the Disillusioned kid: I Hate Conspiracy Theories
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Saturday, January 01, 2005

I Hate Conspiracy Theories

So Diego Garcia wasn't affected by Sunday's tsunami or was it? The conspiracy theories are already bouncing around the internet. The International Action Center allege,
Within minutes of the massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia, U.S. scientists working with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suspected that a deadly wave was spreading through the Indian Ocean. They did not call anyone in the governments in the area. Jeff LaDouce, an official in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that they e-mailed Indonesian officials, but said that he wasn’t aware what happened after they sent the e-mails.
They are critical of the US's failure to do more with this information and continue.
The NOAA immediately warned the U.S. Naval Station at Diego Garcia, which suffered very little damage from the tsunami. It is telling that the NOAA was able to get the warning to the US Navy base in the area, but wouldn't pick up the phone and call the civil authorities in the region to warn them. They made sure that a US military base was notified and did almost nothing to issue a warning to the civilian inhabitants who were in the direct path of the wave--a warning that might have saved thousands of lives. This is criminal negligence.
The implication presumably being that Diego Garcia was able to deal with the tsunami because it had a warning, which raises a big question: What the hell did they do exactly? The highest point on the island is only 22 feet above sea level meaning there is no where to go for shelter. Similarly the numbers of people stationed at the base (including 2,000 troops and support staff) would make moving them incredibly difficult, particularly if you want to do it in secret, and would still leave the structures - not to mention billions of dollars of military hardware - at the mercy of the waves.

The only conclusion which makes any sense then, is the official story, exemplified by this statement from the US Navy's Diego Garcia website:
Favorable ocean topography minimized the tsunami’s impact on the atoll. Diego Garcia is part of the Chagos Archipelago, situated on the southernmost part of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge. To the east lies the Chagos Trench, a 400 mile long, underwater canyon that ranges in depth from less than 1,00 meters below the surface to depths that plunge to over 5,000 meters. It is one of the deepest regions of the Indian Ocean.

Diego Garcia is located to the west of Chagos Trench, which runs north and south. The depth of the Chagos Trench and grade to the shores does not allow for tsunamis to build before passing the atoll. The result of the earthquake was seen as a tidal surge estimated at six feet.
No doubt some of you are thinking that I'm being very naive here, taking the US's word. Perhaps, but frankly I can't be bothered with conspiracy theories. No doubt things could have been done better and I don't question for a second that the US is capable of doing very bad things (you need only look at much of what I write to see that). What I don't accept is the perception among some within the anti-war movement that the US is essentially omnipotent and *obviously* responsible for every bad thing which happens in the world.

You only need to look to the conspiracy theories which surround September 11 to see just how ridiculous the whole farce can become. To be sure there are unanswered questions about the attacks, but the theories articulated to explain these are inconsistent, facile or plain ridiculous. One video available somewhere on the internet, for example, implied that the Pentagon hadn't been hit by an airliner. It's evidence for this? A series of interviews with a number of lay eye-witnesses who offered various inconsistent interpretations of what they'd seen. Anyone who's ever been in a stressful situation knows that people can never agree afterwards what happened. To suggest that this is conclusive evidence of the dishonesty of the official story is nonsense, although this is the level the claims are pitched at.

Michael Albert does, I think, a good job of setting out why conspiracy theories appeal to progressives:
NATURALLY CONSPIRACY THEORY and its associated personalistic methodology appeals to prosecutors and lawyers, since they must identify proximate causes and human actors. But why does it appeal to people concerned to change society?

There are a many possible answers that probably all operate, to varying degrees, on people who favor conspiracy theory. First, conspiracy theory is often compelling and the evidence conspiracy theories reveal is often useful. More, description of the detailed entwinements become addictive. One puzzle and then another and another need analysis. Conspiracy theory has the appeal of a mystery--it is dramatic, compelling, vivid, and human. Finally, the desire for retribution helps fuel continuing forays into personal details.

Second, conspiracy theories have manageable implications. They imply that all was well once and that it can be okay again if only the conspirators can be pushed aside. Conspiracy theories therefore explain ills without forcing us to disavow society's underlying institutions. They allow us to admit horrors, and express our indignation and anger without rejecting the basic norms of society. We can even confine our anger to the most blatant perpetrators. That government official or corporate lawyer is bad, but many others are good and the government and law per se are okay. We need to get rid of the bad apples. All this is convenient and seductive. We can reject specific candidates but not government, specific CEOs but not capitalism, specific writers, editors, and even owners of periodicals, but not all mainstream media. We reject some vile manipulators, but not society's basic institutions. We can therefore continue to appeal to the institutions for recognition, status, or payment.

Third, conspiracy theory provides an easy and quick outlet for pent up passion withheld from targets that seem unassailable or that might strike back. This is conspiracy theory turned into scapegoat theory.
It should be clear from this that conspiracy theories are not something progressives should embrace. They divert our attention away from the structural factors which largely determine how those within institutions act (consider, for instance, the CEO forced by the law to do all he can to maximise dividends to his shareholders) and towards individuals. We may well be able to change those individuals, but doing so will do nothing to alter the underlying structures which should be our real concern. (That is, we could, continuing the example above, replace the CEO, but his replacement would be bound by the same rules and act little differently.)

None of which is to suggest that things can't be done by governments in secrecy. If you want an example of that, you need look no further than the story of the Diego Garcia's indigenous population, expelled to make way for the US military base. Unlike so many conspiracy theories, this is backed by a wealth of documentation and has been proved in court. Alternatively you could look to reports (here and here) that "terrorist suspects" are being held on the island in Guantanamo Bay style facilities and perhaps even being tortured.

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