This is a nation of conspiracies. Well, at any rate, it's a nation of conspiracy theories that began in earnest with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and have fully blossomed in this age of communication.

Most of the theories have been fed by the dramatic twisting of facts by authors, screenwriters, television producers, movie directors and now Internet purveyors. Some "conspiracies" start as mere rumor and spread rapidly, while others ferment over time from a germ of truth.

An example of the first kind of conspiracy circulated among otherwise intelligent human beings over a period of years during the Cold War. Editors who absolutely should have known better would telephone with the incredible report of duplicity between Russian and U.S. officials to have missiles put in the deep rivers and lakes of North America.

There was at one time a "conspiracy" to cover up a U.S. vice president's alleged wounding by a jealous husband as he left the home of a female friend in the dark of night. The Secret Service had conspired to keep the incident quiet. This story was around for at least two or three years before petering out.

Most of the conspiracy theories of the past 50 years have one thing in common. Someone — in fact, often a large number of people — made money from them, often a lot of money. Take filmmaker Oliver Stone, for instance, who has stimulated the conspiracy business like few others at great financial reward to himself and his backers.

Stone, along with dozens of authors, was merely exploiting the general public disbelief of the official explanation of the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, which have produced more speculation and theories than any other two events in the past century. Few Americans, if any, still buy into the one-man, one-gun story for either case no matter how hard government investigators try to put the matter to rest.

The latest of these efforts came just a few days ago when the Justice Department issued a report stating that, despite what his family and others felt, it could find no evidence of a conspiracy in King's assassination 32 years ago in Memphis. The investigation had been ordered by Attorney General Janet Reno to mollify those who are convinced that James Earl Ray couldn't have pulled off this hit on his own.

There is good reason to believe this. Ray managed to be at the motel at the right time, shoot King, then elude police in a series of international moves that clearly required skills this mainly illiterate just didn't have. To swallow the "he acted alone" line, one probably would have to have the same mental limitations as Ray, who died in prison arguing that he was just a tool of a conspiracy.

He probably was, wittingly or unwittingly. But that doesn't mean, as the Justice Department's report correctly states, that there was any government involvement in King's death. It merely means that one or more persons provided Ray with the logistical support to both carry out the crime and then get away. It could have been for any number of reasons. Like Kennedy, King had a number of enemies.

But in both cases, the odds are a zillion to one that anyone will ever find out what actually happened or identify others beyond Ray or Lee Harvey Oswald who might have taken part in some fashion. Too much time has elapsed and what evidence is available that might dispute the official contentions has been muddled and shredded by counterevidence.

The problem with conspiracies and those who spend their lives theorizing about them is that certainty in the conspiracies' existence often requires ignoring obvious, rational explanations to jump from Point A to Point C without ever touching point B. To establish their validity, the theories include some official involvement, either through active participation or cover-up, as the root cause. This in turn requires a cynicism toward government that ends up distorting rational conclusions and does no one any good.

Stone is a master of this. In his popular movie on JFK, he indicted everyone from Lyndon Johnson to Chief Justice Earl Warren as in on the conspiracy, coloring the attitudes of a lot of impressionable youngsters.

While it is important to get at the truth, it also is important to our society that we believe in the honesty of our officials until there is solid evidence otherwise. All the Justice Department is saying about the King theories is that there is no such evidence.


Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.