Given the U.S. government's commitment to openness and democracy, light was eventually cast into the dark corners of the secret state. In 1975 and 1976, the special Senate investigating committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, known as the Church Committee, exposed and documented crimes and abuses by the CIA and FBI. For many Americans, the most popular and most distressing revelations involved the CIA program of drug-testing and mind-control experiments known as MKULTRA. The news of these experiments inspired generations of psychotics to wonder whether the voices in their heads really came from CIA headquarters.
The Church committee spurred a series of congressional and journalistic investigations of other secret government conspiracies. Many Americans were now ready to believe their government could be involved in nefarious plots. Church and his successors had hoped to restore faith in government by revealing its mistakes, but instead they helped accelerate Americans' post-Vietnam spiral into apathy and cynicism.
By the 1990s, conspiracy theories about the government transcended race and ideology. Suspicions about long-hidden government plots appealed to black separatists and white supremacists, to left-wing activists and right-wing militias, to anarchists and neofascists. Conspiracism bent the political spectrum and fused its extremes into an endless circle of paranoia.
The Internet allowed conspiracy theorists to find and link to one another's ramblings, giving hope to those who believed, in the words of The X-Files, that "the truth is out there." To spread their theories, skeptics in the early 20th century needed to crank hand-operated printing presses and, in one famous case, fling their tracts from the windows of tall buildings. But by the late 20th century, anyone with a computer could potentially address an audience of millions.
As the 20th century neared its end, the anti-government skeptics infused their theories with a millennial sense of urgency. "The wolf," said popular conspiracy writer Milton William Cooper, "is at the door." The X-Files' many devoted fans agreed with one character's assessment of the federal government in the show's fifth season: "No matter how paranoid you are," she explained, "you're not paranoid enough." No one could say that about Jared Loughner, cluttered with a toxic jumble of left- and right-wing conspiracy theories, his sources ranging from Marx to Hitler to heavy metal.
In fact, Arizona has, by some measures, become a ground zero for anti-government conspiracy theories. Loughner lived in a politically polarized state in which the federal government's policies, from health care to immigration, were excoriated by mainstream politicians as evidence of a tyrannical plot against liberty. And these theories took root beyond Arizona's borders. Throughout the United States, conspiracists rage against the alleged subversion of their country by "un-American" forces that reside in the U.S. government itself.
Conspiracy theories may seem to thrive on the margins of American politics: When historian Richard Hofstadter diagnosed a "paranoid style" in American politics in the 1960s, these views were easily characterized as fringe. But they become central when they gain powerful sponsors in the media and politics who inject their paranoid theories into the body politic. These conspiracy theories can be ridiculed in pop culture, but they will eventually lash out against reality -- as they tragically did last Saturday.