Hardly anybody today believes that once unsettling events like solar eclipses are caused by wolves or demons eating the sun. But when it comes to all-too-frequent eruptions of what Philip Roth calls "the indigenous American berserk," many retreat into superstition, or worse.
Worse because we don't blame mythological creatures for increasingly common mass shooting events like Stephen Paddock's murder of 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas. Instead, we blame each other.
What caused the reclusive professional gambler — a classic American lone demento — to murder 58 total strangers from a distance of 500 yards? Well, who do you hate and fear?
No sooner had police blown down the door of the 32nd floor suite at the Mandalay Bay hotel to find the killer dead in the sniper's nest he'd painstakingly constructed than conspiracy theories spread like wildfire across the Internet and beyond.
Even before Paddock's identity was known, online sleuths at the anonymous message site 4chan fingered a totally innocent Arkansas man described as "a Trump-hating Rachel Maddow fan."
The reasoning seemed to be that country music fans are Trumpists by definition, ergo ...
Well, if Garth Brooks and Emmylou Harris are country singers, then I'm a country music fan who finds Rachel Maddow extremely annoying.
But a Trump supporter? Um, no.
Nevertheless, this cartoon-think quickly became one of Google's "top stories" until supplanted by even crazier conspiracy theories put forth by attention seeking hucksters.
"Multiple shooters," proclaimed a Facebook friend connected to law enforcement. People jumped right in, some proclaiming that video sound tracks they'd heard on TV were obviously altered to conceal them. Others speculated that FBI agents and Las Vegas cops scrubbed the sniper's nest of evidence linking him to ISIS, probably to cover up a botched gunrunning sting.
Mention of treasonous cops may have given my friend pause, because the thread disappeared. But not before one particularly imaginative woman pronounced her verdict:
"Definitely not ISIS but Antifa. Probably led by no other than Soros, Clinton, Obama and some RINOs. Multiple shooters. All part of their wicked scheme to advance their NWO [New World Order] agenda, take away our 2nd amendment, cause more 'policing,' with end result being Trumps impeachment. Better learn how to live off the grid. May sound crazy but I feel civil war is coming soon."
"Could a terrorist have set this guy up," a New York literary agent wondered, "then shot him and slipped away before the cops got there?"
It's all the "Deep State's" fault, you see. Because it couldn't possibly be that lax regulation allowing a homicidal lunatic to carry enough military rifles to arm an infantry platoon into a hotel and convert them to auto-fire without breaking a single law until the moment he began shooting might be a really bad idea.
Nor that maybe it's time to bring the "well-regulated" part of the Second Amendment back into play.
Why perish the thought!
And perish it did as right-wing hucksters of every variety took the imagined conspiracy to heights of sheer folly. Something called "Freedom Daily" pressed a theory involving Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who supposedly funded "Antifa terrorists."
According to an excellent Media Matters roundup, Infowars nutjob Alex Jones blamed "Democrats and their Islamic allies," "Bolshevik" revolutionaries, ISIS, Antifa, leftists, Communists and globalists.
Jones predicts an imminent left-wing coup. "The enemy's engaging us. Everybody needs to be packing," he said. "Get ready — Democrats are going to be killing people, a lot of folks."
On her Fox News program "The Ingraham Angle," host Laura Ingraham endorsed similar speculation. Others blamed Jews (naturally), the Saudis, even Las Vegas labor unions. Lists appeared on social media alleging that every prominent shooter from would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley through Newtown, Conn., child murderer Adam Lanza were registered Democrats — all false, every one.
Psychologists who study them say that conspiracy narratives represent the self-protective impulses of people who feel powerless and threatened. The idea that evildoers collude secretly to stage-manage otherwise incomprehensible events like the Las Vegas massacre comforts people with the belief that nobody's fooling them. They are in the know.
So are Democrats immune from such wishful thinking? Alas, no. However, conspiracists on the left have tended to focus upon a single salient fact: Stephen Paddock was a white man.
Writing in Slate, Daniel Engber noticed a consistent theme in media accounts:
"ThinkProgress said that 'when we talk about mass shootings, we are talking about white men.' Newsweek wondered if 'white men commit mass shootings out of a sense of entitlement.' A CNN opinion piece bemoaned the fact that 'America has silently accepted the rage of white men.' "
White men, no.
Although blaming "white privilege" for every kind of evil remains fashionable in advanced circles, statistics show that white men simply aren't disproportionately responsible for mass shooting events.
Regardless of Stephen Paddock's mad rationale, it's apt to follow him to his grave.