Conspiracies Lurking Everywhere : Culture: The tendency to suspect unseen schemes at work isn't solely a proclivity of crackpots and paranoids. Experts say we're all susceptible.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Every day since 1968, William Bennett Edwards has grown more certain something secret, something sinister, is growing around the rocky acreage of copperheads and poison ivy on top of Afton Mountain, where he lives outside Waynesboro, Va.

He and his wife, Virginia Davis Edwards, say they have witnessed over the years the world's richest and most powerful people motoring past their modest house just off the shoulder of Route 250. They say they've seen Ted Kennedy driving Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. They say the Queen of England sped by once during a state visit when she was supposedly touring Monticello 20 miles away. They have seen Henry Kissinger regularly; the same for other Kennedys and the Rockefellers.

Their list of drive-bys pushes the boundaries of belief: Spiro Agnew, Gerald Ford, H. R. Haldeman, Pope John Paul II, Lady Bird Johnson, Idi Amin, CIA and corporate big shots, Margaret Thatcher and Elizabeth Taylor, among others. "Mostly they just passed by in cars and turned their heads and hid their faces," says Virginia Edwards.

Their destination: Less than a mile past the Edwardses' house on this undeveloped stretch of the Blue Ridge is Swannanoa, a peculiar mansion with English gardens, and a coat of arms in its foyer. Open to the public, it is said to be the historic home of the late Walter Russell--inventor, artist and friend of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Bill Edwards is convinced Swannanoa is owned by the royal family of England and serves as the secret meeting place of the agents of the Council of 30--supposedly an all-powerful cadre that has manipulated world economies, incited wars and ordered assassinations for its own financial advantage throughout recorded history. An intelligent and seemingly reasonable man, Edwards, 64, believes he has uncovered a conspiracy of international and millennial dimensions that is unfolding right outside his door.

"I can't say there's evidence," says Edwards, who is proprietor of the Gold Rush Gun Shop, imports collectible firearms and also writes for gun magazines. "But without even apprehending or comprehending the nature of what was going on, you turn over a stone and see the maggots." Conspiracy theorists all too often are easy targets for ridicule. Their near-obsession with interpreting the big events of history--or sometimes what's happening down the street--through the complexities of their theories seldom earns them the kudos and criticism lately aimed at "JFK" director Oliver Stone. More typically, they live obscure lives balanced between the urge to reveal what they think they know and the reluctance to expose themselves to the label of kook.

Certainly some conspiracy theorists are permanent residents of the lunatic fringe. But the tendency to suspect unseen schemes at work in everyday dilemmas, disappointments and catastrophes isn't solely a proclivity of crackpots and paranoids.

In fact, conspiracy theory fascinates most of us. Why, for instance, has no one been able to satisfy much of the American public that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone? For what possible reason were findings of the House Select Committee on Assassinations embargoed from the public? How much of a logical leap are some conspiracy theories from documented CIA brainstorms to murder Fidel Castro? To recruit Nazi spies after World War II?

"There is a definite thrill to the idea of conspiracy theories," says Jonathan Vankin. "It's like a spy novel: There's the thrill that you have access to secret information."

The news editor at the alternative weekly newspaper the San Jose Metro, Vankin journeyed for two years into the world of grand-scale conspiracy theories to write the 1991 book "Conspiracies, Cover-Ups and Crimes: Political Manipulation and Mind Control in America" (Paragon House, $24.95). Vankin didn't begin his research thinking conspiracy theorists are demented. He didn't end it thinking that either.

"I went into it curious," he says. Once immersed in maleficent, intricate plots whose origins are traced back centuries to the Bavarian Illuminati, the medieval Knights Templar and ancient secret societies, Vankin recognized a kind of logic in the unanswered charges and hints of duplicity that footnote history. How, he wondered, could Robert Kennedy be killed by gunshot from inches behind his head when the convicted assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, was several feet in front of him?

"I consciously decided to question things like, what was the CIA doing at Jonestown?" says Vankin. "The more you think like that . . . the way you see things starts to change, and it all looks a lot different than before."

At the American Psychological Assn. convention in San Francisco last fall, Sacramento psychologist Terence Sandbek delivered a research paper titled, "Hungry People Who Buy Imaginary Food With Real Money: Psychology's Response to Nonsense, Superstition and the Paranormal." He sees an analogy between believers in ESP and astrology and the conspiracy theorists.

"One of the reasons people buy into paranormal irrationality, even though there isn't one scrap of evidence for its existence, is probably a need in the world to have things neat and tidy," says Sandbek. "A lot of people are very uncomfortable living in a world where there aren't a lot of explanations, where there is a feeling of instability and incompleteness."

And it may go beyond deep-seated psychological motive, says Sandbek. Such thinking tends to be selective in the facts used, tends to ignore contrary evidence, and uses as fact information that simply isn't true.

"I suspect that the zealots among the conspiracy people see the world in black-and-white terms--us and them," he says. "That fits with this need for total lack of ambiguity."

Yet Sandbek says small doses of this can be a good thing. "I think it is healthy for people to be skeptical of our government. You read nonfiction about the inner workings of government agencies like the CIA and it is unbelievable. You figure it has got to be only the tip of the iceberg."

The Edwardses say they don't have to look farther for conspiracy than their mailbox, where envelopes arrive already opened. And their telephones crackle with interference. "They sent a hit man once," says Virginia Edwards, a pianist who's writing a book about the conspirators' use of music to influence behavior, to be titled "Conspiracy of 30: Their Misuse of Music from Aristotle to Onassis."

"Little by little we put it together," she says. "We finally figured something really big was going on."

And they're in the middle of it.

"We're the bottleneck," says Bill Edwards, explaining that he owns the right-of-way of 8 miles of road in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which for 20 years has prevented the conspirators from developing 722 acres.

The scheme since World War II, he explains, has been to secretly mine those mountains and illegally export radioactive minerals. The plot signed John Kennedy's death warrant, he contends: The President made his memorable trip to Berlin to tell the Council to count him out. "Vietnam was about minerals and oil," Edwards says. "Watergate was a cover-up for what Nixon was going to do on this."

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