I blame Jon Ronson. There I was, a bored 26-year-old on a Sunday evening in late April 2001, lamenting the fact that TV was typically shit (before I truly appreciated Countryfile and The Antiques Roadshow), when I half-arsedly flicked to Channel 4 to watch something called The Secret Rulers of the World.
Alone in my room, before the distracting advent of social television viewing, and without the Internet sitting in the palm of my hand, I was utterly enthralled. It’s how we used to watch TV, remember? When the credits rolled on episode one – The Legend of Ruby Ridge – I dashed downstairs to tell my mum what I’d just watched, breathlessly informing her that the world isn’t how we imagine it to be. We’re being controlled by a shadowy cabal of international bankers! We’re heading for a fascist world government! She humoured me just long enough to briefly look up from the pages of Hello!.
In just under an hour it felt like everything I thought I knew about the world had unraveled before me, which was both confusing and exhilarating. Ronson’s five-part series and accompanying book (Them: Adventures with Extremists) completely changed my world view.
Three and a half months after the series finished, my birthday clashed, somewhat unexpectedly, with the world’s biggest terror attack. The bizarre and terrifying year that followed the devastating events of 9/11 – the mysterious and deadly anthrax attacks, George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’, the opening salvos of the global ‘War on Terror’, and the general climate of fear (remember the ridiculous panic surrounding “terror ship” the MV Nisha?) – only hastened my transformation into a conspiracy theorist. I spent the next eight years writing about and researching conspiracies.
My collection of books grew exponentially. Every Christmas my brother-in-law would hand me gifts with a smirk, joking that he’d bought me books and DVDs with titles, such as: Irene Handl: Inside Project MKUltra, Monty Don’s Gardens of the Illuminati, and Max Bygraves’ Singalongabohemiangrove. My growing obsession made me something of a laughing stock, but my appetite for information was insatiable.
I studied Mark Lombardi’s amazing constellation artworks in Global Networks, which detailed the links between global finance and international terrorism. I read Alexander Litvinenko’s Blowing up Russia and Daniele Ganser’s NATO’s Secret Armies: Operation GLADIO and Terrorism in Western Europe, and basically inhaled anything that punched a hole through the darkness of the known world to reveal the murky machinations beyond.
After reading The Octopus: Secret Government and The Death of Danny Casolaro on a flight to Cyprus, I landed at Larnaca International Airport in a deeply paranoid state. It felt like the baggage claim hall was made entirely of eyes; living walls of bulging, veiny eyeballs, darting every which way, with broken air conditioning that felt like hot, tobacco-infused breath tumbling down the back of my neck.
After a while I started to think that no one ever just died; people were ‘suicided’. What’s that? The Bee Gees’ Maurice Gibb dead at 53 after suffering a heart attack during an operation to remove an intestinal blockage? That’s what they want us to believe! Also, no terrorist attack – regardless of scale – ever took place without the suggestion that it was likely a ‘false flag‘ event.
So in essence, nothing believable happened for the best part of a decade. I had an explanation and a theory for everything. Sometimes I would scoff at news reports about terrorist attacks, cockily debunking the mainstream media’s lies and disinformation. It all seemed so obvious at the time. I’d worked it all out. I’d taken Morpheus’s red pill. In fact, I’d crushed hundreds of red pills, snorted the chalky debris, and used the discarded blister packs to create a foil ‘truth beret’.
In retrospect, my analytical and conspiratorial way of thinking about everything almost protected me – distanced me – from some truly horrific events during that period, such as: the Moscow theatre hostage crisis, the 2003 bombings in Istanbul and Casablanca, the Beslan school massacre, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, 7/7, and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The terrible list is almost endless. Spending my time trying to unpick these appalling acts of indiscriminate violence in order to answer the ‘cui bono?’ question meant that I never really had to engage with anything on an emotional level. It was always about dispassionately wading through witness accounts and media reports to expose inconsistencies and reinterpret the ‘official story’.
The last conspiracy piece I wrote was a trilogy of blog posts about the death of a high profile police officer, which received well over 100 comments (most of them anonymous). There were commenters who claimed to have known the deceased; one person who claimed to have found the body; another who said that my blog was “important” for reasons which couldn’t be divulged; a weirdly cryptic troll; and a woman involved in ‘psychic rescue’, who confirmed, psychically, that the police officer had been “bumped off” by the CIA. She wished me luck with my research but warned me “to be very careful what I print”.
“To go into the dark places needs some great protection and is not for dabblers,” she said.
It wasn’t the warning that stopped me in the end. I carried on writing and researching things for a couple of months, then I just stopped. I don’t really know why? I think everything had just become too exhausting. Searching for the so-called real agenda behind every terrorist attack and bold geopolitical manoeuvre can take its toll. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
There’s a scene that always stays with me from Oliver Stone’s The Doors, when a compilation of largely violent news footage flashes before the tearful eyes of a heavily bearded Jim Morrison, played by Val Kilmer. This showreel of horror includes a handcuffed Charles Manson; the aftermath of the My Lai massacre; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy; the attempted assassination of Alabama Governor George Wallace; and napalm laying waste to vast swathes of Vietnamese jungle, with nine-year-old Kim Phuc screaming in agony as she flees the bombed village of Trang Bang.
“I think I’m having a nervous breakdown,” says Morrison, as a single tear streaks down his cheek. The scene incorporates news footage from the turbulent year of 1968 through to the early 1970s. But watching that scene today, it resembles a standard 24-hour news cycle in 2016 – brutal, relentless and inescapable.
I almost wish I was still cocooned in that chrysalis of skepticism, viewing everything through the prism of conspiracy theories, because now I’m having to face a world I simply can’t explain. Charlie Hebdo; the Tunisia beach attack; The Bataclan massacre; bomb attacks in Brussels; Jo Cox’s assassination; and the Bastille Day attack. A man driving a fucking 19-tonne truck into a dense crowd of people – including children and babies in pushchairs – slaloming from side to side to maximise the carnage. How can that have happened?
It feels like the world’s on fire. I used to spend my time trying to establish who was fanning the flames, and why. But now I just want to know how we can douse them for good.