It is hard to imagine a better and more widespread example of what Richard Hofstadter labeled “the paranoid style in American politics” than the rhetoric of experts such as Claire Sterling. She replicates, almost literally, the fears of other alleged grand world conspiracies, such as the panic that broke out at the end of the eighteenth century in New England against the Bavarian Illuminati, and which merited a leap into fantasy by the other well-known author John Robinson when he charged that the association had been formed “for the express purpose of…OVERTURNING ALL THE EXISTING GOVERNMENTS OF EUROPE.” Soon the Illuminati were held to be the Antichrist and denounced from the pulpits of New England, even though it is uncertain whether any of them ever came to the United States from Germany. The anti-Masonic movement of the 1820s and 1830s reflects the same obsession with conspiracy, thus illustrating the essence of the paranoid style, which posits “the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character.” Such an apocalyptic framework is quite characteristic of terrorism discourse. (J. Zulaika and W. Douglas. Terror and taboo: The follies, fables and faces of terrorism. NY: Routledge. pp. 53-4.)
There is a conversation on many blogs that I read about conspiracy theorists and why those conspiracies believe what so few believe. I think this passage sheds some light on the topic. The mainstream story we are told is a conspiracy theory, so why is the counter-narrative so preposterous from a rhetorical perspective? It is a peculiarly American political narrative that makes the conspiracy a credible story for our community. There are probably many arguments, beyond this note and my background, which illustrate this peculiarity. Analysis of conspiracy theories, which some of the writers are not guilty of omitting, needs to begin not with the conspiracy inquiries but rather an examination of conspiracy theory versus conspiracy theory. Why does one gain more salience than the other? That should be the starting point of these discussions.
The passage, however, should not be used only to counter the War on Terrorism critics, but should also be a lens through which we examine the War on Terrorism. Zulaika and Douglas seem particularly prescient as they could be writing 5 years later without having to change a single word from this passage. I could do some work and find the ramblings of our administration to highlight the passage in to-day’s context, but I will not. The passage is, I believe, an enthymeme: everyone knows the continuation without needing it to be told to them. If I am wrong about this, if you do not see the Bush criticism in the passage above then let me know and I will expound.