“What’s the harm?” is a question that’s often asked in relation to fringe beliefs. Who cares if I believe in Bigfoot or energy healing? The answer becomes a bit more obvious when you’re talking about conspiracy theories, especially when they send innocent people to jail or prompt angry social groups to commit sedition.
Of course in the world of James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds’ smash hit comic, The Department of Truth, believing in conspiracy theories ends up being harmful to everyone. Issue #3 deals with maybe the most personally destructive area of conspiracy belief, that school shootings are “false flag attacks” perpetrated by the government to gin up support for stricter gun control laws.
“It seems gratuitously cruel, doesn’t it?” says Bob Blaskiewicz, conspiracy researcher and assistant professor of critical thinking at Stockton University. “They don’t need to exist.”
And yet, just like the obvious analogue on the first page of Department of Truth #3, radio host Alex Jones and his ilk have purveyed the bizarre and monstrous idea that there were are no victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, or in any others. Those scenes, they say, were cast with professional “crisis actors,” and the parents, who in reality are trying to process the worst thing that can ever happen to a person, are instead just paid to perpetuate the lie.
Conspiracy theories are often “a way for disenfranchised populations, people out of power, to explain their situation,” Blaskiewicz says. As with those connected to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, they can make sense of how a seemingly random act, perpetrated by seemingly ordinary people, can cause so much destruction. But how hard is it to accept, in the case of school shootings, that one hateful or mentally ill person could walk into a building with a gun?
“This is an especially political one,” Blaskiewicz says. “It comes down to the Second Amendment, and the argument about the role of weapons in society.” Starting with executive vice president Wayne LaPierre in the ’90s, Blaskiewicz suggests that the National Rifle Association began pushing the idea that the government was coming to take your guns away, a belief that’s persisted through the 21st century. This is despite the fact that many gun-owner protections were actually strengthened before and even after the Sandy Hook shooting.
“They’ve already identified the bad guy, no matter what happens,” Blaskiewicz says, adding that he saw online posts at the time of the Sandy Hook shooting, from regular conspiracy theorists, saying they needed to “jump start the counter narrative before the official story comes down.” If you already believe those in power are Satan-worshiping, blood-drinking pedophiles, a fantasy that’s been building until the modern QAnon cult crystallized it, it’s only natural to think they’d kill a few extra kids here and there to maintain power.
And when your “enemy” is perceived as being so repulsive, so depraved, you’ll do anything to stop them. Including unending harassment of the victims’ parents. Jones focused on Lenny Pozner so much, reading his name and his dead son’s name over and over to his followers, that Pozner had to change his address several times, and a fan of Jones was sent to prison for sending threatening messages to Pozner. Pozner and other parents took Jones to court, where he claimed to have a “psychosis,” and finally admitted that the shooting was not orchestrated (other defamation suits against Jones are ongoing).
We see the same thing happen in Department of Truth #3, and in the real world, such abhorrent behavior can even be extended to the victims themselves. Several weeks ago, footage of Georgia’s “QAnon Congresswoman” Marjorie Taylor Greene surfaced, in which she stalks Parkland, Florida, school shooting survivor David Hogg, claiming his activism is funded by George Soros, among other falsehoods.
“It serves to victimize victims,” Blaskiewicz says, “and it’s inexcusable.”
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.
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