A Very American Conspiracy Theory

Forget right or left: Jared Loughner's worldview puts him in the ugly center of American paranoid tradition.

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.

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.

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A High Price for War

How much would it cost if conflict erupted in Sudan once again?

Even as Southern Sudan votes in an independence referendum this week, the fear of war hasn't entirely faded away. The south is likely to vote to secede from greater Sudan, and the many political tensions over how exactly to do so -- where the border is drawn, who gets what oil revenues, and so forth -- could ratchet up into a renewed civil war between north and south. Or Southern Sudanese factions could turn on one another as they jockey to rule in a new, independent state. Although recent conciliatory overtures by Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir have helped calm tensions, reports of violence along the disputed north-south border are a reminder that everything could still fall apart.

It has become a cliché to caveat forecasts of war with the fact that all sides would have a lot to lose. So we decided to calculate exactly how much was on the line. Economists usually conduct financial autopsies after civil wars, dispassionately assessing the economic costs of conflict alongside the human suffering. This time, we have attempted to perform the autopsy before the event. Calculations about the future can only ever be rigorous speculation, but they do offer a sense of how extremely high the stakes really are.

Our analysis draws on the work of academics such as Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, who have found that, historically, civil war reduces the growth of real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita by an average of 2.2 percentage points for every year of conflict. In the post-conflict period, growth bounces back and is 1.13 percentage points higher than it would have been without a civil war. Finally, they find that if a country experiences civil war, its neighbors will each experience an average reduction in their annual growth rates of 0.89 percentage points over a five-year period.

With this analysis in mind, we developed four future scenarios for Sudan. In the first, we assume that there will be only low-level violence in a new independent Southern Sudan, similar to the level of conflict that was seen in 2009 and 2010 across the south, as well as in Darfur. A second scenario assumes that a civil war erupts between Southern Sudan and Khartoum and lasts for seven years -- the average length of internal armed conflicts worldwide. In the third case, we imagine that this civil war escalates, spreading across Sudan and lasting for 14 years. Finally, we created a peaceful scenario, which assumes improvement in the security situation, a gradual reduction in military spending, the return of refugees, and an increase in foreign trade and investment.

For each scenario, we used data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about Sudan's baseline growth prospects and applied Collier and Hoeffler's findings to calculate how much GDP would be lost in each scenario over 10 years. To quantify the possible costs to the international community, we used current levels of spending on two peacekeeping operations and humanitarian aid in Sudan ($2.5 billion in the current fiscal year) as a baseline and modeled a range of increases that might be required in response to an escalation of violence.

Our central estimate is that a return to war in Sudan could cost over $100 billion over a decade. The Sudanese people themselves could lose $50 billion and an additional $6.5 billion to $13 billion per year if the oil industry were disrupted. Meanwhile, neighboring states such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda could lose $25 billion. The wider international community might find itself paying out another $30 billion. These estimates are conservative because our baseline assumes some level of conflict, as exists now in Sudan. If real peace were the benchmark, losses would be much greater.

If we break down the potential losses, the Sudanese people themselves could lose $50 billion in permanent damage from the destruction and disruption caused by a war. Within Sudan, that means the destruction of physical infrastructure -- farms, shops, and mobile-phone towers -- coupled with the reduction in the number of people working (through death and injury). Security concerns would disrupt trade; transport of both people and goods would become more difficult and more costly. And amid the fighting, government resources would be diverted away from productive investment to destructive expenditures. War also diverts financial assets and human capital abroad. People are forced to use their savings or sell their assets to secure their safety. Their desperation to sell may lead to very low returns on resources that could otherwise have funded more useful and profitable activities.

Neighboring states such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda could lose $25 billion as a result of possible conflict spillovers, lost markets for their exports, and lost investment as investors perceive a higher regional risk. These negative impacts would outweigh any diversion of economic activity from Sudan into neighboring countries. Donors would also likely find themselves paying out in extra peacekeeping costs and humanitarian assistance, adding up to $30 billion. These costs are already significant in Sudan, which received $1.4 billion in humanitarian assistance in 2008, making it the world's largest recipient of humanitarian aid for the fourth consecutive year. This figure could escalate rapidly.

As many as 2 million Sudanese lost their lives in the civil wars that were ended by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, and perhaps 300,000 people died in Darfur during the most recent conflict. While the human tragedy of death, displacement, and ruined lives cannot be fully captured by any economic study, our financial analysis is intended to concentrate minds during this moment of risk.