense already, and dropping terrorism into it would only make things worse.
I’m relieved that it appears to have been just two assholes, that we don’t need to go invade another country or, shudder, put the TSA in charge of sporting events. I am happy to admit I was wrong if it means relations between the left and right in this country are not about to ratchet up to an even more poisonous, mutually distrustful level than they’re already at.
But it seems that some people are disappointed that it’s just a couple of jagoffs, because it’s harder to fit them into their theories about how the bombings underline how right they are about whatever their pet issue is. The people who oppose immigration reform saw the Russian-born Tsarnaevs as proof that we should close the borders; the people who oppose gun control took evident delight in suggesting that the people of Boston probably wished they were armed while Dzokhar was on the loose; the people in favor of gun control crowed that the NRA had made it easier for them to arm themselves and pull off the bombing; and the conspiracy crowd jumped immediately to the conclusion that this was an inside job.
It’s easy to make fun of the people who took one look at this situation and saw Government Power Grab written all over it. (The best roundup of Boston bombing conspiracies I’ve found is right here.) The rhetorical knife-fights in the comments on the related articles on InfoWars are particularly interesting/amusing/depressing. Some people see conspiracy, nefarious purposes, mind control, “False Flags” and above all the maddening apathy/stupidity of the masses that enables it all, in nearly everything that happens anywhere. In this case it appears that they started from the assumption that the government did it and then started working backward from that, looking for evidence to support that theory even after it turned out that these two dipshits are on video putting the bombs in place and didn’t have any help from anyone. (They didn’t even have a getaway plan.) It’s tempting to wonder what goes through these people’s minds to make them so distrustful– are they lonely? Disenfranchised? Unbalanced? Then I remember that it wasn’t so long ago that I thought the same way.
I recently found, in a box of old books I hadn’t seen in forever, a book called “50 Greatest Conspiracies,” with short chapters on the faked moon landing, the JFK assassination, the various CIA plots to kill Castro, etcetera times fifty. I bought, read, and re-read it eagerly sometime in the late ’90s. I remember in the early days of this here World Wide Web, when I got my first job in the online editorial business, late ’95 I believe it was, finding a long document on some kind of newsgroup or something called “The Gemstone File” that presented a breathless unified theory of pretty much every awful thing that happened in the 20th century. While most of the details have left me, I dimly recall it culminating in Aristotle Onassis’ being the mastermind of the Kennedy assassination, which he then followed up with the gangster flourish of taking Kennedy’s woman.
Even I found that last bit a little farfetched, but I did read the 40 ribbed, perforated, green-striped computer pages that preceded it. Around that time I sought out a documentary about the seige at Waco that pretty convincingly posited that the ATF set the fires that killed all those people. Even as late as 2001, when I started reading online whispers about 7 World Trade Center– the building that collapsed despite not being hit by anything or ever being on fire — I admit that I sought out and watched Loose Change and listened to its wild-eyed ideas about an American coup with an open mind, and came away somewhere between skeptical and convinced. I never for a moment believed that there were any weapons in Iraq, and it was face-slappingly obvious to me that the occupation and invasion of that country was done for reasons other than what were presented.
I don’t know what’s changed in me over the last few years, but I don’t see anything more nefarious in the Boston bombings than a couple of peckerwoods acting out like a baby that wants his bottle. It is not a decision that I made, like “conspiracy people are crazy so I would rather not be one” — it’s more like a feeling of dread paranoia that I just don’t feel anymore.
Similarly, there are people out there saying that the explosion in West, Texas was the result of some kind of projectile hitting the fertilizer plant. There are people out there saying that the Newtown massacre was either staged (so no kids were killed) or just government sponsored (so the kids were killed, and with Obama’s say-so to boot) to gin up support for Obama’s gun-control agenda. People were saying we didn’t really kill Bin Laden when we killed Bin Laden. And where I might once have seen conspiracy, bad people moving the rest of us around like chess pieces in the service some big bad agenda that most of us won’t understand until it’s too late, now I just see random, awful events too easily explained for comfort.
So what changed? I have been thinking a lot about this over the last couple of weeks and the best I’ve come up with is: I grew up. I don’t mean that in the “I’m no longer a child so I put away childish things” sense. I don’t mean I entered adulthood, where educated people know better than to believe in paranoid fantasies.
I mean that I entered the world of adults, where, turns out, no one is very good at anything, particularly on an institutional level. Though there are loads of competent and talented and motivated individual adults out there, when you get more than three of them together you are dealing with an institution. Having worked in several institutions in a variety of settings at a variety of tasks toward a variety of goals and over time I began to realize that, contrary to what I had been led to believe as a child, adults by and large are (at best) just barely competent. They are not usually particularly good at their jobs, but even if they are, they have appalling communications skills. They do not tend to read for comprehension. A goal agreed and mobilized upon on Monday is as likely as not to be replaced with new orders by Friday. And, most importantly, they can’t keep a secret.
So when I hear it suggested that The Government slaughtered a bunch of first-graders in their classrooms, or set off a flesh-eating bomb 18 inches from a third-grader, to advance some kind of political agenda, it’s not so much that I don’t believe that even the darkest recesses of humanity could give such an order — though it is certainly a stretch — it’s that when you think about how many people would have get in line to carry out that order, execute it perfectly, and then stay quiet about it– let’s just say if I had a chance to bet on the success of such a plot in advance, I wouldn’t put a dime on it.
(The easy example to point to would be the 9/11 hijackings, but that attack’s success rested squarely on the spectacular institutional failures of the FBI and CIA, which only underscores my point.)
Do I think Dick Cheney is capable, on a moral level, of masterminding the 9/11 attacks? I think Dick Cheney is capable of beating a puppy to death with a 9-iron. Do I think that there are 50 people (minimum) working for the government who worked nights for months to pack the World Trade Center towers with explosives, did so undetected, and then kept quiet about it afterward? I can’t believe in any conspiracy that pivots on that detail.
Do I believe Barack Obama is capable of ordering the slaughter of 6-year-olds for a political advantage? No I don’t, but again I wouldn’t put it past Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld. I wouldn’t put it past Dick Cheney to eat those kids alive in front of their parents and spit the blood in their faces if he thought it would raise Halliburton’s stock a nickel. But do I believe there is a team of triggermen out there somewhere who received that order, killed a bunch of little kids, and then never told anyone about it? No I don’t.
So, is there a massive government conspiracy behind the Boston bombings? People are out there suggesting that all that blood all over the place was fake and that the people whose legs were blown off were actors. That this photo proves the advance knowledge and participation of the government in the bombings. Others are saying that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was not actually killed but was taken (naked) into custody. And that the I’m sorry, call me naive, call me a sheeple (what’s the singular form of sheeple? Sheeperson?) but I just can’t buy it, because the thing all these plots have in common is they’d have to be carried out by adult human beings who, as I mentioned, are not typically super competent and don’t typically get great results working in groups.
We need not look far for a relevant example: both the press coverage and the information coming out of the investigation in Boston have been a comedy of errors. CNN was particularly ridiculous, as The Daily Show best illustrated. But the story keeps changing: did the brothers hold up a 7-11, as was initially reported? No, that was someone else in the area. Did the brothers have a huge arsenal during their shootout with the cops? No, they only had one handgun. Was there another shootout right before the cops took Dzokhar into custody? No, he was just lying in that boat bleeding and the cops (understandably) unloaded on him. Is Zooey Deschanel a suspect? She’s not?
Some see these inconsistent reports as further proof of a conspiracy, of the government changing the “facts” to fit its trumped-up narrative to frame a couple of innocent patsies (who, let’s remember, were caught on videotape committing the crime). Maybe at one time I would have seen it that way too. What I see now is a bunch of different agencies (Watertown local cops, Boston city cops, Massachussetts State Police, FBI, ATF, and god knows who else) doing a typically terrible job of cooperating, sharing information, or listening to each other, followed by the press further mangling the facts in this demented game of telephone. If these fundamentally decent people can’t get in line with each other to perform the public service of disseminating information, what hope does a massive, unambiguously evil conspiracy have of coming off without a hitch?
It’s certainly upsetting and depressing that these things are happening, but it’s slightly less awful to know that these are the acts of random assholes and not large, organized, taxpayer-funded assholes. All it takes is a little faith: faith in the basic incompetence of your fellow man. All I had to do was grow up a little.