Whether or not Jared Loughner is mentally ill, it's clear that his shooting rampage last weekend, which took six lives and critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was motivated, at least in part, by his conspiratorial views of the U.S. government. According to his friends, he believed that Washington faked the moon landing and orchestrated the 9/11 attacks; that the Federal Reserve was a Jewish plot; and that the government was trying to control his brain through grammar.
Wacky as they may seem, the anti-government conspiracy theories that appear to have partially inspired Loughner have a long tradition in the United States. Conspiracy theories may be a globalized phenomenon, but Loughner's particular brand of government paranoia is purely all-American.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans primarily worried that their republic was vulnerable to foreign conspirators. They particularly feared Masons, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews, viewing them as seditious groups that followed the instructions of an alien power.
These conspiracy theories produced some powerful political movements in the United States: The Anti-Masons dominated New England politics in the 1830s, and the anti-Catholic American Protective Association boasted hundreds of thousands of members in the 1890s. Sometimes, conspiracy theories had lethal consequences: Some paranoiacs lynched alleged plotters and burned their churches.
Suspicion of other races, religions, or ethnicities is still the common currency of conspiracy theories elsewhere in the world -- the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that thrive in Arab countries are a case in point. In the 20th century, however, American conspiracy theories underwent a fundamental transformation. No longer were conspiracy theorists chiefly concerned that alien forces were plotting to capture the federal government; instead, they began to argue that the federal government itself was the alien force.
Some Americans had very legitimate reason to believe that the government was conspiring against them. Beginning in World War I, the U.S. government began to create and expand the agencies it needed to carry out secret operations. The modern surveillance state was born during World War I, as the government criminalized dissent with the Espionage Act and Sedition Act and empowered Bureau of Investigation agents to spy on potential dissidents. As the government grew, it gained the power to conspire against its citizens, and it soon began exercising that power.
After the end of World War II, new, more powerful secret agencies -- including the CIA -- sprang up to wage the trench battles of the Cold War. Locked in an existential struggle with the Soviet Union, the country's secret warriors believed in using any means necessary to fight the forces of godless communism. But because the government plotters were not accountable to anyone except their fellow agents, their plans sometimes distorted into bizarre form.
By the height of the Cold War, government agents were plotting with the mafia to kill Fidel Castro, dropping hallucinogenic drugs into the drinks of unsuspecting Americans at random bars, and debating the possibility of launching fake terrorist attacks on Americans in the United States. Public officials denied potentially lifesaving treatment to African-American men in medical experiments, sold arms to terrorists in return for American hostages, and faked documents to frame past presidents for crimes they had not committed.