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Are end-of-Earthers and conspiracy theorists that dangerous?

Why are many consumed with a sense of moral panic that conspiracy theorists constitute the next wave of terrorism?

There used to be an old joke in Canada that went as follows: “The world ends Tuesday at midnight; 12:30 in Newfoundland”. The humour lay in the fact that Canada’s easternmost province, the last to join Confederation in 1949, for some odd reason sets its clocks a half hour before Atlantic time.

I have lost track of how many ‘end of everything’, Armageddon-type novels and films there are, all of which are variations on the same theme. A ____ (pick one: asteroid, alien ship, virus, demi-God from the planet Xenox-7…) will enter the Earth’s atmosphere and destroy _____ (pick one: New York, London, the entire planet….) unless ________ (pick one: Bruce Willis, Bruce Willis, Bruce Willis, NOT Nicholas Cage!) rises to the occasion to save us.

I must admit that I am a fan – of sorts – of this genre of fiction even if we all know the ending: i.e. Bruce Willis rescues us from annihilation and dies in the process, but that is ok as he is somehow making up for being a ______ (pick one: bad parent, bad husband, bad citizen…). They are fun in an escapism kinda way.

Image result for bruce willis armageddon
Here’s Bruce just before he, wait for it…..dies! (Photo: Touchstone Pictures)

In truth, predictions of the end of everything have been around for a very long time. Many faiths were certain they knew when we would have to cash in all our chips, including Christianity (the notion of Armageddon comes up here), Hinduism (through the god Kalkin), and the Mayans (their calendar apparently said the last day was going to be in December 2012 – oops!!). Then there was the US engineer and architect Alfred Porta who was sure that a unique alignment of the planets would create dangerous sunspots and cause worldwide disasters on December 17, 1919 at approximately 8:31 AM (that doesn’t sound ‘approximate to me!).

He, too, was wrong.

We are inundated these days with those concerned or even obsessed with the future. Much of this is tied of course to COVID-19, the first true worldwide pandemic in a century. We are all getting tired of repeated lockdowns, not being able to travel, being separated from family and friends, and anecdotally mental health issues are exacerbating.

Conspiracy Theories

Together with this is a parallel phenomenon: conspiracy theories. While these are not new either, they are raising fears that they are posing a real danger to public safety. In other words, some are saying that the next big wave of violent extremism will emerge from those who think _____ (pick one or several: COVID is fake, Bill Gates is behind vaccinations, vaccinations don’t work, COVID is a punishment from your god of choice, Donald Trump was going to save the world…that last one is obviously fake since we all know that is Bruce Willis’ job!).

I’d like to push back a bit on this. It is always possible that conspiracies, whether they revolve around the end of everything or something more limited in nature, can lead a few to plan and execute acts of violence – the 2016 Comet Ping Pong ‘pizzagate’ affair was a scary example. Never say never as they say. Some of the participants of the recent January 6 riot at the US Capitol may also have believed in a whole host, or a subset, of conspiracy theories, although that crowd was a real proverbial dog’s breakfast.

But historically very few such people have done so. Most abandon their leaders or ideas once it becomes clear that there is no truth to either. Some may hang on as their sense of ‘belonging’ gives them a degree of certainty they crave. But to the best of my knowledge there are not a lot of cases where large numbers turn to terrorism. If I am missing something important please enlighten me!

Why am I bringing this up?

Simple. I am detecting a type of ‘moral panic’ in the minds of many: self-styled ‘experts’, commentators, average Joes and Jills, etc. We are seeing more and more reporting that we are on the cusp of a new wave of terrorism, usually attributed to far right actors, which conspiracy theorists are normally seen to associate to.

The problem is that we are already in a ‘wave’ of terrorism and have been for four decades. This wave goes by the name of Islamist terrorism and is showing no signs of slowing down, reports to the contrary notwithstanding (check out the Borealis This Week in Terrorism feature). We may very well see a spike in violence by the aforementioned far right extremists but it is very important to keep two things in mind:

a) these violent individuals and groups are unlikely to kill as many as the jihadis do; and

b) these people do NOT pose an existential threat to us, any more than the jihadis do.

The Takeaway

In the end I trust our protectors – security intelligence and law enforcement agencies – will do what is necessary to keep tabs on potentially violent movements from whatever part of the ideological spectrum, although I wonder where the resources will come from. I highly advise everyone to just calm down a bit, stop panicking over this burgeoning threat and stick to the facts.

Besides, learning about conspiracy theories is kinda fun. Anyone have a new Mayan calendar?

Read More on Conspiracy Theories

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of five books on terrorism.

3 replies on “Are end-of-Earthers and conspiracy theorists that dangerous?”

Hey, Phil, I really appreciated your piece. But your reference to Newfoundland in your opening paragraph prompted the recall of an amusing anecdote. It gives a hint of why SOME people for SOME reason(?) promote the craziest of ideas. I belong to Fogo Island, there, where the community of Fogo(amongst a dozen others) is the leading town. There is an ugly, but prominent, cliff there where a local branch of the Flat Earth Society has declared it to be one of the corners of the earth. You wouldn’t believe how many tourists in summer visit the site and take pictures!!. Needless to say those near by, who dish out burgers and fries( and beer) ,are having a whale of a time. John Carrick Greene, Ottawa

Hey! I was delighted with your piece. But, on the lighter side I have a little anecdote for you. And it might even provide a hint why SOME people have SOME reason(?) for subscribing to certain crazy beliefs. As I belong to Fogo Island(in Newfoundland which you mentioned in your first paragraph) I can tell you that there are many people in the community of Fogo(one of a dozen or so communities on that island)who are Flat Earthers. There is quite an outstanding, and ugly, cliff there, named Brimstone Head. They promote it in Fogo as one of the corners of the earth. You wouldn’t believe how many tourists in the summer months line up to take pictures of it! Needless to say those who dish out burgers and fries are having a whale of a time. John Carrick Greene(Ottawa).

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