"These are shattering experiences, when people's confidence and faith is shattered and their everyday routine is disrupted," Boston University sociology professor Daniel Monti said. "This is going to bring out the best we have to offer from some people, and from others it's going to bring out the worst."
Some scholars who study conspiracy theories say American ideals, such as the belief in free speech and an underlying distrust of power, make this country a natural breeding ground for alternate readings of momentous events such as the terror attacks of Sept. 11.
"Richard Hofstadter made this argument as long ago as the 1960s [in his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics]," said Michael Barkun, a political science professor at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and the author of nine books on domestic terrorism and extreme right-wing groups. "There is a long conspiracist strain in American history from the Colonial period on."
"Part of the price we pay for living in a more open society is that human beings of all stripes and sizes feel they have not only the right but also the responsibility to speak up," Monti said. "Sometimes we hear a lot of gibberish and uninformed gossip and lies. That's part of the price we pay."
Conspiracy theories are nothing new, of course. It is hard to think of a major incident in U.S. history that is not the subject of at least one alternate reading by people who refuse to accept the "official version."
And the possibility that the government could be involved in something that seems to run counter to national interests and the principles of democracy have been borne out by such incidents as the Watergate break-in and the Iran-Contra plot.
University of Maine at Machias professor Marcus LiBrizzi sees a thread of conspiracy theorizing running through American history, from even before the Salem witch trials. The Puritans came to the New World with a "world view that they were persecuted by agents of Satan" in the Catholic church, he said.
Among other early American conspiracy theories was the so-called New York Plot in 1741, in which fears of a slave uprising led to 34 people, both white and black, being executed, including 16 who were burned at the stake. The plot was later disproved.
In the 1820s anti-Masonic conspiracy theories gained strength in the United States when investigative journalist William Morgan disappeared when he was working on a story about the influence of Masons in American politics. Masons, who figured prominently among the Founding Fathers, have continued to be the villains in conspiracy theories to the present day.
The distrust of government that fuels much of the thinking was not alien to the framers of the Constitution themselves, LiBrizzi maintained. He said the concern the framers had about creating checks and balances and ensuring that power not be centered in one branch was indicative of a feeling that government was a necessary evil and had to be limited.
The government itself has even occasionally been snared by conspiracist thinking, such as during the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, when communist agents were seen in every corner of American society.
Old News with a New Spin
These days, conspiracy mongers have a new and potent allies in the Internet and e-mail, which allow them to grab hold of and instantly spread any new nuggets that fits their construction.