May 21, 1995 | ARLENE LEVINSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS
Readers of The Spotlight, a fear-mongering tabloid look-alike, were treated last September to a report describing Soviet-made tanks spotted on U.S. highways and railroads.
"American Citizens Want to Know … IS OUR TOWN NEXT? Why Are Strange Military Maneuvers Taking Place All Over America?” the headline screamed. The Spotlight never named an enemy. It never stated the presumed purpose of tanks and other vehicles shown in photographs. It only implied a nasty surprise, which would take place with President Clinton’s consent.
"Obviously, the military has done nothing about it, which leads many to suspect that its intentions are not altogether innocent,” The Spotlight said.
The Spotlight, which claims a weekly circulation of 100,000, comes from the Washington-based Liberty Lobby, an organization the Anti-Defamation League calls an anti-Semitic “network of hate.”
Like scores of publications, newsletters, Internet chatter, radio shows and other sources, the tabloid traffics in the folklore of the paranoid.
Here’s a sampling of beliefs offered in the popular literature of self-styled American patriots:
The conspiracies and imagined secrets spin out, endlessly and everywhere. Last fall, officials at Yellowstone National Park got calls from people asking if the United Nations was running the park.
"We assured them it isn't,” said Cheryl Matthews, a park spokeswoman in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo., “that it’s managed by the National Park Service, a federal agency, and it’s owned by the American people.”
Social psychologists and scholars of myth say these scary stories are invented and believed by people who need to explain their misfortunes and discomforts in life.
"Some level of our psyches that has not evolved at all since the caves . . . projects these demonic forces,” said Harold Schechter, an author and professor of American literature and culture at Queens College, City University of New York. “The bad things happen in your life because they do. But that’s a very, very hard concept to accept or live with.”
Conspiracy theories are a balm and an explanation wrapped neatly in one. “You can identify the monster,” he said.
The particular American variation, Schechter suggested, is “a secularized, politicized religion. These people have demonized the government.”
Those who call themselves patriots evidently take to frontier mythology, he said: “The rugged, gun-toting all-American hero. You're going to see yourself as the last of the true Americans.”
Anyone might be prone to believe such stories, said Philip Zimbardo, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and an expert on the social psychology of madness.
"There’s enough conspiracy theories floating around for a reasonable person to say they can't all be wrong,” he said.