Sometimes cats just die. This phrase pops into my mind whenever I hear someone try to explain an event by looking past the most plausible cause and suggesting complicated, plot-thickening scenarios that are not supported by any credible evidence.
The cat metaphor entered my personal lexicon about 20 years ago when a next-door neighbor came over to ask for help. She was an older woman who lived alone and promulgated a brooding, dour outlook on the world, and she was upset that day by the discovery of a lifeless cat under her back porch. She didn't know where it lived, and she solicited my assistance in preparing a burial site.
As I dug the hole in her backyard, she ruminated on the situation with increasing agitation. "I just saw him the other day," she said of the cat. "He looked perfectly healthy, and now he is dead. It is so sad. I don't understand." She shook her head, and I remained silent.
"What could have happened?" she wondered, and as I continued digging, the speculation took an ominous turn. "Perhaps he was poisoned," she mused. "Who would do such a thing, to poison an innocent cat?" The air around me felt heavy with suspicion. "What a cruel thing to do!" was her final summation. "Why did they do it? People are so cruel!" A deceased feline had led to a sinister conclusion and sweeping condemnation of humanity's dark side.
There was no indication of a pet poisoner in the area. I was pretty sure the cat had simply come to the end of the line and succumbed under the neighbor's porch. But I hear echoes of her indignant musing almost every day because we live in a culture that's become accustomed to the idea of shadowy operatives manipulating numerous aspects of everyday life in America.
The most recent example was the uproar over former US representative Mark Foley and his online relationships with congressional pages. Some conservative commentators questioned the timing of the news. Why did it come out just before a crucial election? Who was benefiting from the controversy? It had, they said, the appearance of a scheme to distract voters from important issues.
I heard similar complaints from pundits on the opposite end of the political spectrum in August, when John Mark Karr was brought back from Thailand as a suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey case. His minisaga temporarily pushed the Iraq war out of the media spotlight, which seemed like an obvious benefit to the Bush administration.
I'm not suggesting we take everything in life at face value. Political intrigue does occur in many elections. Intelligence agencies in this country and others are running covert operations. But there are also plenty of situations that don't need to be approached from an "X-Files" perspective. Just because something strange happens doesn't mean a conspiracy is under way.
Sometimes the whole truth goes public without any secret agenda, no backstory, and no sinister plot to unravel. Sometimes cats just die.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.