Monday night, several hours after the Boston Marathon attack, the governor of Massachusetts held a nationally televised news conference.
The first question came from a conspiracy theorist who had worked his way into the news conference. If questions were bombs, the one he asked would have exploded.
"Is this another false flag staged attack to take our civil liberties and promote homeland security?"
Translation: The Boston bombs were the work of the U.S. government who will pin them on someone else in order to further gain power over citizen rights.
Think this is a feverish theory talked about only in the basements of society?
The news conference crasher works for Infowars.com ("because there is a war for your mind," it claims) that has more than 500,000 subscribers to its YouTube channel.
And more than 286 million video views.
Which means the assertion that our government plotted to bomb its own citizens is not a fringe idea, but rather a credible -- a shockingly credible -- part of the national conversation.
Conspiracy theories are moving closer to the center of the landscape.
"I'm seeing this too,'' said Mark West, head of the Chattanooga Tea Party.
American history is populated with intoxicating conspiracy theories -- a staged moon landing, Area 51, the JFK assassination, crack cocaine created by the CIA, a very much alive Tupac -- all stitched together by one important theme: The official story is wrong, and the official institutions telling it are secretly plotting against us.
After the 9/11 attacks, the early landscape of new media was populated with claims that, at best, the official 9/11 story was
incomplete and, at worst, the U.S. government was responsible.
After the shootings at Sandy Hook in December, conspiracy theorists began instantly dismantling the official story, claiming it was part of a larger plot to take away gun rights.
One YouTube video claimed that grieving fathers were actually actors.
Eight million people watched it within one week.
What does it mean when such things have become so mainstream?
"When someone -- either a person, institution, company or government -- begins to violate your trust and you catch them in dishonest statements and acts, you begin to distrust them,'' West said.
Like wounds in our civic body, we suffer from story after story of misinformation, half-truths and outright lies. The bond between citizen and institution becomes violated, and only a fool goes back for more.
We also exist in an age of flattened media; no longer do the big institutions, once the curators of American knowledge, peer over the landscape like the grocer on your block, trusted and known.
Now, distrusting citizens search elsewhere, and information has been dispersed to a thousand different corners.
A recent YouTube video: "Proof! Boston Marathon Bombing a Staged Terror Attack!"
It's been seen more than 865,000 times (as of Friday afternoon).
Yet this is not all rabbit-hole paranoia. The U.S. government has been villainous; it has lied; it has deceived; it has been wickedly violent. We've buried our trust at Wounded Knee.
Combine this with a sloppy media, breathless to report in its 24-hour mania. One needs only remember Richard Jewell, the innocent man tried, convicted and executed by public opinion and media scrutiny in the days after the Atlanta Olympics bombing.
"If that doesn't cause you to have second thoughts about the information they feed us, then nothing will,'' West said.
I love this and mourn this. So does West. We both see the good: Conspiracy theories reflect a refusal of citizens to drink whatever official-esque is handed them. Such question-the-status-quo resistance is a cousin to critical thinking, always a foundation of democracy.
Yet it is deeply saddening when so many, many of us exist from such a seat of distrust -- to the point that the first question a governor takes is whether or not the U.S. government bombed its own people.
"Here's what the powers that be can do. They can start with integrity and honesty. As we begin to be honest with each other, we begin to rebuild that trust,'' West said.
Yes, but would anyone believe it?
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...