Almost no one likes being in airports these days, but some people believe that one airport in particular — the Denver International Airport — is not only a hassle but also tied to conspiracies about the collapse of Western civilization.

Some say there’s a top-secret underground bunker for the world’s elite to survive a nuclear war (or the impending Mayan 2012 apocalypse). Others say the airport must have a connection to Nazis since the runways form a perfect swastika (actually they don’t).

Even ex-Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura got into the act, interviewing a man claiming that massive tunnels under the airport were built not for luggage handling or mass transit (that’s what they want you to think!), but instead for much more sinister purposes.

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On his TV show Conspiracy Theory, Ventura says, “There’s a lot of strange things about this airport. It’s twenty-five miles from Denver; that’s nineteen miles further away from old Stapleton Airport, which seemed to be just fine…” It’s not clear why Ventura believes that new airports are always built closer to the nearest city than previous airports, but skeptics are not so sure anything mysterious is going on.

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Brian Dunning, host of a podcast called Skeptoid which examines unusual claims from a skeptical, science-based perspective, researched conspiracies about the Denver airport.

He told Discovery News, “It’s nearly impossible to summarize the vast number of ordinary events and objects at Denver International Airport that have been misinterpreted, twisted, and sensationalized into ‘evidence’ for a Zionist New World Order Illuminati conspiracy to control and kill American citizens. There are facets of its planning, its design, its construction, its operational history, and even its artwork that conspiracy theorists point at as proof that we’re all doomed.”

The airport’s artwork?

Yes, perhaps the strangest claim of all is that the conspirators have gone out of their way to announce and describe their evil plans to the world. They say all the signs are there; it’s all laid out in front of you, if you just understand how to interpret the clues and signs.

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Conspiracy folks point to murals in the airport depicting World War II-era genocide and environmental degradation, along with a message of global unity, peace, and hope. Reading meaning into art is a time-honored tradition, but the conspiracy-minded find messages about Nazis, Mayan 2012 doomsday predictions, global destruction, the collapse of the American government, and even extraterrestrial contact. Conspiracy theorists love to uncover (or fabricate, depending on your point of view) clues to innumerable hidden agendas.

This illogical contradiction is common in conspiracy thinking: It’s a carefully-hidden top-secret plot that no one is supposed to know about—except that the conspirators made sure to leave important clues so the public would know about it.

For example, those who believe that NASA didn’t go to the moon point out that the moon has no atmosphere — yet the American flag waves in photos supposedly taken on the moon! Is this proof that the images were shot on a sound stage somewhere, proof that NASA botched their cover-up and left a glaring error betraying their deception? Or maybe NASA and the astronauts intentionally left little clues and hints for the clever conspiracy theorists to reveal? (In fact the reason the flag waves has long since been revealed by many including “The Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait: “It looks like that because of the way the flag was deployed. The flag hangs from a horizontal rod which telescopes out from the vertical one… In other words, the flag looks like it is waving because the astronauts wanted it to look that way.”)

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Perhaps the most famous case of a conspiracy claiming that the conspirators purposely left clues about a hidden truth was in the late 1960s, when The Beatles guitarist Paul McCartney suddenly died. The remaining Beatles—along with their manager and others—conspired to keep McCartney’s death a secret, going so far as to hire a look-alike and sound-alike to take his place in public appearances.

Why? As any good conspiracy theorist worth his salt (or is it sugar? Taste can be deceiving; did anyone have it chemically analyzed?) will tell you, follow the money to reveal the truth: The Beatles were the most popular band in the world, and earning obscene amounts of money for promoters, record companies, merchandisers, and others. McCartney’s death could not be allowed to kill this cash cow.

Yet while the conspirators carefully kept the public from finding out about McCartney’s death, they also decided that they should reveal the truth in album covers and music.

For example, on the cover of the Abbey Road album, all four Beatles are photographed striding across a zebra crossing—but only McCartney is barefoot. On the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, McCartney is the only Beatle photographed with a hand over his head, which — for those smart enough to understand the reference — is a symbol in some cultures that he was memorialized in death.

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There were dozens of other references in photos and lyrics, all cited as proof and evidence of the conspiracy. It all made sense to many people. And it was all, of course, completely wrong.

For his research into the mystery-shrouded Denver airport, Dunning could have followed the path of many before him (including Jesse Ventura): free-associating in front of murals and asking various anonymous and quasi-anonymous sources to share their wild-eyed, fact-free speculations.

Instead, Dunning chose to examine claims about the Denver airport through basic research and logic.

Dunning offers a simple analysis for the questions that stumped conspiracy expert Ventura, such as why the new airport was built farther from Denver since the previous one was just fine: “The old Stapleton International Airport was 65 years old, was a major noise nuisance being in the middle of the city, and had only three 10,000-foot runways, the minimum needed for large jets at such a high elevation, and barely adequate for fully loaded international jumbos. Denver International has six runways all over 12,000 feet, and one at 16,000 feet, that can accommodate any jet in the world. Its location clear of Denver alleviates the noise concerns.”

Countless other claims have been thoroughly addressed by Dunning and others (including The Skeptic Project). These simple and straightforward rebuttals won’t, of course, satisfy those who are sure a conspiracy is afoot. For them, such answers are too obvious to be true.

In the end, Dunning says, “These conspiracies and beliefs would be comical if they weren’t, as a search of YouTube or the Internet will reveal, so astoundingly widespread.”

Image: In Google Maps, after searching for “Denver International Airport,” you can see some other common search terms for the airport. “New world order” and “conspiracy theories” are top of the list. Credit: Google