Why are we so hooked on conspiracies?

From: http://politics.guardian.co.uk/columnist/story/0,,1973868,00.html

Dec 17, 2006

As Alastair McWhirter, the Chief Constable of Suffolk, was begging his colleagues for help in the largest murder hunt of recent times, Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, delivered a report that looks like the greatest waste of police time ever. Nine years after the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed, at a cost of £3.7m, his 832-pages concluded by repeating what French detectives had said at the time: a drunk driver killed her.

If it had just been an investigation into a mysterious death, the Stevens inquiry would have been pointless - there was no mystery, so there was nothing worth investigating. But Stevens served a second purpose which has little to do with providing dry facts for a coroner. He has presided over Britain's first official inquiry into a conspiracy theory. The result is devastating: a relentless line-by-line refutationof Mohamed al-Fayed's elaborate story of how MI6 officers arranged the murder of the mother of their future sovereign because she was planning to marry Fayed's son, Dodi.

Nearly every chapter begins with a paragraph headed 'claims in support of conspiracy allegation' and ends with each and every claim lying in pieces. Fayed alleged that the princess and his son planned to marry because she was carrying his child. The royal family 'could not accept that an Egyptian Muslim could eventually be the stepfather of the future King of England' so - QED - they ordered her murder. Well, asks Stevens, was Diana pregnant? Absolutely not, said the forensic scientist who tested a blood sample. Did anyone see the strobe light that blinded the driver in the seconds before the crash? No, no one saw it, says Stevens, because it wasn't there. What of Henri Paul, Fayed's driver? Was he truly drunk or acting on the orders of the British state? Of course he was drunk, says Stevens, his blood samples proved it.

Reading his findings is like watching someone tear down an elaborate folly. Brick by brick, he takes apart the baroque structure of fantasies and half-truths Fayed built to cover the inconvenient fact that the accident was the fault of a reckless driver in his employ.

There are many in Whitehall who feel that the effort is worthwhile. The allegation that they murdered the princess infuriates MI6 officers. They want the facts on the public record. Meanwhile, diplomats worry that conspiracy theories can be far more dangerous than those who laugh at them believe. With gruesome timing, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran made their point for them last week when he convened a modern equivalent of a Nuremberg rally in Tehran at which Islamist clerics, Ku Klux Klanners and European Nazis insisted the Holocaust was a myth. They had a political purpose that clearly was worth combating. Today's far right needs to deny the Nazi concentration camps for the same reason today's far left needs to deny Serb concentration camps in Bosnia. For modern fascists or Serb nationalists, the images of Jews at Auschwitz or starving Bosnian Muslims behind barbed wire have to be dismissed as the forgeries of conspirators because the crimes they record are huge obstacles in the way of a revival of support for fascism or Serb nationalism.

The Foreign Office must believe that the Diana conspiracy theory is a similarly malign myth. Within days of the princess's death, Colonel Gadaffi and thousands of others in Middle Eastern politics and journalism were agreeing with Fayed that the royals had ordered a murder to stop the princess marrying an Arab. I can see how diplomats could argue that they had to combat a fantasy that was adding to already Himalayan levels of suspicion about Britain. If they were to look more closely, however, they would see that this conspiracy theory doesn't fit neatly into a clash of civilisations argument between 'the West' and 'Islam'. It is much weirder than that.

After all, Fayed's greatest champion isn't the proprietor of some radical Islamist journal but the editor and readers of the Express, an old Tory newspaper which long ago lost the last of its marbles. Fayed himself isn't turning to Gadaffi for support but to Lyndon LaRouche, an American Trotskyist turned conservative loon who believes that Elizabeth II and Prince Philip are leading a British conspiracy to take over the United States with the help of Lord Rees-Mogg, the 'Joseph Goebbels of the British oligarchical mob'.

The great American novelist Don DeLillo, who has made paranoia his theme, long ago explained the appeal of Fayed and even LaRouche to otherwise reasonable people when he said that 'if we are on the outside, we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme... [It] is everything that ordinary life is not. It's the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us. We are the flawed ones, the innocents, trying to make some rough sense of the daily jostle. Conspirators have a logic and a daring beyond our reach.'

Nothing Lord Stevens can say will change the minds of the readers and journalists of the Express and millions of others who feel themselves to be DeLillo's outsiders. Like children with their noses pressed at a grimy window, they try to make a 'rough sense' of the murky world beyond by imagining that the British government - of all incompetent institutions - has the ruthless intelligence to get away with organising an astonishing crime. You can't explain away their fantasies with the half-rational explanation that they are manifestations of wider conflicts - not least because the overwhelming majority of Express readers aren't Muslim. They believe in this conspiracy theory, as they will believe in the next one, because conspiracy theories bring order to a chaotic universe. The hundreds of pages of patiently collected witness statements will make no difference to those who are too frightened to accept the messiness of life.

After the princess and his son died, Fayed proclaimed that: 'If this planet lasts for another thousand years people will still be talking about the terrible event we are now living through.'

The awful truth is that he is probably right.