The militias, evangelist Pat Robertson and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan share a common characteristic: They all thrive on painting evil conspiracies in high places.
The current details vary — from Jewish doctors planting AIDS in the African-American population to the American government itself blowing up the Oklahoma federal building. But neither the basic political conspiracy theory nor its causes have changed much throughout the ages.
Robertson demonstrated the agelessness of conspiracy theories when he cited the Illuminati plot in his 1994 book, "The Secret Kingdom." In 1776, a Bavarian professor formed a secret Masonic society, called the Illuminati to oppose theJesuits. It ceased to exist a few years later, but had a nice ring to it and has served conspiracy lovers ever since.
Some Federalists charged presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson with being a member of that hidden organization, which they said "spread infidelity, impiety and immorality." Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale no less, made a speech in 1798 in which he asked, "Shall our daughters become the concubines of the Illuminati?"
In the next century, one conspiracy theorist, William Carr, stretched the plot all the way back to the Crucifixion: "It was the Illuminati who hatched the plot by which Christ would be executed by the Roman soldiers. It was they who supplied the 30 pieces of silver used to bribe Judas."
In the 1920s, both Henry Ford and the Christian Science Monitor connected the Illuminati with "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." Father Charles Edward Coughlin did the same in the 1930s. In the 1960s, "Illuminati insiders" were tied to the civil rights movement by the John Birch Society. And now, Robertson is continuing this tradition.
The Illuminati has been a good image for conspiracies, suggesting an exotic, hidden center of power that manipulates everyone's life. When people feel undersiege and powerless, they are often pleased to be given a simple, evil target against which to direct their anger.
Conspiracy theories always require the complicity of some exotic group, such as the Jews or "international bankers" who, when named, turn out to be Rothschilds, Loebs and Lehmans. But it has not always been the Jews. In 19th century America, the Vatican was more often cited as the center of conspiracy. Catholic buildings were burned down, and Catholic homes searched for arms in order to forestall the "Papist plot."
The current militias have named the U.S. government as the central conspirator. Americans have always been wary of big government — except during deep economic depressions or war. Absent those conditions, the distrust has risen again. Sometimes this is healthy. But government bureaucracy is usually more capable of creating confusion than conspiracy. As a result, a good conspiracy theory usually requires more precise targets, such as ethnic groups engaged insecretly manipulating their government.
While Jewish plots took center stage in the first half of this century, they are less often invoked in the United States today. Of course, Farrakhan and his ilk are still trying to keep the image alive. But perhaps American Jews have lost some of their conspiracy-usefulness because they have become too well-known and well-placed in an integrated nation. Even when Robertson raises the image of the Illuminati and of international bankers, he carefully avoids mentioning Jews.
However, the genius of conspiracy theory is the idea that the hidden evil force does not play by the rules; therefore, those who are rooting out such an evil aren't required to play by the rules either. Anything goes, including revoking democratic procedures and engaging in terrorism. That is why, as the conspiracy birds gather, we need the anti-terrorism laws now proposed by — yes — our government. And that is why Jews, whose security is so closely tied to the democratic process, must continue to distrust any man or militia offering a conspiracy theory to society's ills — even if the Jews are not yet mentioned.
The writer is director emeritus of Brandeis University's Nathan Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy. He is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.