|The Arizona shooting is an example of how opinion seems to split due to indoctrinated perceptions rather than anything based on reality [Getty]
I spent a year in Sweden a few years after the assassination of Olaf Palme in 1986, the Swedish prime minister known for his controversial policy reforms and vehement advocacy for non-violence and peace.
After seeing a movie, he was assassinated while walking with his wife back to his apartment in the historic part of the city. It was a shocking event in a country that had prided itself on moderation in politics and neutrality during the wars of the twentieth century.
A local drifter, with a history of alcoholism, was charged and then convicted of the crime, but many doubts persisted, including on the part of Ms Palme, who analogised her situation to that of Coretta King, who herself never believed the official version of her martyred husband's death.
I had a particular interest in this national traumatic event, as my reason for being in Sweden was a result of an invitation to be the Olaf Palme Professor. The rotating academic post was given each year to a foreign scholar and was established by the Swedish Parliament as a memorial to their former leader. After the Social Democratic Party lost political control in Sweden, this professorship was promptly defunded, partly because Palme was unloved by conservatives and partly because of a neoliberal dislike for public support of such activities.
In the course of my year travelling around Sweden, I often asked those whom I met what was their view of the assassination, and what I discovered was that the responses told me more about them than it did about the public event.
Some thought it was a dissident faction in the Swedish security forces long angered by Palme's neutralist policies; others believed it was resentment caused by Palme's alleged engineering of Swedish arms sales to both sides in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s; some even believed it was the CIA in revenge for Palme's neutralism during the Cold War; yet others believed it was criminals in the pay of business tycoons tired of paying high taxes needed to maintain the Swedish maximalist version of a welfare state. And there were other theories as well.
Thin line between contestation and conspiracy
What was common to all of these explanations was the lack of evidence connecting the dots. What people believed just flowed from their worldview rather than from the facts of the event. This included a mistrust of the state, especially its secret operations - or a strong conviction that special interests hidden from view were behind prominent public events of this sort.
In a way, this process of reflection is natural, even inevitable, but it leads to faulty conclusions. We tend to process information against the background of our general worldview and understanding. And we do this all the time as an efficient way of coping with the complexity of the world, combined with our lack of time or inclination to reach conclusions by independent investigation.
The problem arises when we confuse this means of interpreting our experience with an effort to provide an explanation of a contested public event. There are, to be sure, conspiracies that promote unacknowledged goals, and enjoy the benefit of government protection. We don't require WikiLeaks to remind us not to trust governments, even our own or others that seem in most respects to be democratic and law-abiding.
And we also should know by now that governments (ab)use their authority to treat awkward knowledge as a matter of state secrets, and criminalise those who are brave enough to believe that the citizenry needs to know the crimes that their government is committing with their trust and their tax dollars.
The arguments swirling around the 9/11 attacks are emblematic of these issues.
What fuels suspicions of conspiracy is the reluctance to address the sort of awkward gaps and contradictions in the official explanations that David Ray Griffin (and other devoted scholars of high integrity) have been documenting in book after book ever since his authoritative The New Pearl Harbor in 2004 (updated in 2008).
What may be more distressing than the apparent cover-up is the eerie silence of the mainstream media, unwilling to acknowledge well-evidenced doubts about the official version of the events - an al-Qaeda operation with no foreknowledge by government officials.
Is this silence a manifestation of fear, or part of an equally disturbing filter of self-censorship? Whatever it is, the result is the withering away of a participatory citizenry and the erosion of legitimate constitutional government. The forms persist, but the content is missing.
This brings me to the Arizona shootings, which both victimised persons apparently targeted for their political views and random people, innocently paying their respects to a congresswoman meeting constituents outside a Tucson supermarket.
As with the Palme assassination, the most insistent immediate responses have come from the opposite ends of the political spectrum, both proceeding on presuppositions rather than awaiting evidence.
On one side are those saying right-wing hate speech and affection for guns were responsible. Then there are the Tea Party ultra-conservatives and their friends, who reaffirm rights of free speech, denying that there is any connection between denouncing their adversaries in the political process and the violent acts of a deranged individual.
If we want to be responsible in our assessments, we must restrain our political predispositions, and obtain the evidence. Let us remember that what seems most disturbing about the 9/11 controversy is the widespread aversion of government and media to the evidence that suggests, at the very least, the need for an independent investigation that proceeds with no holds barred.
Such an investigation would contrast with the official 9/11 Commission that proceeded with most holds barred. What has already been disturbing about the Arizona incident are rival rushes to judgement without bothering with evidence. Such public irresponsibility polarises political discourse, making conversation and serious debate irrelevant.
There is one more issue raised, with typical candour and innocence, by the filmmaker Michael Moore. If a Muslim group had published a list of twenty political leaders in this country and put crosshairs on their pictures, is there any doubt that the Arizona events would be treated as the work of a terrorist? The group that pre-identified such targets would be immediately outlawed as a terrorist organisation.
Many of us, myself included, fervently hoped, upon hearing the news of the shootings, that the perpetrator of this violence was neither a Muslim or a Hispanic, especially not an illegal immigrant. Why? Because we justly feared the kind of horrifying backlash that would have been generated by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sarah Palin, and their allies.
Now that the apparent perpetrator is a young white American, the talk from the hate mongers, again without bothering with evidence, is of mental disorder and sociopathology. This is faith-based pre-Enlightenment "knowledge".
What must we learn from all of this? Don't connect dots without evidence. Don't turn away as soon as the words "conspiracy theory" are uttered, especially if the evidence does point away from what the power-wielders want us to believe.
Don't link individual wrongdoing, however horrific, to wider religious and ethnic identities. We will perish as a species if we don't learn soon to live together better on our beautiful, globalising, and imperilled planet.
Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.