Shortly after 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, reports surfaced that the incident had “really” been a hoax staged to take away gun rights. Although immediate denial can be a natural response to a horrific event, sometimes denial is more opportunistic and contrived—born of paranoia and willful ignorance—and used to justify racism, anti-Semitism and partisan political views.
In the hours after the shooting, parents of students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, gathered at the local firehouse. Without being given the victims’ names, they were informed that 20 children and several staff members had been murdered, and parents were called, family by family, to reunite with their children. While waiting, one first grader’s father assuaged his anxiety by imagining his son had run into the woods behind the school, escaping the carnage. His boy was among the dead.
When people face devastating news—the sudden death of someone they love, a terminal cancer diagnosis—they often experience an initial phase of disbelief. Psychological denial in response to such shocks can be a coping mechanism, buying the mind some time while the significance of the information sinks in. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, proposes that the grieving process, especially when connected with a loved one’s death or thoughts of one’s own, has five stages. The first is denial, a simple refusal to believe the facts. She elaborates, “Denial is usually a temporary defense and will soon be replaced by partial acceptance.”
Witnesses to atrocity often turn to religion during the transition from denial to acceptance. Monsignor Robert Weiss, a Newtown, Connecticut, pastor who conducted many of the funerals of six- and seven-year-olds after the mass murder at their school, explained one year later, “My faith in God was deepened because I realized—as did all of this community—that this was an act of evil. This was not the hand of God.”
But seeking such solace in the face of human depravity can also take a different turn. As a teenage inmate of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, writer Eli Wiesel watched as several of his fellow prisoners held a mock tribunal. It became the basis for his play The Trial of God (1979), in which three men accuse God of “hostility, cruelty and indifference.” In The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky also questions the righteousness of a God who allows the suffering of innocents, even if they ultimately find a heavenly reward. “If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony,” Dostoevsky writes, “what have children to do with it…? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony.”
Americans were collectively grief-stricken after 20-year-old Adam Lanza’s rampage with assault weapons at a Connecticut elementary school. Yet within days, bloggers and YouTube uploaders began offering “evidence” that the incident was a hoax or that authorities hadn’t been truthful. “Rather than accept the possibility that a single, evil man could perform the unthinkably evil act of killing 20 children and six adults,” an op-ed in the conservative Washington Times reported a month later, people turned to “bizarre conspiracy theories.”
Many such conspirators were willing to believe a different single, evil man was responsible: Barack Obama. Some claimed the president staged the Sandy Hook carnage as part of a plot to rescind Americans’ Second Amendment rights to bear arms and form a militia, leaving them unable to defend themselves against an oppressive government—their own. “They will come for the guns in this country, and they will…spook the country into submitting to their own enslavement,” one blogger wrote on the very day of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Falsehoods about Obama are legion; some even declare he is the Antichrist. Members of the “birther” movement insist Obama was born in Kenya and thus, lacking U.S. citizenship, has no right to the presidency.
From a psychological standpoint, healing is impossible for a person who cannot stop denying an event or a situation (such as one’s alcoholism). Conspiratorial denial also thrives on staying stuck at this stage. Often fueled by paranoia and bigotry, denial conspiracies commonly focus on a scapegoat. Barack Obama and Jews are favorite targets. Some theories about the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for example, blame Israeli interests, while many Holocaust “revisionists” claim the genocide was all an elaborate hoax that Jews perpetrated to somehow advance nefarious goals.
Another type of Holocaust denial uses the familiar strategy of blaming the victim—in this case alleging that any Jews killed by Nazis deserved punishment for engaging in subversive activities. Given the indisputable evidence, Holocaust denial seems preposterous, but in 1945 U.S. general Dwight Eisenhower foresaw such irrationality. After the liberation of Holocaust survivors, Eisenhower toured the death camps. “I made the visit deliberately,” he wrote, “in order to be in a position to give firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’”
Politically motivated conspiracy theories and smear campaigns usually have power and money backing them. Real estate mogul Donald Trump perpetuated the birthers’ allegation that Barack Obama has no claim to the Oval Office, a ploy that briefly elevated Trump as a possible candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. The New York Times rejected the birther movement as a “proxy for those who never accepted the president’s legitimacy, for a toxic mix of reasons involving ideology, deep political anger and, most insidious of all, race.”
Business magnates Charles and David Koch, whom The New Yorker dubbed the “billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama,” generally remain behind the scenes while funding various oppositional groups. The 2011 Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society diagrams the Kochs’ participation in the “climate change denial machine.” The fossil fuels industry, along with other groups (some Koch-financed) that profit from unchecked global energy consumption, is linked to conservative think tanks and coalitions, which bloggers, politicians and media pundits exploit to fill an “echo chamber.” Characterized by self-perpetuating closed-circle thinking, an echo chamber allows those espousing one side of an issue to talk only among themselves, without hearing or considering opposing viewpoints.
The 24/7 news echo chamber fed by TV analysts, radio hosts, bloggers and other mouthpieces attests that many people increasingly regard “fact” and “truth” as malleable. “We create our own reality,” a member of President George W. Bush’s administration asserted against what he termed the majority “reality-based community.” Sarah Palin sneeringly calls mainstream journalism the “lamestream media.” In response, some journalists established PolitiFact.com to fact-check public-sector statements; the website’s “Truth-o-meter” ranking system awards “Pants on Fire” status to the most egregious lies.
Reading the zeitgeist, Stephen Colbert, in his role as far-right pundit on The Colbert Report, coined the word truthiness in 2005. Championing feeling over thinking, he derided “elitist” reference books as “all fact, no heart.” Truth, he claimed, comes from “the gut.” In early 2014, when New York’s temperatures plummeted into the single digits, Colbert intoned, “Science tells us that if it ever gets cold, global warming isn’t real.” He supported his contention with a tweet from “noted climatologist Donald Trump”: “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop.” Radio host Rush Limbaugh also ranted, contrary to scientific evidence, that cold weather proves climate change isn’t happening. PolitiFact subsidiary PunditFact labeled his statements “Pants on Fire.”
The theory of evolution, the National Academy of Sciences states, “has become the central unifying concept of biology,” supported by “scientific facts, laws, tested hypotheses and logical inferences.” Yet one third of Americans dismiss evolution and believe God created humans in their present form. So-called Young Earth creationists reject the notion that our planet formed 4.5 billion years ago and that life has been evolving on it for 3.8 billion years. For them, our solar system, Earth and all Earth’s creatures were divinely created in six days about 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, as the book of Genesis outlines.
A growing number of Americans also refute accepted scientific knowledge about climate change, which much evidence likewise supports. “Creation scientists,” one creationist claims, “have in the Bible a much better foundation for understanding these things” than secular climate scientists do. Far more carbon dioxide existed in the atmosphere in the distant past, he explains, around the time God advised Noah to build an ark, and the fossils that formed during the biblical Flood prove a carbon-rich Earth had flourished. Because climate change models predict rising seas and flooding as CO2 levels increase, those without arks won’t find that news so encouraging.
The 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing was staged, the Bush administration knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, a second shooter killed JFK, and Elvis lives. In the hyper-partisan echo chamber, not quite true assertions are twisted and recounted, becoming increasingly exaggerated and distorted—like the message in the children’s game of telephone. In 2009, shortly after a Chinese banking official suggested the U.S. dollar should no longer serve as the world’s reserve currency, Minnesota congressional representative Michele Bachmann leapt to the assumption that plans were afoot for the U.S. to “give up the dollar as our currency and…go with a One World currency.” Likeminded folks, including political consultant Karl Rove, picked up and repeated the false claim, giving Bachmann’s conspiracy theory an air of legitimacy.
As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote of this type of chatter, “Bogus stories…ricocheted through an echo chamber of government and media, making it sound as if multiple, reliable sources were corroborating the same story.” In psychology, acceptance ideally supplants denial. In the echo chamber, the denial never stops reverberating. Someone’s always ready with a new lie, and someone else can’t wait to repeat it.