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I spent a year in Sweden a few years after the assassination of Olaf Palme in 1986, the controversial former prime minister of the country who, at the time of his death, was serving as a member of the Swedish cabinet. He was assassinated while walking with his wife back to his apartment in the historic part of the city after attending a nearby movie. It was a shocking event in a Sweden that had prided itself on moderateness in politics and the avoidance of involvement in the wars of the twentieth century. A local drifter, with a history of alcoholism, was charged and convicted of the crime, but many doubts persisted, including on the part of Ms. Palme, who analogized her situation to that of Coretta King, who never believed the official version of her martyred husband’s death.
I had a particular interest in this national traumatic event as my reason for being in Sweden was a result of an invitation to be the Olaf Palme Professor, a rotating academic post given each year to a foreign scholar, established by the Swedish Parliament as a memorial to their former leader (after the Social Democratic Party lost political control in Sweden this professorship was promptly defunded, partly because Palme was unloved by conservatives and partly because of a neoliberal dislike for public support of such activities).
In the course of my year traveling around Sweden, I often asked those whom I met what was there view of the assassination, and what I discovered was that the responses told me more about them than it did about the public event. Some thought it was a dissident faction in the Swedish security forces long angered by Palme’s neutralist policies; some believed it was resentment caused by Palme’s alleged engineering of Swedish arms sales to both sides in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s; some believed it was the CIA in revenge for Palme’s neutralism during the Cold War; some believed it could have criminals in the pay of business tycoons tired of paying high taxes needed to maintain the Swedish maximalist version of a welfare state; and there were other theories as well. What was common to all of these explanations was the lack of evidence that might connect the dots. What people believed happened flowed from their worldview rather than the facts of the event—a distrust of the state, especially its secret operations, or a strong conviction that special interests hidden from view were behind prominent public events of this character.
In a way, this process of reflection is natural, even inevitable, but it leads to faulty conclusions. We tend to process information against the background of our general worldview and understanding, and we do this all the time as an efficient way of coping with the complexity of the world combined with our lack of time or inclination to reach conclusions by independent investigation. The problem arises when we confuse this means of interpreting our experience with an effort to provide an explanation of a contested public event. There are, to be sure, conspiracies that promote unacknowledged goals, and enjoy the benefit of government protection. We don’t require WikiLeaks to remind us not to trust governments, even our own, and others that seem in most respects to be democratic and law-abiding. And we also by now should know that governments (ab)use their authority to treat awkward knowledge as a matter of state secrets, and criminalize those who are brave enough to believe that the citizenry needs to know the crimes that their government is committing with their trust and their tax dollars.
The arguments swirling around the 9/11 attacks are emblematic of these issues. What fuels suspicions of conspiracy is the reluctance to address the sort of awkward gaps and contradictions in the official explanations that David Ray Griffin (and other devoted scholars of high integrity) have been documenting in book after book ever since 2001. What may be more distressing than the apparent cover up is the eerie silence of the mainstream media, unwilling to acknowledge the well-evidenced doubts about the official version of the events: an al Qaeda operation with no foreknowledge by government officials. Is this silence a manifestation of fear or cooption, or part of an equally disturbing filter of self-censorship? Whatever it is, the result is the withering away of a participatory citizenry and the erosion of legitimate constitutional government. The forms persist, but the content is missing.
This brings me to the Arizona shootings, victimizing both persons apparently targeted for their political views and random people who happened to be there for one reason or another, innocently paying their respects to a congresswoman meeting constituents outside a Tucson supermarket. As with the Palme assassination, the most insistent immediate responses come from the opposite ends of the political spectrum, both proceeding on presuppositions rather than awaiting evidence.
On one side are those who say that right-wing hate speech and affection for guns were clearly responsible, while Tea Party ultra-conservatives and their friends reaffirm their rights of free speech, denying that there is any connection between denouncing their adversaries in the political process and the violent acts of a deranged individual seemingly acting on his own. If we want to be responsible in our assessments, we must restrain our political predispositions, and get the evidence. Let us remember that what seems most disturbing about the 9/11 controversy is the widespread aversion by government and media to the evidence that suggests, at the very least, the need for an independent investigation that proceeds with no holds barred.
Such an investigation would contrast with the official ‘9/11 Commission’ that proceeded with most holds barred. What has been already disturbing about the Arizona incident are these rival rushes to judgment without bothering with evidence. Such public irresponsibility polarizes political discourse, making conversation and serious debate irrelevant.
There is one more issue raised, with typical candor and innocence, by the filmmaker, Michael Moore. If a Muslim group had published a list of twenty political leaders in this country, and put crosshairs of a gun behind their pictures, is there any doubt that the Arizona events would be treated as the work of a terrorist, and the group that had pre-identified such targets immediately outlawed as a terrorist organization? Many of us, myself included, fervently hoped, upon hearing the news of the shootings, that the perpetrator of this violence was neither a Muslim nor a Hispanic, especially an illegal immigrant. Why? Because we justly feared the kind of horrifying backlash that would have been probably generated by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin, and their legion of allies. Now that the apparent perpetrator is a young white American, the talk from the hate mongers, again without bothering with evidence, is of mental disorder and sociopathology. This is faith-based pre-Enlightenment ‘knowledge.’
What must we learn from all of this? Don’t connect dots without evidence. Don’t turn away as soon as the words ‘conspiracy theory’ are uttered, especially if the evidence does point away from what the power-wielders want us to believe. Don’t link individual wrongdoing, however horrific, to wider religious and ethnic identities. We will perish as a species if we don’t learn soon to live together better on our beautiful, globalizing, and imperiled planet.