The Conspiracy Fears of Paranoid Minds

June 12, 1995|By TOM BETHELL

A Conference of the States, made up of governors and legislators, had been scheduled for October in the hope of promoting a shift of power away from Washington. It was postponed recently in response to pressure from gun activists and militia members who felt that it was a disguised attempt to abrogate the Constitution.

This shows how powerful these groups have become, at least at the state level. It also shows how out of touch with reality some of these right-wing groups are.

The conference hoped to strengthen the 10th Amendment, which reserves to the states all powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government. A revivified 10th Amendment is zTC exactly what those who blocked the conference also want; they have succeeded only in undermining their own agenda.

"The resolution (supporting the conference) was shelved or scrapped in a dozen legislatures," Associated Press columnist Walter Mears wrote. ''It wasn't worth the trouble of coping with an opposition movement that used the Internet to spread its conspiracy fears, flooded legislative fax machines with messages against the conference, spread the word on talk radio, rallied at statehouses where resolutions were to be considered.''

One problem: The conference coincided with United Nations Day, and that hinted at a nefarious, unacknowledged agenda.

I hate to use the word ''paranoid.'' The charges of paranoia and cynicism are often veiled demands by liberals that we repose our faith in the federal government. The behavior of federal officials and the vast expansion of federal power in recent decades have given a lot of people real reasons to fear the government.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, we had time to reflect that the number of Americans with a grudge was potentially large. A typical concern was voiced by a businessman in Pennsylvania: ''If a cattail grows, it's a wetland; if a beaver moves, it's a habitat.'' He was commenting on the proliferation of environmental laws encroaching on private property rights, but such grievances span the spectrum of federal activity.

Still, the more extreme right-wing fears are utterly absurd and, as we have seen, potentially self-destructive. Consider the imagined U.N. plot to take over the United States. In reality, the United Nations is a waning institution, and in the years ahead will probably have to struggle to survive at all.

It's not remotely likely that an associate justice would quit the Supreme Court to become ambassador to the United Nations today, as Arthur Goldberg did in the 1960s. Militia types would be closer to the truth if they saw the United Nations as a tool of the United States, increasingly used to disguise essentially unilateral U.S. actions (in the Gulf War and Haiti, for example).

Some who now ridicule one-world conspiracies did at one point long for world government, but the idea was that this would happen openly. It's not so much the notion of a one-world goal as the conspiratorial attainment of it that is so wrongheaded. A conspiracy, after all, is a secret agreement to do something outside the law. Those in power can control the way the law is written, so they have no need of conspiracies.

The shoe is more nearly on the other foot. Here we have these people, dressed up in camouflage fatigues and creeping about in the woods, with their survivalist techniques, their caches of food and weapons and water-purification systems. And they fancy that it's the Establishment that is reduced to clandestine and illegal subterfuges.

Something is badly out of focus here. It was John Wilkes Booth who had to conspire; President Lincoln operated out in the open.

Consider the supposed plot to rescind the Constitution. Absurdity! For 30 years, the Establishment has been able to get the constitutional interpretation it wants from the Supreme Court. It's a measure of the extent to which the Constitution has already been (legally) subverted that liberals no longer need seek any amendments to it.

Supreme Court justices have acted as ''federales,'' imposing federal law on the states and waving congressional enactments through without a second glance. On term limits, they once again acted as the allies of central government. Why would the winners need a putsch?

The conspiracy theorists will not be listening, I fear, but maybe I can get their attention by saying that in imagining persecution, they are suffering from delusions of grandeur. The state of the nation is less dire than they imagine, but it is true that there is a need to change the law -- specifically to shift power away from Washington.

To achieve this goal, may I offer the advice given in the 1960s by liberals to Weatherman radicals? ''Work within the system.''

Tom Bethell is Washington correspondent of the American Spectator.

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