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Response to "Piped Off"

Reader comment on item: Those Danish Cartoons and Me
in response to reader comment: conspiracy theories

Submitted by Merry Whitney (United States), Feb 23, 2006 at 21:24

"You have done great work on conspiracy theories Mr. Pipes, but what about the history of successful conspiracies? Why else would we have laws against them?"

The laws against conspiracy depend on what is being conspired. A conspiracy is involved, for example, when several school girls collaborate on a surprise birthday party for one of their friends. Since there's no law (in the U.S. at least) against birthday parties, the conspiracy is perfectly legal.

It is only when two or more persons plan and discuss an illegal act, and then one or more of the conspirators "takes a step toward..." execution of the illegal act, that all parties who participated in discussions or planning of the act are subject to conspiracy charges regarding the illegal activity. Conspiracies per se are not illegal.

Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are usually just fantasized boogie men. If enough gullible people buy into one of them, the theory itself may take on an aura of conventional wisdom.

Take the popular "Jack the Ripper" case solution put forward by British author Stephen Knight, attributing the Ripper killings to a Masonic plot (conspiracy) masterminded by the Physician in Ordinary to the Queen (Victoria), with the motive the silencing of several prostitutes who knew of Prince Edward's marriage to another prostitute, the hapless bride herself having been spirited off to a lunatic asylum.

Knight made a compelling case ("The Brotherhood" was his book's title, but I don't recall the publisher or year -- late 1970s or 1980s I think).

However, forensic pathologist and popular crime author Patricia Cornwell subsequently named the actual Jack the Ripper -- an English artist -- and she wrapped up the case with DNA and fingerprint evidence to boot ("Jack the Ripper: Case Closed" - about 2003).

No conspiracy, just another psychotic serial killer.

So it is with most conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, in some of the current theorizing, it seems most of the psychotics are the conspiracists themselves.
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