I ONCE met a man who was in regular contact with aliens from outer space.
Or so he said. And being a callow young reporter at the time, I believed him. Or at least I thought I might have hit on a decent story.
It certainly seemed interesting enough until he showed me the evidence.
In the top corner of his TV screen would appear from time to time little squares of strangely moving lines. This, he insisted, was how the aliens transmitted their messages.
But hadn’t he noticed, I asked, that they always appeared just before a commercial break? Perhaps they were indeed messages – not to him, but to help the broadcasters get their timings right?
He found that unbelievable and duly wrote me off either as gullible or as part of the great conspiracy.
Which goes to show several things:
• That some people will believe almost anything – except what seems most obvious.
• That people like to think they know things other people don’t.
• That we are surrounded by conspiracies – or at least by conspiracy theories.
Who killed Marilyn Monroe, and why? Ditto John F Kennedy – and what was the connection between their deaths? If any?
Where do Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto fit into the picture? Or is it not all the same picture?
And what about Princess Diana?
Was her death the result of an evil conspiracy masterminded by Prince Philip, as Mohamed al Fayed seems to believe?
Was she the sacrificial victim of some weird satanic cult?
Had she got too close to revealing the truth about the leaders of the world’s great nations – that they are all extra-terrestrial lizards in disguise?
Or was it just that her driver was drunk and driving too fast and she wasn’t wearing a seat-belt?
For many people that last explanation is just too mundane, too messy to fit in with their image of an iconic woman.
And of course her early death and the questions surrounding it all feed into the loop that inflates the icon.
The real flesh-and-blood woman has disappeared from the myth as surely as she has gone from life.
The same feedback loop, exponentially inflating the icon, applies equally to Monroe and JFK.
And – dare I say it? – to a once obscure Jewish preacher and reformer from the Galilee region of Roman-era Palestine.
In every case the death became not just part of the legend, but the core of the legend.
And just look how many question-marks litter this column. They all imply at root the same question, the question that intrigues and motivates the human race more than any other. The question: Why?
The mundane fact is that most of us, most of the time, don’t know the answer to that vital question. Which is why people have to keep making up answers.
And for some people, the wilder and wackier those answers are, the better they like them.
Were the towers of the World Trade Centre really felled by missiles surrounded by holograms made to look like planes?
I doubt very much whether the technology exists to make that possible – and even if it did, why bother when it would be so much easier just to send in the planes?
But that is only the wildest of an astonishing array of conspiracy theories surrounding the 9/11 attacks.
Even Time magazine was prepared to give credence, just weeks after the event, to a theory that George W Bush’s government deliberately ignored warnings that the attacks were coming.
Personally, I’d be prepared to believe almost any wickedness of the Bush administration.
But perhaps that’s the point.
A good conspiracy theory has to be just believable enough to make you wonder.
It should give its believers a nice feeling of superiority over everyone else.
And it should provide the illusion of meaning and sense to things that otherwise seem senseless and meaningless.
And, of course, the biggie – the essentially meaningless thing in all our lives – is death. It’s the thing we all want, and lack, a big answer to.
Which is why all the great conspiracy theories revolve around death. As, incidentally, do those most tenacious of all wild, unprovable theories, religions.
Religious groups of various kinds, from American fundamentalists to Hamas, figure largely as both believers and subjects of conspiracy theories.
They figure too in David Aaronovitch’s new book, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History.
Aaronovitch has plenty of theory about theories. After debunking myth after myth he comes down clearly on the side of cock-up over conspiracy to explain the ways of the world.
Which is probably fair enough. Most of the time.
But why did Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald? What really happened in Rendlesham Forest on Boxing Day, 1980? Who did roll away the stone? And what is the real connection between the Bush and Bin Laden families?