The military exercise Jade Helm 15 concluded earlier this week without the much-discussed government takeover that conspiracy theorists had warned was imminent.
The eight-week training exercise, organized by the Army's Special Operations Command, was designed to give Green Berets and other special forces realistic war game experience. It was conducted in seven states though its presence was best known in Texas, where conspiracy theorists claimed it was part of an (apparently not-so-secret) government plot to, variously, impose martial law, establish an infrastructure for mass detentions and murders, take away America's guns, or set the stage for some other unspecified but assuredly nefarious action.
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Rumors spread that trains were being set up to transport political enemies of the Obama administration to detention camps, and that cold storage facilities were being commandeered as makeshift morgues to warehouse thousands of dead bodies that were expected to litter the countryside. WalMarts were said to have been suddenly and mysteriously closed, possibly in collaboration with the Pentagon for warehousing people or supplies. The myth debunking site Snopes.com handily debunked the rumors, noting for example that "This theory doesn't account for why WalMart stores in states far outside the geographic range of the Jade Helm exercises (e.g., Florida, Oklahoma) should also be closed."
The conspiracy was given national credibility when Texas governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor Jade Helm operations; according to "The New York Times" the governor wrote that the action was necessary because it was "important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed." Movie action hero Chuck Norris also weighed in, wondering about the motives of "those who are pulling the strings at the top of Jade Helm 15 back in Washington," and Senator Ted Cruz stopped short of endorsing the conspiracy theories but said he understood the distrust of the Obama administration which has been "disrespecting the liberty of its citizens."
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Spawning Conspiracy Theories One reason the conspiracy theories were plausible, at least initially, is that there was a grain of truth to the claims. The story was not made up of whole cloth. The existence of the Jade Helm 15 operation could not be denied - nor was it denied. The question was instead one of motivation, an assumption that the "official story" reason for the training exercise was false and that there must be a hidden agenda or real purpose behind the program.
Another reason why the operation spawned conspiracy theories is that Jade Helm 15 was done largely out of the public eye-primarily in remote areas of public and private land (with the cooperation of the landowners, of course). While the apparent secrecy seemed suspicious to many, keeping onlookers away was necessary to assure public safety since by nature war games and military exercises can be dangerous.
Texas in particular, with its gun-friendly laws and secessionist factions, has a history of high-profile and violent encounters between law enforcement and what some call freedom fighters, including in Waco, where a 1993 siege on a Branch Davidian religious compound left 80 people dead.
While many people roll their eyes and assume that these conspiracy theories aren't taken seriously except by harmless tinfoil-hat wearing talk show listeners, they can have real consequences. Last month three men were arrested, accused of plotting to make pipe bombs to resist what they believed to be an imminent threat from the Jade Helm troops.
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In a world in which tragedies such as the Aurora theater shooting, the Sandy Hook school massacre, and even the EPA-triggered toxic Animas river spill are fodder for conspiracy theorists, it's not surprising that military training exercises conducted outside of established basic training camps might spawn conspiracies. It seems that any large planned government mobilization will inevitably be interpreted as a hostile act against Americans by some. The conspiracy worldview is one in which its adherents are told over and over that powerful agencies are working to establish an oppressive new world order. Conspiracy theorists see themselves as guardians of the public good and protector of civil liberties, ever vigilant for the first signs of a fascist takeover.
Though most of the Jade Helm 15 protestors are anti-Obama, people across the political spectrum endorse conspiracy theories. In their book "American Conspiracy Theories," Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, both Associate Professors at the University of Miami, note that "conspiracy-driven violence seems to respond to shifts in power. Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma during a Democratic administration, supposedly as a response to the Branch Davidian tragedy the year prior. Oddly, McVeigh could have easily taken action against the federal government prior to that, perhaps as a response to the government's handling of the Ruby Ridge incident, which occurred in the middle of George H.W. Bush's term, but did not."
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The fact that the much-hyped Jade Helm 15 military exercise ended uneventfully and without a single gun seizure or death will not, however, convince most conspiracy theorists that they were wrong. Instead, as psychologist Leon Festinger noted in his study of the psychology of failed doomsday cults, a common response is to rationalize away the failed prediction. A typical reaction is that the conspiracy theorists actually saved America and prevented the planned takeover by exposing and publicizing the government's plans. This rationalization allows the conspiracy theorists to be seen as heroes and the underlying conspiracy theory to not be discredited - until the next time.