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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

OPINION:

Conspiracy theories tend to live forever; think of those surrounding the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. Therefore, what recently took place in an Austin, Texas, courtroom is remarkable and to be celebrated: The rare likely collapse of a conspiracy theory.

Alex Jones, a motormouth endorsed by former President Donald Trump (“amazing”) and Joe Rogan (“hilarious”), refused to accept that Adam Lanza killed 26 and injured two at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012. It was not the deadliest school massacre in American history; rather, “no one died.” The gunman, victims and parents were all “crisis actors” who followed the Obama administration’s carefully rehearsed script to win public support for stricter gun-control laws.


Over nearly a decade, Mr. Jones won a large audience and made a fortune by hawking his inversion of reality. He also caused great pain, especially to the parents of the 20 slaughtered children. Jones-inspired conspiracy theorists mocked the parents, threatened them, harassed them and even shot up their homes. In response to what they called a “living hell,” Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, parents of a murdered 6-year-old, brought a defamation lawsuit against Jones.

Surprisingly, on the final day of testimony, Mr. Jones acknowledged that the shooting was “100% real” and conceded that his claim of a hoax was “absolutely irresponsible.” He also apologized: “I unintentionally took part in things that did hurt these people’s feelings and I’m sorry for that.”

But if Mr. Jones hoped this last-minute concession would save him money, he erred, for the parents won $4.1 million in compensatory damages and $45.2 million in punitive damages, amounts that Mr. Jones’ great wealth just might be able to cover. (A plaintiffs’ expert witness testified that he made $62 million in 2021.)

Nor is Mr. Jones alone in the dock. In 2015, James Fetzer and Mike Palecek published “Nobody Died at Sandy Hook: It Was a FEMA Drill to Promote Gun Control.” In 2019, a jury fined Mr. Fetzer $450,000 for falsely claiming that Lenny Pozner, the father of Noah, a student killed at the school, filled out a false death certificate for his son. Mr. Palecek released a statement of remorse: “The Court has ruled that the death certificate of Noah Pozner is not a fabrication … I accept the Court’s ruling without appeal and I apologize for any resulting distress that I may have caused.”

The triple-whammy of a conspiracy theory found false in courts of law, incurring large monetary fines, and admissions of falsehood is as important as it is rare, and for two reasons.

First, by penalizing those who defame and torment the victims of an atrocity, the Sandy Hook trials cleanse the body politic. They rebuke the irresponsible, invoke accountability and impose a cost on fact-free accusations. As Mr. Pozner states, the damages awarded him send “a message to hoaxers and conspiracy theorists and others, who seek to use the Internet to revictimize and terrorize vulnerable people, that their actions have consequences.” 

The trials provide a welcome interlude of sobriety and sanity in a time of incessant accusations of “fake news” and rampant conspiracy theories, coming from both the right (e.g., claims the 2020 U.S. presidential election was rigged) and the left (claims of Russian cooperation with the Trump campaign in 2016). All sides need not just to celebrate this achievement but also to build on it.

Second, and more profoundly, the Sandy Hook trials might actually terminate a conspiracy theory, an exceptional occurrence, for they usually fester and grow over time. The debate over major incidents — the violent suppression of the Knight Templars in 1312, the eruption of the French revolution in 1789, the Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s, or the attacks on 9/11 — tend to live on forever. Likewise, suspicions of alleged conspirators such as Jews, Rosicrucians, Knights Templar, Jesuits, Freemasons, Philosophes, Illuminati and Jacobins can continue on for centuries, even millennia.

While conspiracy theorists have a talent to deny the obvious facts (just wait for the claim to surface that Mr. Jones never apologized; a double did so) and pessimists see their message enduring, the Sandy Hook obsession will now likely be discredited and wither away. Further lawsuits against Mr. Jones, Mr. Fetzer, Mr. Palecek and other fantasists will help further to nail this particular coffin.

Remember always that conspiracy theories are not some harmless diversion but horrid reversals of the truth that too often create a living hell.

• Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is the author of two books on conspiracy theories. 


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