Paris is burning (again)

There is much that could be said about the Paris event, the role France plays globally, and so forth. Whilst I have opinions; some considered, some not so much, I will keep my judgements to myself and, instead, look at some of the cries of "False flag!" that are currently making the rounds in the conspirasphere. After all, within hours of the news of the attack at Bataclan, a lot of the (un)usual sources were asking "Is this another false flag event?" and presenting their arguments in support of such a notion in the following kinds of way:

  1. The analogy: The terrorist attack in Paris looks awfully similar to the Boston Marathon Bombing (or the Sandy Hook Massacre, or some other example of a putative false flag), and as that was likely a false flag event, the Paris event must be a false flag event as well!

    The first worry is that by drawing the analogy, the arguer is either forcing their audience to agree to bold claims about another event ("The Boston Marathon Bombing was a false flag!") or they are assuming their audience agrees with them (and so are "preaching to the choir"). So, if you are the kind of person who thinks it is by no means clear that, say, the Boston Marathon Bombing was actually a false flag event, then argument is already in trouble.

    It doesn't help that some sources are claiming, for example, the Charlie Hebdo attacks were proven to be a false flag. Amplifying your case by saying "X looks similar to Y, and we suspect Y was a false flag" is one thing. Stating that Y was definitely a false flag when that's not widely believed or accepted does not strengthen the analogy but, rather, weakens it. You cannot keep saying "But it was a false flag!" repeatedly, in the hope people will begin to believe you (although many such suspects try this and only this). You have to go to some lengths to prove it.

    Indeed, much of the rationale for thinking that the Bataclan attack was a false flag event is a direct comparison to its similarity to the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Sandy Hook Massacre, and so forth. If the argument really just boils down to a string of analogies, then we have a problem because people can point to important dissimilarities and, in the words of Gerald Posner, declare "Case Closed".

    The claim "False flags are common" is a constant refrain amongst those who would argue that events like the attack at Bataclan is yet another example of the State blaming others for crimes it has committed. On The Podcaster's Guide to the Conspiracy Josh and myself discussed how many of the putative examples of "proven false flags" turn out to be anything but. That being said, there are plenty of examples of governments engaging in false flag activities (Gulf of Tonkin, anyone?), and given my career has been built on arguing conspiracies are more common than most of us think, I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the claim we underestimate the incidence of false flag-style events in contemporary politics. I just think that some people are so into crying "False flag!" they sometimes include examples which in no way seem to be cases of flagging falsely.

  2. It's convenient for the status quo: The cui bono hypothesis – the idea you can easily get to who is responsible for some event by asking who benefits from it – is one of those notions which seems nice and cute until you unpack it. Not everyone benefits from events they cause, and many people opportunistically profit from the misfortune of others. So, whilst an event like that we saw in Paris last week certainly could be seen as aiding and abetting the West in its endless "War on Terror", that may well be a by-product (a predictable one, even) of such an event; it certainly does not tell us that the real perpetrators must be elements in the French Government.

    A variation on this: Some have argued that it's awfully convenient that a climate change summit is happening in Paris at around about the same time. The idea is that it's convenient timing: France will use the attack to impose curfews (which will stop people protesting the summit), or it's all a smokescreen to allow the NWO to pass increasingly draconian laws in order to "save the planet".
    Yet, if we are serious about running the "Who benefits line?", then surely the obvious beneficiaries are the terrorists? We don't need to posit the French government in this this when we have obvious perpetrators and organisations willing to take responsibility. If we want to claim this is a false flag then, like the events of 9/11, we have to ask "Why is another group trying to claim all the glory here?"

    Although, of course, suitably filled out, the story of who to blame does reflect badly on the West. The West are the ones who have been interfering in Middle-Eastern politics for over a century, and thus created the volatile conditions that lead to the formation of Daesh and the Taliban. However, I don't think that is what people talking about false flag events are trying to get at…

  3. Why would refugees want to make themselves unwelcome by committing acts of terror? Well, they wouldn't. Let's not conflate refugees with terrorists, especially since, let's face it, it's probably the kind of conflation Daesh would quite like the West to adopt. After all, the attack at Bataclan was presumably designed to foment discord and terror. If we assume that the attack was the product of either Daesh or the Taliban (at this stage we still do not know), then we can point at explicit statements by both organisations that show they think such acts of terror will encourage new adherents, and also turn non-Muslims against Muslims.

    Now, it's possible some terrorists will make their way into a society by posing as refugees (although at this stage we have no proof of that in Paris; thus far the identified suspects are French citizens, aka homegrown terrorists), but that is no reason to conflate all refugees with the small subset of terrorists. The vast majority of refugees (if we assume there are some terrorists among them…) are refugees precisely because of terrorist activity back home. They are fleeing terrorisms, rather than exporting it.

    So, no, the refugees aren't committing acts of terror. Terrorists are committing acts of terror.

  4. Isn't Daesh/the Taliban financed by the West? It's true that the West has a fairly complex and mostly hypocritical relationship with many of the groups we deem "terrorist". Sometimes we have treated them as friends, only to decide one day that their enemies were our real friends all along, and sometimes we have continued to trade with them even after declaring them our worst enemies. The West really knows how to do hypocrisy well.1 But this doesn't tell us that, say, France was the real perpetrator. It just tells us that the story of who is really ultimately responsible for the tragedy is a lot more complex than the claim "Them terrorists…"

  5. The story keeps changing! How many attackers were there? How many people were killed? How many were injured? Was a passport found or not? What weapons were used? The story keeps changing!

    As the people at "Before It's News" write:

    This might seem inconsequential to many readers, but, in informed researching circles, it is well-known that the information that comes out shortly after the event is usually the most reliable. This is not to discount the existence of confusion related to panicked reports coming from eyewitnesses and the like.

    Except, when you think about that, what they've just claimed is nonsense; they admit witnesses can be confused, but initial reports are still apparently the most reliable. Yet that's a contentious, and thus controversial, position. Eye-witness testimony is the kind of thing psychologists have been studying in laboratory conditions for years now, and the results indicate that witnesses suffer from reliability problems within minutes of an event occurring. We like to think that our short term memories are good, and we only suffer problems as memories pass into long term storage, but that just isn't the case. Human memory is unreliable from the get go, which is why – in events like the attacks in Paris – we tend to generate the story of what happened not on the basis of individual testimony but, rather, the points of agreement amongst most witnesses.2

    So, it's to be expected that, in the immediate aftermath of an event like this details of the story will take a while to become clear, and that the first reports might seem anomalous in the long run. For example, not every witness is an expert in weapon identification, and some witnesses will think that a bystander holding a phone is yet another attacker. This stuff will get reported without being checked, and by the time people are sure of the details, the unchecked reports will be out there as "news". A changing story doesn't tell us much on its own…

Now, individually these arguments don't point towards the Bataclan attack being a false flag event, but some potent combination of them might. For example, an argument which draws upon points 1 (the analogy) & 2 (who benefits), backed up with 5 (what exactly happened) could be a good argument for inferring that a conspiracy exists. But then you would need to contrast that putative conspiratorial hypothesis with whatever rival explanatory hypotheses are available, and decide – on the balance of the probabilities – which is the best available explanation. It's this latter step that seems to be missing from these analyses; we're told "It's a false flag!" rather than persuaded that a false flag analysis is worth considering.

Now, on some level the idea that many – or even most – of these events might turn out to be false flags is reassuring; it would mean there is little actual terrorism (at least in the West; I'm not sure whether the people who cry "False flag!" say the same kind of thing about events in Syria or Lebanon…). Rather, the problem is the State, and its coercive and duplicitous practices. And maybe it is. Perhaps the real perpetrators of the attack at the Bataclan was the French State. I guess I'm as of yet unconvinced about this particular false flag, but I'll have more to say on this later this week, when Josh and I cover this story for the podcast.

Oh, and then there's this: the attack occurred on Black Friday (Friday the 13th), in November! In Paris! Historically, that's when and where the Templars were crushed by King Philip. Must be a templar connection! (Except, of course, that happened in October. Still, points for trying to make a connection…)


  1. For example, both the U.K. and the U.S.A. are against the use of chemical weapons, and yet quite happily sell said weapons to nations who they have previously criticised for daring to use them. Say, like Syria.
  2. Even that can be a problem, because witnesses will start to agree with one another the more they share information and reinforce each other's memories. It's a harder job than anyone thought, the process nailing down the details of what happens.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.