Indeed, they provide fodder for those among us with more lurid, paranoid imaginations. Two of the most well-known modern conspiracy theories posit the existence of an elite that uses its control of institutions to facilitate its base desires. In the so-called Pizzagate theory, this was all somehow being run out of Comet Ping Pong, a (pretty good) pizza place in Washington, D.C., whose owner donates to Democratic candidates. For QAnon believers, a similar cabal of elite sexual depravity is actually in the process of being revealed and punished by President Trump, whose every action and apparent misstep is actually in service of outing these people for what they are once and for all. These theories are, of course, ridiculous in their particulars, and easily refuted, though that does little to discourage their true believers.

It is wrong to say that such true believers are on to something. But their more serious error may be to complicate a serious reckoning with a real problem, and to mischaracterize the nature of its operation. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder if something is up. After all that we have seen — and who knows what we haven’t — it is hard to deny that one serious possibility of modern institutional decay involves infiltration and corruption by sexual criminals. There are other sources of corruption, of course, but this one is particularly noxious. Yet these things do not happen as part of a coordinated conspiracy, a linked effort by the lizard people, save to the extent that elites will tend to rub shoulders with one another. They happen in isolated instances and are tolerated by institutions and people who should, and often do, know better, but do nothing. “Epstein was hiding in plain sight,” Cindy McCain, wife of the late John McCain, said earlier this year. “We all knew about him. We all knew what he was doing, but we had no one that was — no legal aspect that would go after him. They were afraid of him. For whatever reason, they were afraid of him.” Thus did Epstein prosper, and thus have so many other Epsteins around the world — and likely some at this very moment.