Improbable Truths: Searching for Meaning in the Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories

Get out your tin foil hats. This one's a doozy.

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Dec 18 2012, 10:45pm

“In the presence of death,” wrote author Ambrose Bierce, “reason and philosophy are silent.” Bierce knew from whence he spoke. Aside from being a great writer, he was a soldier for the entirety of the Civil War, serving in Sherman’s Army as it tore through Georgia. He was a witness to unspeakable slaughter. He was also shot in the head (he survived). His story ended when, as an old man, he vanished south of the border amid the Mexican Revolution, in 1913, his disappearance shrouded in mystery and myth.

“Nothing,” he concluded at one point, “is so improbable as what is true.”

I think about Bierce in moments like these in American history, when reason and philosophy seem to abandon us. Faced with the improbability of a horrible truth—in this case, an incomprehensible massacre of innocents in Connecticut—we invent our own. “You can’t legislate crazy,” is one of those invented, counter-truths that have the easy logic and folksy repeatability of aphorism, as ready to load and re-load as a high-powered assault rifle; “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” is another.

In this sense, conspiracy theories like the ones already cropping up around pro-gun, white-supremacist, and conspiracy-based web forums in regards to the Sandy Hook shootings are like extended country catch-phrases. Misinformation proliferates before the real story has had a chance to emerge; just as quickly, it is appropriated and repackaged and into a counter-narrative that feels more appealing than the truth.

Conspiracy theories surrounding the massacre in Sandy Hook have followed this familiar pattern. Misinformation characterized the tragedy’s earliest moments. Fueled by countless tweeters competing for the scoop, inside the media and out, bulwark news organizations from CNN to Slate began by misidentifying the killer —not as Adam Lanza, but as his brother, Ryan, who was forced to protest his innocence using the same social media tools that wrongly accused him: (“Fuck you CNN it wasn’t me,” Ryan Lanza wrote on Facebook; and, later, “I’m on the bus home now it wasn’t me,” and “IT WASN’T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN’T ME.”

Other misinformation was tweeted, posted and repeated, before anyone had time to check the facts. Nancy Lanza, the mother of the shooter, was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children were killed. Until she wasn’t. Reports said it was her class of children that was massacred—the object of some twisted revenge killing, wrought by a son who craved the affection his mother spread elsewhere. Until it was discovered that she was a perhaps only a substitute teacher. Of course, this was all before school officials asserted she wasn’t a teacher at all.

Meanwhile, because the anonymity of the Internet always encourages people’s better angels, several people impersonating Adam Lanza created fake social media accounts, spewing vitriol and bad taste, adding to the general murkiness already obfuscating the truth.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising in such a climate that conspiracy theories have proliferated in the short time since: The main thread begins with a connection that seems to have been first offered on the right wing blog, Fabian4Liberty, alleging that the fathers of both Adam Lanza and the Aurora movie theater shooter, James Holmes, are big shot financial types who were slated to testify against several major banks for allegedly rigging the London Interbank Offered Rate (or LIBOR, an estimate made by London banks that determines the interest for borrowing among banks).

Peter Lanza’s LinkedIn page (along with several news reports, each of which cites the LinkedIn page), may confirm that he is, at least, a vice president at GE Energy Financial Services, as Fabian4Liberty claims (though, it’s worth noting there are several Peter Lanzas on LinkedIn, and social media profiles are hardly a journalist’s best friend ). A report in the Daily Mail , a British tabloid, may confirm that James Holmes’ father, Robert, is a scientist at FICO, the financial services company, but that information doesn’t show up anywhere else credible.

So where’s the beef? Fabian4Liberty claims to have done its own research:

We got on the phone and leveraged our contacts in the world of finance, government, and law. It was repeatedly confirmed from our contacts in the financial industry that both Holmes and Lanza are men that would be called in to report information under their purview for investigations concerning credit rate manipulation such as the LIBOR scandal. And again, contacts in the field of law confirmed that Holmes and Lanza are men that multiple government agencies would have questions for. These are men that are not implicated as perpetrators of the rate manipulations, rather, they are the men who can provide the evidence that these manipulations are taking place. Holmes is the man who literally wrote the algorithm that detects such fraud, he is the leading expert in the world in this subject matter, and Lanza is a man with access to revenue records that will show just how much was gained through the manipulations of credit rates.

Even if that were true, the implication is… what exactly? That some shadowy entity somehow made Adam Lanza and James Holmes go on murderous shooting rampages to silence their fathers? Surely there must be easier ways to silence someone than taking over his son’s brain with mind control and sending them on a shooting spree.

Still, Fabian4Liberty’s reporting has already been copy-pasted ad infinitum on conspiracy threads across the internet. The places it’s popping up are telling: One is the National Gun Forum, where I first stumbled upon the theory. A member named “underdog,” responded to the initial post by linking to early, published news reports by mostly reputable outlets that added to the conspiracy counter-narrative. The reports suggested, among other things, that:

  1. A conspirator in Aurora “deliberately let the gunman inside once the movie started.”
  2. A second gunman was “apparently at large” in the first moments following the Sandy Hook shooting according to “sources”; a half-hour after that report, police “with weapons drawn seen running into wooded area behind the school.”
  3. A second man was seen separately “wearing camouflage trousers” and “being handcuffed. One witness described him shouting: ‘I didn’t do it.’”

Countless other forums also spread Fabian4Liberty’s rumors about the LIBOR connection. “Were their sons brainwashed and mind-controlled into carrying out their missions?” asked one member at Lunatic Outpost. “FrankSikora,” a commenter at Before It’s News, noted that “Everyone seems to forget that the shootings happen when Obama is in trouble? 1st shooting, Obama was facing impeach charges, now Obama faces them want his ID’s and he is tied to LIBOR” (cleaned up significantly for spelling and grammatical clarity but not, obviously for clarity of content). The conspiracy even appears on a forum devoted to gold and silver—a favorite refuge among those who, like Glenn Beck, fear total economic collapse.

Meanwhile, setting their sights on the typical bogeymen, white supremacists at White News Now noted, variously: that “Lanzo” was very possibly a name of Jewish origin, tracing back to converts during Christian-led persecution in Sicily; that they were “outraged that our government has refused to allow law abiding citizens means to defend themselves against such an attack”; and that President Obama, in his public expressions of sympathy for the victims and their families, was merely using it “to manipulate opinion.”

The truthfulness of every conspiracy theory exists along two separate spectrums, and such is the case here. There is the objective truth of the world of facts and plausibility—elusive, contingent, often ambiguous, and always a worthy pursuit. On one hand, some of the facts of the LIBOR theory may be true; its conclusions are laughable. In terms of plausibility, such conspiracies rate pretty low on the spectrum.

Then there is what we might call a conspiracy theory’s moral truth. The conspiracy counter-narrative serves as a defense against horror’s assault upon the senses and upon people’s most basic understandings or cherished beliefs—whether that’s a belief in the fundamental goodness of human beings (or, say, of white human beings specifically), or the sanctity of an unrestrained Second Amendment.

Sometimes those beliefs and understandings draw opon simple precedence: As sociologist and author Michael Eric Dyson noted in his book about Hurricane Katrina, Come Hell or High Water, rumors that the levees in New Orleans were dynamited to flood poor, black neighborhoods and spare the wealthier, whiter ones emerged almost immediately. As implausible as that may seem, he noted, there was a moral truth underpinning that counter-narrative based on historic precedence. Broadly, black Americans had long been treated as expendable, particularly in the South, where they were bought and sold as chattel. But more specifically, moneyed interests in New Orleans had, in fact, dynamited levees at the expense of poor, rural communities once before, during the Great Mississippi flood of 1927. The moral truth of the Katrina conspiracy theory was the truth of oppression.

Blasting a levee along the Mississippi River in 1927 to relieve pressure on levees further downriver, in New Orleans. Credit: The Times-Picayune

It's easy to find parallels elsewhere. Conspiracy theories about United States government collusion in the 9/11 terrorist attacks probably wouldn’t have near the traction they do if weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. JFK theories took root amid the cloak-and-dagger Cold War and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Government experiments like MK-Ultra and the Army's psychdelic research have granted a priori credibility to every tin foil hat mind control theory ever concocted, just as hundreds of years of slavery and oppression leant plausibility to theories about the AIDS and crack-cocaine epidemics.

It’s clear that the moral truth underlying the Sandy Hook conspiracies lies in what the theories say about a paranoid society beset by violence, flooded by an estimated 300 million guns. (In a sad twist of irony, reports are emerging that the shooter’s mother was, herself, a conspiracy theorist of sorts: a so-called “doomsday prepper,” stocking guns to prepare for exactly the kind of end-times, violent chaos her son enacted on a smaller scale.)

The unspeakable violence of Sandy Hook is a tough bit of reality for most people to swallow. In the face of such violence, some gun advocates, like the NRA, have gone silent . That's probably wise. Others, unfortunately, have joined ranks with people who see conspiracies in everything—along with bigots unable to handle the realities of a black president—in attempting desperately to push the blame along their usual diversionary channels. It’s not the guns, they say. It’s not the stigmas we attach to mental health issues. It’s the work of powerful, shadowy forces outside our control.

The moral reality exposed by those theories is the reality of moral bankruptcy, of denial. The truth of tragedies like Sandy Hook may seem improbable to them. Sadly, it is not. This is no time, as Ambrose Bierce might have put it, for reason and philosophy to fall silent.

Lead image via Wikimedia Commons