What’s the harm in believing nonsense? I get asked this all the time: “Oh come on Shermer, let people have their delusions, what’s the harm?”
I have a laundry list of retorts to this challenge, from the value of living in a rational world that is based in reality to tales of people who have died from discredited medical practices, such as “Attachment Therapy” — in April, 2000, 10-year old Candace Newmaker was smothered to death in blankets by therapists who were helping “rebirth” her so that she could properly attach to her adopted parents. Death by theory. (I wrote about this in Scientific American.)
What’s the harm? Ask the victims of the anti-Government nutter Joseph Stack, who flew his plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas. It is one thing to be skeptical of excessive government intervention into private lives and businesses, it is quite another to take matters into your own hands, especially if those hands hold a gun.
Witness one John Patrick Bedell, the gunman who attacked guards at the entrance of the Pentagon yesterday (March 4), who now appears to have been a right wing extremist and 9/11 “truther,” who in an internet posting under the user name JpatrickBedell said that he intended to expose the truth behind the 9/11 “demolitions.” Apparently the delusional Bedell intended to shoot his way into the Pentagon to find out what really happened on 9/11.
Death by conspiracy.
More specifically, Bedell picked up the conspiracy theory about the alleged “murder” in 1991 of Marine Col. James Sabow, who was found dead in his California home in 1991. The police ruled it a suicide, but right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists have suggested that he was murdered and that the case is a coverup by the federal government. Bedell posted that exposing the truth behind the Sabow case would be “a step toward establishing the truth of events such as the September 11 demolition.”
Who is John Patrick Bedell? He was a 36-year old computer programmer from Hollister, California, a graduate of U.C. Santa Cruz (physics) who also attended San Jose State University (biochemistry). So he was a smart guy. As I’ve said before: intelligence is no prophylactic against magical thinking. If anything, smart people believe weird things because they are better at rationalizing beliefs that they’ve arrived at for nonsmart reasons.
Somewhere along the line — perhaps after his arrest for cultivating cannabis and resisting a police officer — Bedell decided that he wanted to expose “the truth of events such as the 9/11 demolitions and institutions such as the coup regime of 1963 that maintains itself in power through the global drug trade, financial corruption, and murder, among other crimes.”
The “coup regime of 1963”? Yes, you know, the coup d’état that overthrew the U.S. government and replaced it with another government. You missed that one? Watch Oliver Stone’s film JFK. Lyndon Johnson and his cronies (Castro, the Russians, the CIA, the FBI, the mafia, et al.) had Kennedy assassinated.
Bedell continued in an Internet rant from 2006 associated with him:
The sheer size of the United States economy … makes the United States government a tempting prize for any organisation or collection of bandits ruthless and clever enough to seize it. A criminal organisation able to conduct its activities from within the centre of power of the United States government would have powerful advantages over other criminal groups … This organisation … would see the sacrifice of thousands of its citizens, in an event such as the September 11 attacks, as a small cost in order to perpetuate its barbaric control. This collection of gangsters would find it in their interest to foment conflict and initiate wars throughout the world, in order to divert attention from their misconduct and criminality… This seizure of the United States government by an international criminal conspiracy is a long-established reality.
Whose reality is this? Right wing militias. Back in the 1990s there was a surge in militias and extremists groups, which waned in the final years of the decade, but are now apparently making a comeback. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, who tracks such groups, there were 42 paramilitary militias in 2008 and 127 in 2009. So-called “Patriot” groups also increased, from 149 in 2008 to 512 in 2009. According to an April 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security, the current anti-government climate “parallels” what federal officials saw in the 1990s: “Rightwing extremists have capitalized on the election of the first African American president, and are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda, but they have not yet turned to attack planning.”
Not yet is the key phrase here.
What’s the harm? Now you know the answer.