Essay: Connecting the Dots

April 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

(Theme from "X-Files" playing)

CLARENCE PAGE: Perhaps the truth is in here, the Whitney Museum of American Art. That’s what an FBI agent thought when he called the museum shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He wanted to see the final work of the late Mark Lombardi, an artist who found dots and connected them, drawing links between global finance, political figures, and international terrorism, from the Vatican Bank to the Iran- Contra scandal and beyond.

The results were constellations of conspiracy, nebulas of influence, penumbras of paranoia. Before he committed suicide in March, 2000, he linked candidate George W. Bush to Osama bin Laden, whose family was related by oil deals to George W. Bush and his father. Who knows? Were he still alive, Lombardi might have drawn a new line to John Kerry. After all, both belonged to Skull and Bones, a secret society at Yale– another connection. But what does the connection mean? Anything? That’s the trouble with connecting dots. The mere existence of a connection does not tell us why the connection exists. It only raises more questions and arouses our appetite for answers.

DONALD RUMSFELD: You’ve been asked to try to connect the dots after the fact.

CLARENCE PAGE: Connecting dots has taken on a new urgency in today’s world. Congressional inquiries and independent panels want to know why dots were not connected, or whether the right dots were connected. Witnesses give answers, as they did to the Warren Commission after President Kennedy’s assassination, and we seem satisfied. Yet an ABC poll taken 40 years later finds fewer than three Americans out of ten believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Earlier polls by CBS and Gallup found similar results.

You don’t have to be a paranoid to question the official versions of things, although it helps. Skepticism seems to be a growth industry these days. Information good and bad travels spreads like a prairie fire through the Internet, talk radio, and cable TV. An independent book store near my house has an entire section of shelves labeled "conspiracy." That’s just a taste of all the books available on the new world order, black helicopters, secret government UFO’s, aliens living among us, and a variety of alleged plots: Aristotle Onassis, the FBI, the CIA, the Vatican, the Israeli Mossad, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Queen of England, you name it.

In any blockbuster thriller, like the hugely popular "Da Vinci Code," a good conspiracy takes a few facts that we all know from school and the fog of history, then it uses our imagination to connect the dots and write a narrative that sounds plausible, although not quite verifiable. Conspiracy theories are interactive in that way. They’re also therapeutic. They calm our anxieties with a simple explanation for a complicated world.

Unfortunately, the impulse to oversimplify the world has its darker side, the impulse to look for scapegoats. Demagogues, genocidal dictators, and terrorist bombers all find ways to justify their evil acts by blaming some dark unseen conspiracy, even as they conspire to organize their own.

"We are all sufferers from history," wrote Richard Hofstadter in his classic 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." "But the paranoid is a double sufferer. He is afflicted not only by the real world, but by his fantasies as well." Most of us manage to get on with our lives without obsessing over unresolved questions about war, assassinations, or little saucers of light seen flying through the sky. Others are more skeptical about the role played by chance, coincidence, a cosmic roll of the dice, or the mundane foibles of human beings in creating the big events of history.

(Theme from "X-Files" playing)

For the skeptics among us, there always will be more dots to connect. The truth will always be, as they say on the "X-Files," out there, raising doubts about what we know, and what we imagine the real story to be. I’m Clarence Page.