Conspiracy theoriesHow conspiracy theories can kill

Published 28 November 2018

Conspiracy theories, rampant in the United States, have an unusual power to motivate people to action. Some conspiracy theories are associated with various right-wing or left-wing ideologies, while others transcend ideology, like those surrounding the 9/11 attacks or the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Under the right circumstances, such theories can motivate people to violence, especially if the conspiracy theories single out specific people or organizations as the villains. Most extremist movements develop or depend on conspiracy theories to some degree. In the United States, extreme right-wing movements have a particularly close relationship to conspiracy theories.

HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” declared the post on the social media site Gab, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” 

Just minutes later, Robert Bowers, who is believed to be the author of that post, entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and opened fire on congregants, allegedly shouting “All Jews must die.” Before police were able to take him into custody, Bowers had killed 11 people and injured six more, including several officers. Bowers has been charged with dozens of federal and state crimes for the shooting rampage.

An examination of the posts and reposts on the Gab account attributed to Bowers suggests that Bowers is a white supremacist and vehement anti-Semite who believed in the common white supremacist conspiracy theory that Jews are engineering mass migration to Europe and the United States to pollute and eventually destroy the white race.

A few days prior to Bowers’ murderous attack, a package containing a pipe bomb was found in George Soros’s mailbox, near his home outside New York City. The package turned out to be one of at least 15 bombs allegedly mailed by a fanatical Donald Trump supporter from Florida, Cesar Sayoc, to a variety of public figures who have been outspoken in their opposition to President Trump. Luckily, the bombs were all intercepted and/or failed to explode. Sayoc currently faces five federal charges related to threats and explosives.

Why was Soros one of the targets? Soros, a wealthy philanthropist noted for donations to progressive causes, has long been the focus of right-wing conspiracy theories, many of them anti-Semitic in nature, which falsely accuse him of a wide range of nefarious activities. Over time, subscribers to such conspiracy theories have increasingly moved from explicitly anti-Semitic and anti-government fringe groups into the mainstream. In mid-October, for example, Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida inaccurately claimed that Soros was paying people to join the caravan of migrants who are traveling from Honduras to the United States.

Two terrorist attacks, two conspiracy theories.