the massive public mourning over the death of Princess Diana seems to have abated a little, but conspiracy theories of her "murder" are still racing along like a drunk driver on antidepressants.
We ought to know. Our Web site, Conspire.Com, received its first e-mail on the subject -- asserting that Di was killed by "MI-5" (sic) -- within minutes of the initial news bulletins of the car crash on Aug. 31. Dozens more have flooded into our mailbox since. Elsewhere on the Internet, at least a half-dozen Di-conspiracy Web sites sprung spontaneously to life. An entire newsgroup (alt.conspiracy.princess-diana) popped up out of nowhere and was promptly glutted with thousands of postings.
Sometimes (well, most of the time, actually) a car crash is just a car crash. But try telling that to the hey, paranoia-rocks! brigade who have deluged the Net with brainless ramblings about "Princess Die" that are not only crazy, but worse, boring. In fact, they're giving the whole notion of conspiracy theories a bad name.
One of the favored scenarios is that Di was killed by the Royal family or by British Intelligence, acting on the royals' behalf. The motive: They didn't want Di's Muslim beau, Dodi Fayed, as stepfather to the future king. An alternative motive: They got rid of the meddlesome princess so that Prince Charles would be free to marry his longtime paramour, the aging Camilla Parker-Bowles.
A more Ludlum-esque scenario has Diana being killed by agents of the international arms cartels to stop her crusade against land mines (though far more people are now aware of that crusade than ever were before her demise). Then, of course, there's the "Elvis theory" that Diana faked her own death; doubtless sightings of Diana will be coming to supermarket tabloids in the very near future.
Our particular favorite appearing on the Internet notes the "Masonic symbolism" of Diana's fatal accident. "Princess Diana was killed when her car crashed under a bridge," points out an Aug. 31 post to the newsgroup alt.conspiracy. "Bridges were traditionally built of stonework (MASONRY) and thus are a Masonic symbol." Strong evidence indeed.
To some extent, the two of us are to blame for this ridiculous blather. Our book "60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time" has played a small but, dare we say, significant part in the mainstreaming of conspirophilia. We have long defended the notion of conspiracy being at the root of various current and historical events. When high-handed critics broad-brush conspiracy observers like us as irrational little people imposing a fallacious order on a disturbingly chaotic world, our response is a barely stifled yawn. We've always welcomed the paranoid view as a useful check on consensus wisdom, a counterpoint to the notion that reality equals Newsweek's table of contents.
But we do believe in a disciplined approach. Only the most "fit" hypotheses -- those that were either somewhat plausible (the CIA dosed Americans with LSD during the 1960s) or entertainingly implausible (Aristotle Onassis iced JFK and Howard Hughes, started the Vietnam War and then "disgraced" Nixon) -- survive the long hours of toil over sheafs of newspaper clippings, arduous passage through underground networks of hand-to-hand Xeroxes and the psychological stress of being ridiculed and scorned.
Do you think the theory that we never went to the moon just popped out of the head of some guy who wanted to impress his girlfriend? Hardly! Proceeding methodically from the evidence (as he interpreted it) this fellow sincerely and painstakingly concluded that the Apollo moon landings were staged on a movie set constructed in the desert outside of Las Vegas, where the astronaut-thespians ditched their Tang in favor of 99-cent buffet breakfasts. His interpretation of said evidence may not have been entirely accurate. But no matter. He created a scenario with entertainment value enough for Hollywood to rip it off (rent the James Brolin/O.J. Simpson vehicle "Capricorn One" to view the result).
Such admirably sincere suspicion has now been displaced by a commodified, instant attitude. These days, any frat boy with an AOL account can scramble to be the first dufus in his chat room to launch the conspiracy of the moment. Concocting wacky theories in response to major news events has become an expression of postmodernist irony. Look how clever I am for having my cake and laughing at it, too. Call it Quasi-Millennial Paranoia-Chic. But the irony is prepackaged and knee-jerk.
Ergo, the tedious, improbable and unimaginative suppositions about the demise of the people's princess. Poor Diana. To the list of victimizers that include the paparazzi, the liquor industry, the royal family, MI5, the land mine lobby and Eli Lilly (makers of Prozac), we must now add the reckless, ignorant modem jockeys who are disinterring her bones while making a mockery of the idea there may indeed be larger truths behind random, unwelcome events.