Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company The New York Times

November 24, 1996, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

Section 4; Page 4; Column 1; Week in Review Desk

893 words

Ideas & Trends;

Pierre, Is That a Masonic Flag on the Moon?


IN the days before the Internet, when rumors had to make their way by boat and horseback instead of by waves and wire, it took perseverance to assemble the pieces of a really good conspiracy theory.

Without so much as an America Online account, Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University two centuries ago, learned of an evil plot -- hatched in France by Freemasons hopped up on Enlightenment philosophy -- to overthrow the United States Government. A Bavarian secret society called the Order of the Illuminati was also involved. Unable to access alt.conspiracy or even a good E-mail program, Dwight had to resort to public speaking to spread the word.

"Shall we, my brethren, become partakers of these sins?" Dwight intoned before the graduating class of 1798. "Shall we introduce them into our government, our schools, our families? Shall our sons become the disciples of Voltaire, and the dragoons of Marat; or our daughters the concubines of the Illuminati? "

He was repeating ravings from a year-old book, "Proofs of a Conspiracy," by John Robison, a mathematician at the University of Edinburgh and one of the first of the great arachnids of paranoia. And Robison was recycling ideas that had been floating around since Vatican conspiracy theorists tried to explain away the French Revolution as a Masonic plot.

In those days, information (not to be confused with knowledge) crept along slowly. How much easier it is in these modern times when bits zip around the globe at the speed of light -- or at least the speed of a good fiber optical T3 line.

Within hours of the Oklahoma City bombing, the throbbing, fevered brain of the Internet was hallucinating about a supposed second explosion, which was picked up by seismographs milliseconds before the Ryder truck blast. There it was: proof of a conspiracy so immense that it involved agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, minions of the New World Order, blowing up their own building. Like the second gunman on the grassy knoll, the second explosion entered the folklore of paranoia, with dizzying speed. Oklahoma City was linked to Waco and Ruby Ridge.

Electrified by the Internet, suspicions about the crash of T.W.A. Flight 800 were almost instantly transmuted into convictions that it was the result of friendly fire. Even the journalist Pierre Salinger was taken in. The culprit? Some blamed those evil A.T.F. agents. Or Arkansas state troopers. It was all linked to Whitewater -- unless the missile was meant for a visiting U.F.O.?

As the Internet grows bigger, more dense with synapses, the possibilities it can dream up multiply and then exponentiate. Postmodern literary theorists talk about language taking on a life of its own, speaking through the passive pawns called people. With the Internet you can almost see what they're getting at.

Ideas become E-mail to be duplicated and duplicated again, fanning out along the proliferating branches and twigs of circuitry both electronic and neural. The typists and the bleary-eyed readers are just extensions of their computer terminals -- a way for the ideas to get off the net and spread through the molasses-slow network of conversation, books, newspapers, radio talk shows, only to be picked up again and re-posted. alt.conspiracy

Did you know that Buzz Aldrin planted a Masonic flag on the moon? Or about the pyramids spotted during probes of Mars and then covered up by the Government? The details are all there in alt.conspiracy.

And remember the Hale-Bopp comet now swinging around the sun? It's on a collision course with earth and NASA knows it. Why was Clinton so eager to send troops to Zaire? For humanitarian reasons? Get real. According to the Internet, it must have something to do with the Ebola virus (genetically engineered in secret labs) and the New World Order, commanded by Boutros Boutros-Ghali. And why were the Arabs really so upset by that tunnel in Jerusalem? It leads to the hidden chamber that holds the Ark of the Covenant.

Everything is connected, just like the Internet itself. Someday, when all the pieces of the plot are assembled, we surely will behold the ultimate, the grand unified conspiracy theory. Stretch your imagination beyond even last week's "X-Files," where the cigarette man turned out to be the key not just to the alien autopsy but also to the assassinations of Raphael Trujillo, both Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. Like an evil Forrest Gump, he was present at the fall of the Soviet empire, and had his nicotine-stained fingers in the rigging of several important sporting events.

In the ultimate conspiracy, the Illuminati would be commanding, zombie-like Arkansas state troopers. With enough computer "enhancement" a cluster of grains on the Zapruder film would snap into focus -- and voila, a youthful Vincent Foster or his cyborg double. Hovering above Dealey Plaza would be a black helicopter (dispatched from Area 51, the secret U.F.O. base in Nevada).

And wait! Wasn't the Internet started by the Defense Department, as a nervous system for military research? Now it is slowly engulfing every citizen of the country. Here is the awful truth: The conspiracy theories are themselves a conspiracy -- a plot to convince all of us poor saps that in the rumble jumble of history anyone could possibly be in control.

GRAPHIC: Photo: On Nov. 8, Pierre Salinger repeated a conspiracy theory that had been widely reported on the Internet. He holds a picture, taken on Long Island and circulated on the Internet, that was said to show a streaking missile. (Reuters)