This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Conspiracy theories rooted in racist or anti-Semitic beliefs seem to have inspired the shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the murder of Dr. George Tiller, who performed late-term abortions, and other recent attacks.

My guest, Chip Berlet, tracks racist and anti-Semitic groups, paramilitary groups and groups that believe in conspiracy theories. He's just written a paper called "Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization and Scapegoating." It's published by Political Research Associates, which investigates extremist hate groups. The paper is available on their Web site, publiceye.org.

Berlet has been with the group since the early 1980s. He started writing his paper toward the end of 2008, during the presidential campaign, when he saw that Barack Obama's popularity was creating a backlash from white supremacists.

Chip Berlet, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now the murder of the guard at the Holocaust Museum, you say that shows why it's a mistake to ignore bigoted conspiracy theories. Can you expand on that?

Mr. CHIP BERLET (Author): The man who gunned down the guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, on his Web site, had six chapters of a book in which he went back all the way to the Civil War to explain his view that there was a conspiracy of blacks and Jews to take over the money supply of the United States and create wars and essentially keep white men as sort of captives to bleed them dry through all kinds of schemes and conspiracies.

So what we have here is someone who believed in a vast conspiracy. He had a racist and anti-Semitic view of how the conspiracy operated, and he felt that the time now was to act, that things were getting out of control with the election of a black president. And his ideas about what needed to be done to save America, it's this combination of demonization and dualism and scapegoating and this apocalyptic idea that time is running out and you have to act now, that when you infuse that with a conspiracy theory of who the bad folks are, it can lead to violence.

MARTIN: Well you know, the murderer of the guard at the Holocaust Museum, there was a note in his car that was found, and the note said Obama was created by Jews. Obama does what his Jew owners tell him to do. Is this a common conspiracy theory now among racists and anti-Semites that Obama is controlled by the Jews?

Mr. BERLET: Well, it goes all the way to the idea of the carpetbaggers, which after the Civil War were often seen as Jewish merchants coming down to the South. And there developed an idea among white supremacists who wanted to restore the slave South that what we had here was that the Civil War had been created by the Rothschild banking family as a way to bleed America dry and to create a central banking system.

And actually in - Mr. Brunn, the man who attacked the Holocaust Museum, details this in his study, where he talked about the Illuminati, this group that is supposedly behind the Freemasons, were in league with the Jews and the B'nai B'rith to launch the Civil War and establish the Federal Reserve.

And we know that Mr. Von Brunn had actually been arrested for attempting to arrest members of the Federal Reserve many years ago. So yes, and especially after World War II, when you had black GIs coming back and saying, you know, we have rights, let's stand up for our rights, and developing, you know, the basis of what became the civil rights movement. And all across the South, the people who wanted to preserve segregation then reinterpreted this conspiracy so that they could explain blacks getting positions of power and privilege, being appointed to various positions, rising in various industries, getting involved in politics - they could explain that actually blacks were still inferior, but they were being put in these positions of power by crafty Jews. And that then became the major white-supremacist conspiracy theory in America.

GROSS: And I guess part of the evidence that people who believe this now about Obama, that he's controlled by the Jews, part of the evidence they would use is that his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel - Jewish.

Mr. BERLET: Right, wow, there you go, proof.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BERLET: And in fact, there's a current conspiracy theory that it was a group of Jews and communists in Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago, that had actually groomed Obama and arranged for his election as president.

Now, you know, I used to live in Chicago. I know lots of those folks. And you know, I'm sure that would be their dream, but I don't think actually like seven 60-year-old guys on the south side of Chicago actually got Obama elected.

So it's this oversimplification of how politics and the economy and world events happen, reduced down to a very simple, dualistic, you know, no shades of grey. There are bad people, they are doing bad things to us, and that's what's dangerous about combining conspiracy theories with this kind of bigoted scapegoating.

GROSS: Now you've mentioned that a lot of today's conspiracy theories date back hundreds of years ago to the conspiracy theory about the Illuminati. Who were the Illuminati, and where do they figure into all of this?

Mr. BERLET: The Illuminati were, in fact, a study group in Bavaria. And it was essentially a group of people who wanted to promote the ideas of the Enlightenment at a time when revolutionary fervor was sweeping Europe and the United States. And so you had this guy, Weishaupt, who pulled together these thinkers to talk about a new society built upon Enlightenment themes.

And a lot of these themes were being discussed in this country by the founders of our country and certainly led to the French Revolution, which you know, had some negative outcomes. But what happened was that in the late 1700s, after the Illuminati group had been banned by the Bavarian government, and it had collapsed, two writers - one in Scotland, one in France - wrote these books claiming that all of this revolutionary fervor, which was displacing the church-state oligarchies, which they thought were proper and God-given, were created by the Illuminati group, who sent agents into the Freemasons, and it was the Freemasons, then, who spawned all of these revolutions across Europe and in the United States.

And then 100 years later, that same theory was re-crafted into the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which argued that the Illuminati were not the final controlling cabal, it was actually these rabbis in this secret cell of control.

So it goes back to the late 1700s and then gets re-articulated in the early 1900s as the protocols of the rabbis.

GROSS: And who were the Freemasons?

Mr. BERLET: Freemasons are a brotherhood. It's a fraternal society that came out of the people who built the cathedrals in Europe. And they essentially were free thinkers and, at a time when no one knew mathematics or geometry, the church, the Catholic Church, taught the Masons all of these advanced mechanical skills and the ability to use math and geometry to build these wonderful cathedrals that still are throughout Europe.

And because they were so well-trained, they began to talk about philosophical ideas, and with the development of industrial capitalism, they began to attract people because they were builders - somebody wanted a factory built to weave wool, somebody had the money to loan - and the Freemasons became a fraternal organization which attracted very powerful people in a community so that they could build buildings. And they, then, became blamed for creating this wave of Enlightenment revolution.

And to their credit, I mean, the Freemasons did, in fact, pursue Enlightenment ideas because of their education and training and their history, and were among the first fraternal organizations to allow Jews to become full members.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting. Brunn, the murderer of the guard at the Holocaust Museum, he's almost like a walking encyclopedia of current conspiracy theories. Another belief that he had is that Obama has no documentation, no records, no paper trail, including no birth certificate, and there's a whole conspiracy-theory movement around the fact - the fact that they believe, which isn't a fact at all, that Obama has no birth certificate. Therefore he's not an American citizen. Therefore he can't really be serving as president.

Mr. BERLET: That's right.

GROSS: How did that movement get started? Do you know?

Mr. BERLET: Sure. It came out of a group of people who had already believed in a whole range of conspiracy theories about duplicity and evil-doing by liberals. And basically, it arrived because somebody said you know, there's these different documents going around, and they don't seem to match the Hawaiian form that is mostly used.

And then they did this huge leap, which is because we can't explain these discrepancies in our mind, we are concluding that Obama actually is not a U.S. citizen. And that's the classic aspect of all conspiracy thinking, is that there's this leap of conjecture into fact. And then they say well, it's a fact, therefore, we have to, you know, make sure, first of all, that he can't run for president. And when they failed in that, they then launched a whole campaign to prevent him from being inaugurated. Then during the inauguration, when there was a foul-up of the oath of office, within minutes, all over the Internet, there were these claims: Proof - here's evidence that he's not really a citizen because he didn't really take the oath of office.

Just yesterday, I was listening to a right-wing radio show on the Web, where they were saying everyone now has to call their congressional offices and demand that Obama be removed because he's not legally president.

GROSS: So take something like this birth-certificate thing, you know, the belief that Obama doesn't have a birth certificate, therefore he can't be legally serving as president. How do you think the media did with that? Do you think that there were parts of the media that fed into it, or do you think the media did a good job in disproving it? And what would you recommend the media do, pay attention to it and try to disprove something like that or ignore it because it's just, you know, wacky conspiracy thinking?

Mr. BERLET: Well, I don't think ignoring it is going to help. I do think that most of the major media dealt with this very quickly and said you know, we've looked into this, it's not true, and then they left it alone. But what they failed to pay attention to was this growing subculture in the U.S. - after the inauguration, it continued - of people who felt that the inauguration of Obama was going to be followed by tyranny - they were going to collect all the guns. And that led to a guy in Pittsburgh shooting three police officers because he thought they were coming to collect his guns - and they died. He killed three police officers.

So there have been nine murders since the inauguration connected to white-supremacist conspiracy theories.

GROSS: So three were the police, who you just mentioned; one of them was Dr. Tiller, who was murdered because he performed abortions, and particularly late-term abortions; and a fifth was the Holocaust guard, Stephen Johns, the Holocaust Museum Guard. Who were the others?

Mr. BERLET: In January, the day after the inauguration, in Brockton, Mass., a white man killed two Cape Verdean citizens because he felt that non-whites, Hispanics and Jews were creating a new world order and planned to, you know, destroy the white race - and two people died in that shooting.

Then in Arizona in May, late May, a gang of racist vigilantes is charged with having stormed a house with guns drawn and killing Raul Flores and his nine-year-old daughter. Basically, this is people linked, allegedly, to the Minuteman American Defense, one of these border-protection vigilante groups, and they felt that this person was, they claimed, a well-known drug runner. So they attacked his house. They were going to kill everyone and then steal the drugs and money and fund their border watch. That certainly was a heinous idea.

And the guy who killed Dr. Tiller came out of the Sovereign Citizen movement, which has a white supremacist view of constitutional law, in which white people have natural citizenship and all other people have legislated citizenship or regulatory citizenship.

So it goes on. So, a total of nine people since the inauguration.

GROSS: And you think that this is connected to having an African-American president and that it's just like increasing the fear among white supremacists about what's happening to our country?

Mr. BERLET: Well, it's that and a bunch of other factors that have all come together. It's the idea of, you know, the economy is in turmoil, and the future is shaky. That makes people nervous. It comes in a background of white supremacy and anti-Semitism that floats around the society, and... So just having a black president and having a bad economy doesn't explain it.

It's having a black president and a bad economy, and basically the backlash against a lot of the liberation movements - whether it's the women's rights movement, it certainly was the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement -all of these things have affected how, you know, straight, white, Christian men in American society have their sense of being displaced. And not all straight, white, Christian men - I'm one - but many of the folks like me out there really are worried that they no longer have a role in American society.

And then you have, you have to admit, the right-wing pundits who are on the airwaves, day after day, night after night, picking out scapegoats and saying America's being destroyed by the liberal Democrats. America is being destroyed by Muslims. It's being destroyed by Arabs. It's being destroyed by illegal, quote-unquote, Mexican immigrants.

You know, gay marriage will be the end of America as we know it. Abortion is murder, then act like it. And we have people actually naming Dr. Tiller and then pretending that their naming of him as a person who is evil has nothing at all to do with someone deciding it's time to kill the man.

Now legally, they might be right, but morally, don't you think, a lot of these folks like O'Reilly and Ann Coulter and Lou Dobbs and a whole range of people who constantly are demonizing individuals and groups and pointing them out as destroying America, don't you think they have some responsibility for the milieu that feeds this violent tendency? I certainly do.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chip Berlet, and he's written a new paper called "Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization and Scapegoats," and he's been following the extremist fringes, anti-Semitic groups, racist groups, white supremacist groups, for decades, since the 1980s. He's senior analyst at Political Research Associates, which collects and analyzes information on extremist, white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is Chip Berlet. He's senior analyst at Political Research Associates, which collects and analyzes information on extremist, white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups, and he's just written a new report called "Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization and Scapegoating."

You were talking about how you think the media, right-wing media, feeds these conspiracy theories, and the right-wing pundits don't pull the trigger.

Mr. BERLET: No, they don't.

GROSS: They don't whisper in someone's ear and say you, you go out and shoot somebody. So how do you think they contribute? Like what role do you think, you know, extremist broadcasters play in the kind of hate crimes we've been saying?

Mr. BERLET: Who will rid me of this troublesome priest? said King Henry of Becket. And a few days later, his friends killed him in church, just like Dr. Tiller. This is historically well known, that if you have a society in which certain high-profile people are constantly pointing at a scapegoat, that the potential for someone attacking that scapegoat is increased greatly. This is basic social science.

Now there is no direct causal link, but there is created a milieu in which individuals who are predisposed already to not like the individual who's being scapegoated or the group being scapegoated, and it moves them to action through a process that's called apocalyptic aggression.

Apocalyptic just means there's a struggle between good and evil, time is running out, it's going to happen soon, it'll change history, hidden truths will be revealed, act now. Get them before they get us. That's apocalyptic aggression.

People are being wound up and told that there is a handful of people destroying America, and you know, really somebody should do something. And then somebody does something, and these guys are surprised?

Now I've got to say, this kind of scapegoating and demonization, it happens on the left, too. And a lot of this direct mail folks get from Washington, which says you know, Christian right is out to destroy America. Well, I don't agree with the Christian right, but I don't really think they want to destroy America.

So there's a lot of this hyperbolic rhetoric that we've come to accept, and it just happens, right now, that on the political right, especially since they lost the last election, it's been really ratcheted up to a level that creates a very, very dangerous environment.

GROSS: Now, Rush Limbaugh blamed the murder of Stephen Johns, the Holocaust Museum guard, he blamed that murder on the left.

Mr. BERLET: Right.

GROSS: What logic is he using there?

Mr. BERLET: He's using a logic that developed in the 1920s, 1930s, when early analysts looked at Hitler's Nazi movement, which was the National Socialist German Workers' Party, and they recognized, actually true, that both Italian fascism and German Nazism came out of a group of socialist ideas who wedded it to nationalism.

What they neglected to then analyze was that once it formed into a major mass movement, it deleted all of the socialist aspects except for what the right wing would call collectivism, the idea that the state was imposing collective decisions.

That later became known as totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt wrote brilliantly about how it could be seen in both Hitler and Stalin, and what's happened is that these right-wing pundits and a whole lot of right-wing libertarians argue that Hitler, therefore, was a leftist because he was a collectivist and he came out of this socialist grouping.

Now, most major scholars of fascism today look at it and say, okay, there were socialist roots, but it turned into something else. And that when it gained state power or sought state power, it basically worked with the political right.

So you know, what we have here is an attempt to take a very marginal political viewpoint about fascism being a left-wing phenomena, and since Von Brunn was a national socialist, he was a neo-Nazi, therefore it's a leftist outlook. But it simply reduces 50, 60, 70 years of social science and brushes it aside and imposes this very narrow view from the '30s and '40s.

GROSS: Does this explain, in part, why people on the far right have been calling President Obama a fascist and a socialist and almost using the words interchangeably?

Mr. BERLET: Exactly. And in fact it goes back, really, in terms of a public accusation, to the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt because, of course, he was, in building a larger government role in American society, which was seen and identified at the time as collectivist - and you had really the earliest coalition of right-wing economic libertarians, like von Mises and others, with a Christian-right movement, which felt that FDR was imposing a kind of collectivism and socialism that was identical to fascism in Italy and Germany, which would strip away from America its manly ability to stand up and be God's country.

And so you had this early coalition between the economic libertarians of the right and the Christian right. After World War II, they tended to drop the more anti-Semitic aspects in the major reconstruction of the conservative movement in the 1950s.

GROSS: Chip Berlet will be back in the second half of the show. He's the senior research associate at Political Research Associates. His new paper about conspiracy theories, "Toxic to Democracy," is available on their Web site, publiceye.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Chip Berlet, who has written a new paper about modern conspiracy theories called, "Toxic To Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating." He's the senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, which tracks extremist hate groups and paramilitary groups.

Now earlier we were talking about how the person alleged to have shot the Holocaust Museum guard was kind of like a walking encyclopedia of current conspiracy theories. What about Scott Roeder who is the alleged murderer in the case of Dr. George Tiller? Did he subscribe to a lot of conspiracy theories too?

Mr. BERLET: Well he had to subscribe to one because he had handmade his own license plate, which is what sovereign citizens do, and it was one of his first interactions with the law. Sovereign citizens are people who believe that the Constitution and federal law in general stipulates that the sheriff is the highest law enforcement officer that can actively function on the state level. Therefore, they reject federal and state laws that require driver's licenses, license plates, they don't believe in regulations regarding you know, forestry, or the environment, or hunting, or fishing. And they basically track back this idea.

And even if they themselves are not aware of it, it comes out of a very white supremacist interpretation of constitutional law, in which white people are the natural citizens of the United States, and those people who are given citizenship through amendments to the Constitution do not have the same rights as white people. Thus, black people in America are second-class citizens.

So that's conspiracy theory involving bizarre, abhorrent, and ridiculous theories of law that are believed to be true. And the conspiracy aspect is that it is conspiracy of secret elites that imposes these federal laws and regulations on us when, in fact, the Constitution and the amendments don't allow for it at all. So we're living in a conspiracy to deprive us of our natural rights.

GROSS: So how do those theories about secret elites connect with the fact that he killed somebody because they performed abortions? How do the abortions and the secret elites connect?

Mr. BERLET: Well it's the secret elites who allow abortion to occur at all because we all know it's evil and it offends God, and if abortion is therefore murder then folks should act like it. And so there's - it's hard to tell with Mr. Roeder because all of the details haven't come out. But he appears to believe a set of ideas that comes out of perhaps something called Christian Identity, which has an elaborate theory regarding Jewish control in which, believe it or not, Christian men, white men in America are the real Jews and the people who claim to be Jews are fakes. And that's why Christian Identity calls itself identity because your real identity is one of the chosen people as a white man in America.

It can get very convoluted. So there are indications that he believes either Christian Identity or a similar kind of belief system in which white Christian men in America have a very special role to play in America to restore America's purity. And to restore America's purity from this conspiracy of liberals, and secular humanists, and maybe Jews, what we have to do is stop abortion and stop gay rights because these are an offense to God through the Bible. And so this is particular militant Christian wing of the anti-abortion movement comes to believe that ending abortion and preventing gay rights is a mandate from God in order to prepare America for its role as the shining city on a hill in which will allow for Christ to return in his second coming.

GROSS: You know, I can barely keep up with all these conspiracies that you're spinning out. There's - it's just such an amazing set of world views.

Mr. BERLET: Yes. My wife's pretty tired of hearing about them. I assure you...

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Mr. BERLET: ...after 30 years.

GROSS: At least you don't subscribe to these theories. You're just, you know...

Mr. BERLET: No, I don't.

GROSS: ... keeping track of them. The alleged murderers of Dr. George Tiller and Stephen Johns, the Holocaust Museum guard, they've been described by many people as lone wolves. Yet, you're describing them as, you know, identifying with specific groups that subscribe conspiracy theories. I don't know if they were like, card-carrying members so to speak, of these groups or not, but does the lone wolf theory ring true to you?

Mr. BERLET: Well, it's a term that has a very precise meaning among folks who track these groups. Essentially, you know obviously white supremacists, since the end of the Civil War and even before, have been carrying out armed attacks against people of color. No surprise there. It happens periodically. There's a kind of a constant drumbeat of attacks and violence that is tracked now by the federal government - and good that it does.

What you have with the lone wolf theory is that somebody who can be in a milieu, somebody who may be in an organization, but isn't in a cell planning violence may decide that the time has come to act. And they act without asking permission. They decide the time is now and they, without permission and without telling anyone, go out and commit an act of symbolic violence. They become martyrs to the causes essentially. And that's what a lone wolf is.

There's another thing called leaderless resistance - is when a small cell spins out of a movement and it turns into a cell that gets its instructions from propaganda. And this is an important issue because this is what's happening around the world with the development of new communications technologies. So you can have the idea - ideologues pointing out whom is the scapegoat, who is the target, who needs to be removed from the society. And then a cell that is unconnected to others in the movement will then, on its own, decide to launch an attack. And that's leaderless resistance.

And then you have the classic cell structure, which people in a movement are in touch with the leadership and they simply step outside the movement and launch attacks. And we saw that in the '90s a lot, where you had people who left Aryan Nation and the Order, and other white supremacists groups and gunned down a Denver talk-show host, blew up the home of a minister doing human rights work, engaged in bank robberies. So you have these three forms: the traditional cell structure violence, you have the lone wolf, and you have leaderless resistance. And the government is getting it.

And this is the problem with the right-wing extremism report that the government issued: it doesn't separate these different forms of violence out well enough, and it doesn't make it clear enough that, you know, the First Amendment does protect the right of people to say certain things and hold certain views. And that people who have conservative and right-wing views are not on some sort of slippery slope towards violence just like people on the left are not on some slippery slope to violence. So we need a more sophisticated government understanding. The report had some very good details about the forces at play here. But its understanding of the First Amendment was pretty shallow.

GROSS: The report that I think you're referring to is a Homeland Security Department report, an internal report, that was issued in April warning that current conditions resemble those in the early '90s when there was a rise in right-wing extremism - and this was also the era that the building in Oklahoma City was bombed.

Mr. BERLET: Yes. That's correct. But here's the problem: we now have a department that looks at extremism and radicalization. What do those words mean: extremism and radicalization? Extremists are people that folks in the center don't like. Martin Luther King was called an extremist and he turned it around in his letter from a Birmingham jail and said, wow, why are you calling me an extremist when I'm standing up for rights? So the word extremist and the word radical in American history has a very bad heritage. It has been used throughout American history all the way back to the late 1700s to round up dissidents across the political spectrum.

So I guess what I'm saying is as much as I agree that there is an increase in the possibility of right-wing violence based on white supremacy and anti-Semitism in the current period that we're in, and it scares me, I'm also scared by the oversimplification and reduction of the government report where it's not clear they know how to make a distinction between the government preventing violence and prosecuting violence, and the government preventing radical ideas that they don't like.

GROSS: If you were consulting with Homeland Security, what would you tell them?

Mr. BERLET: That the terms extremism and radicalism don't tell you what's going on. You know there are terms that are less opaque and vague than extremism and radicalism. Let's start using those terms, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia against immigrants, Islamophobia, Arabophobia. You know there are people who are supremacists. There are people who are bigots. There are people who see America being destroyed by a group they don't like. We have names for these people. To simply call them radicals and extremists doesn't teach anybody what the problem is. The problem is bigotry and dualism where we divide the world into a good us and bad them.

The problem is when we scapegoat our problems on some group we don't like. The problem is demonization that says you know they're going destroy it, they're evil, and they may even be in league with the devil and the end times. And that's what leads to this outbreak of apocalyptic aggression on people who already believe these conspiracy theories about secret elites and tyranny.

GROSS: Are there things that you think American law enforcement could be doing that it's not doing to prevent anti-Semites, white supremacists, and other extremist hate groups from carrying out acts of violence?

Mr. BERLET: Well, let's look at the idea of a lone wolf. Let's look at von Brunn. He double-parked. He got out of his car. He walked towards the museum. I've walked those steps myself many times as I use the library there. And he pulled up a rifle and began shooting. How are you going to prevent that if, unless you have a police state? Unless we lock down the entire country, we have armed guards on every street corner with automatic weapons, with cameras on every telephone pole. You know, this is the price we pay for having a democracy. But there's an obligation we have.

We keep saying what are the police going to do? What is the government going to do? And I'm saying what are we going to do as a society? When are we going to stand up across the political spectrum and say enough, and start talking about this in a public discussion where we really make it clear that people who demonize and scapegoat on our public airwaves should be sent back to where they belong, which is standing on a street corner with a shopping cart full of pamphlets trying to hand them out.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chip Berlet. And he's been tracking extremists, white supremacist groups, racist groups, anti-Semitic groups for decades. He's a senior analyst at Political Research Associates which collects and analyzes information on white supremacists and anti-Semitic and other racist groups. And he's written a new report called, "Toxic To Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: We're talking about conspiracy theories. And my guest, Chip Berlet is a senior analyst at Political Associates which collects and analyzes information on white supremacists and anti-Semitic and other extremist hate groups. And he's written a new report called, "Toxic To Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating."

We've talked about some of the conspiracy theories that come from the far right. But there are also some conspiracy theories that come from the left. I think one of those is the one about September 11th, that the people actually responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were our own government. Would you talk about that conspiracy theory?

Mr. BERLET: Yeah. I've written about that as well and certainly gained a very vocal audience of people in what they call the 9/11 Truth Movement. Basically this is broken down into different categories. So there are people who think it was the U.S. government, and then there are the people who think it was Jews controlling the U.S. government - they're the minority. I have to say in fairness to the 9/11 Truth Movement, they have tried to keep some of the anti-Semitism out of it with varying degrees of success, but good for them that they did that. Within the main body of the 9/11 Truth Movement, there's the let-it-happen and the made-it-happen crowd. And the let-it-happen crowd thinks that the government under Bush knew this was going to happen and let it happen to use it as political leverage for both domestic and foreign policy.

For the made-it-happen people, they think that it actually involved, you know, not a group of Islamic terrorists, but a planting of bombs in the World Trade Center by the U.S. government. And then the U.S. government sent a missile to hit the Pentagon. And there's some very well-known people on the political left who promote these kinds of ideas and these theories, and it's really been very divisive. The 9/11 Truth Movement, again, uses these ideas that there's a good us and a bad them. So it really demonizes the federal government in a way that is oversimplified and doesn't really talk about any kinds of real struggles. It doesn't look at systems or structures or institutions of power, and it reduces, you know, these troubles we have in our society, in domestic and foreign policy, to things that are simply solved by unearthing and uncovering this cabal of evil people after which I suppose we have, you know, heaven on Earth. It's a kind of millennial idea of social change, because they don't explain, if they find the eight bad guys who did 9/11, how they're going to get rid of economic disparity or racism or sexism or homophobia or anti-Semitism or, you know, environmental depredation or global warming.

Apparently they think if we find these evil folks, that all of that will be solved, just like the folks who thought they knew there was a government conspiracy or sinister conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination, thought exposing that would solve all of our problems. It's magical thinking, essentially.

GROSS: Do you ever feel like you're going to go crazy, absorbing yourself so much, you know, so intensely and for so long in really fringy conspiracy theories?

Mr. BERLET: Oh yeah. You know, I have goldfish outside in a pool. They're Shubunkins, for those who care. My wife and I garden a lot. We go on hikes. It's helpful to work in a group. I've worked at Political Research Associates for, you know, over 25 years and it's great to be with a group of people who can say, Chip, you know, you're getting a little obsessed, don't you think? Or we have like the atrocity of the week thing we put up on the wall, you know, the most horrendous thing that came in through the mail that week. So you know, it's a little bit like working in an emergency trauma center where, you know, you develop a kind of sense of humor about it.

GROSS: What was one of the recent atrocities of the week?

Mr. BERLET: Oh, you know, celebrating the attack on the Holocaust Museum because it exposed the true nature of the Jewish conspiracy. That came off the Internet.

GROSS: Wow. Chip, because you've been studying conspiracy movements and hate groups for decades - have you ever become a target yourself?

Mr. BERLET: I think that goes with the territory. I was once told by the Chicago police that someone has been hired to mess with my car. That was a little creepy. Certainly - I lived in a neighborhood being organized by neo-Nazis and occasionally, you know, they would come up and threaten me, but you know, that was, again, to be expected. I was once sued for $33 million by the Lyndon LaRouche group, but I didn't have it and he lost the case eventually anyway. So you know, that's the way it is.

GROSS: All right. Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BERLET: It's a pleasure.

GROSS: Chip Berlet is the senior research associate at Political Research Associates. His new paper about conspiracy theories is called "Toxic to Democracy." You'll find a link to it on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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