You say conspiracy, I say 'oops'

From JFK to WMD, conspiracy theories intrigue Americans. But bumbling is usually the best explanation

I’m not supposed to share this with you. It is a secret I learned as I rose to loftier heights in the glamorous world of journalism.

Sometimes a government official would hand me a new piece of the puzzle and then disappear into the shadows of a parking garage. Other times, an older journalist would take me under his wing and share a tidbit. If you are a conspiracy buff, you might want to brace yourself for what I am about to divulge.

Everything you thought you knew… well, let’s cue the haunting piano music and imagine the late voice-over artist Don LaFontaine reading the script:
“In a world where the unexplained happens… Where what you suspect overshadows what you know… one man saw the answer. The secret? This spring, come to grips with... incompetence.”

I mean no disrespect to anybody, least of all me. I know incompetence well, having practiced it in fields such as dancing, French speaking, and attempted baking. Incompetence has its charms. A toddler is an incompetent walker, but those cute widdle steps are adorable. Dogs are incompetent at tasks such as basic hygiene, but they still deserve to have their ears scratched. A bumbling mobster can be comedy gold.

Incompetence is everyone’s starting position. There is no playbook outlining exactly what to do next. Starting at the top was Professor Harold Hill’s con-man approach in “The Music Man.” Bernie Madoff’s, too. But we actually have to learn our do-re-mi’s and then practice, practice, practice before we can field a marching band, get to Carnegie Hall, or duplicate Warren Buffett’s portfolio.

So if you love a good conspiracy theory, my secret is bound to disappoint you. The best conspiracies require scary masterminds in smoke-filled rooms, swirling their snifters and laughing diabolically.

Not that there isn’t a conspiracy going on somewhere. But most of the time, the unexplained can be explained by Napoleon’s trenchant observation: “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”

He would know. The cavalry charge by Marshal Ney against Lord Wellington’s center at Waterloo was a colossal failure. Ney wasn’t a British agent. He made a simple and devastating mistake that ruined the little emperor’s comeback.

You may dislike big government, big science, and big media. It’s a free country. There are lazy, honest, ruthless, and brilliant characters in these as in every profession. But when things go wrong or bias creeps in (I’m looking at you, University of East Anglia), it is most often because of a thoughtless act or petty politics, not because of orders from central command. Is bad behavior enough to invalidate a whole body of research or call into question the accepted view of history?

I was in Russia just after the collapse of the Soviet Union and interviewed a former Communist official. The old days, he said, were dangerous not so much because of the Kremlin’s quest to dominate the planet but its sheer incompetence, epitomized by Afghanistan, where for no clear reason Moscow felt it had to invade. It was a disaster. The Soviet knight, as John le Carré wrote in “The Russia House,” died in his armor.

From Pearl Harbor to the JFK assassination to 9/11 to weapons of mass destruction, it is much more interesting to dream up a conspiracy than to credit the standard explanation: Someone messed up. The Japanese fleet eluded detection. A deranged gunman fired on a motorcade. A small group of terrorists armed with box-cutters slipped past airport security. And everyone, including United Nations inspectors, misread Saddam Hussein on WMD.

Way too often events can be explained by guys in offices shrugging their shoulders and going “beats me” or “sounds good” and then ordering the Light Brigade off to its doom. Secret cabals are much too elegant an explanation for pratfalls and things that go bump in the night.

Yes, I admit my apologia for incompetence could be just another clever part of the vast conspiracy. I’m a member of the media cabal, after all.
John Yemma is the editor of 
The Christian Science Monitor.

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