The last century has seen the emergence of some incredible conspiracy theories about the American government. If you were to believe the paranoid, our government faked the moon landings with the help of Stanley Kubrick, conspired to murder John F. Kennedy and even created HIV to harm the African American community. Do average citizens believe any of these theories? More than one might expect.
A 2013 Gallup poll found that 61 percent of respondents do not think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, with 13 percent blaming the federal government for JFK’s murder. 13 percent might not seem like that high of a number until you consider the implication of their belief: more than one in eight people believed that the American government was directly responsible for the assassination of the American head of state. Perhaps even more shockingly, an Oregon State University study from 2005 found that more than one-quarter of the African Americans surveyed believed that AIDS has been created in a government laboratory; more than half believed that a cure for AIDS was being withheld from the poor.
These are extremely troubling statistics. They indicate a profound lack of trust in the American government and a belief that it is willing to commit extreme acts. Are these people being needlessly paranoid, or does their skepticism have some basis in reality?
It certainly does.
Would you believe that the government was pretending to give poor African Americans syphilis treatment, while actually studying them as they died of complications? This is something that the government actually did from 1932 to 1972. Government physicians went even further in Guatemala in the years following World War II, when they secretly infected Guatemalan citizens with syphilis, leading to 82 deaths.
Given this dark history of secret experimentation, is it so far-fetched for African Americans to wonder if they are again the targets of an immoral medical conspiracy? While the government surely had no part in the creation or spread of HIV, to laugh off African American skepticism is to trivialize a very real history of victimization.
Would you believe that the CIA was setting up fake brothels, having prostitutes drug clients with LSD, and watching the results behind a one-way mirror as part of a larger project to develop mind control? Despite sounding like the hallucination of a paranoid schizophrenic, this operation actually happened; MKUltra, the project it was a part of, is extremely well-documented.
Is it any wonder that large swaths of American citizens have doubts about the CIA and Department of Defense, given all the unbelievable stuff those organizations have done in the past? Faking the moon landings sounds only as absurd as implanting a microphone and antennae into cats to use them for espionage, proposing to fake terrorists attacks in order to drum up support for a war with Cuba, or bribing journalists and publishers in order to propagate government views.
Let me be clear: The existence of absurd programs in the past does not mean that any of the other conspiracy theories are true. Nor does it mean that the American government is fundamentally malicious or out to harm its citizens. However, given the extensive list of too-crazy-to-be-true events that have actually occurred, a healthy skepticism is more than warranted.
Citizens would do well to have this skepticism in mind when considering the recent revelations about massive government-operated surveillance programs. Whether you consider Edward Snowden to be a heroic whistleblower or a cowardly traitor, it is undeniable that the current national conversation wouldn’t be happening if he hadn’t passed documents on to the press. Even with information coming out, the intelligence community has been slow to provide answers. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was caught lying to Congress last year after he told them that the NSA did not collect data on “millions or hundreds of millions of Americans” — a claim he later admitted was “clearly erroneous.”
Paranoia has a long and proud tradition in American political life, and, given recent events, now is no time to abandon that tradition. Concentrations of power always have the potential for abuse, and we as a citizenry should be ready to uncover and curb such wrongdoing. Accusations about potential government misbehavior should not be entertained without facts to back them up, but neither should they be laughed out of the conversation for sounding unrealistic. After all, nothing sounds more far-fetched than the CIA’s prostitution — and LSD-based mind control scheme — which, incidentally, had the very real codename “Operation Midnight Climax”.
Contact Joel Gottsegen at joeligy ‘at’ stanford.edu.