Why do Americans love conspiracy theories? Blame the government!

The government is so big and powerful, and its missions are so complex and scary, that, in a way, we’re best off not knowing the truth. Few people would say these things out loud. But more of us think that way more than we’d like to admit. We’re on a need-to-know basis, and we don’t need to know. Those of us who don’t feel this way flee in the other direction: Their imaginations run wild, thanks to the void of information created by the government’s famously over-the-top approach to classifying everything and releasing blank or fully redacted reams of disclosures.

It’s easy to brush aside the fever dreams that emerge from that frustrated corner of our crazy national psyche. But it’s criminal to ignore the grand federal failures hiding in plain sight. The conspiracies we spin are harrowing, but the reality is harrowing, too! Across two administrations, two political parties, and a decade and a half, Washington’s actions since 9/11 have been a horror house of incompetence, ineptitude, reactivity, and bad judgment. And not only does our government have a national security interest in covering up the bad things it does well. It has a powerful institutional interest in drawing our attention away from just how badly it has tried to do good things.