In My Opinion | Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen: On flaky professors and nutty ideas

As of this writing, conspiracy flake James Tracy still has a job teaching at Florida Atlantic University, despite having stated the following:

“While it sounds like an outrageous claim, one is left to inquire whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place — at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation’s news media have described.”

Written on his personal blog, Tracy’s theory ignited international outrage, more anguish in Newtown, Conn., and uncountable demands that he be fired.

But instead of canning Professor Tracy, FAU should put him on display as a lab specimen of paranoia in full bloom. Let him continue teaching his “Culture of Conspiracy” classes and video-stream his lectures, so that students far and wide can study this bizarre psychological phenomenon.

The most disturbing of historic events — from Pearl Harbor to the Holocaust, from the Kennedy assassinations to the 9/11 attacks — have spawned rabid cults of doubters. The Internet has given these agitated souls what they never had before: a gathering place, where they can fantasize endlessly among their own kind.

Soon after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, Tracy declared that the media coverage “was intended primarily for public consumption to further larger political ends.” He called the tragedy a “meticulously crafted façade” and hinted that the facts were being manipulated by gun-control advocates in government!

Several hundred journalists were apparently duped, or secretly in league with the anti-gun plotters. Included by implication in the dark cabal were the eyewitnesses, survivors, first responders, coroners, Connecticut State Police and families of the victims (if there really were any victims).

What made Tracy stand out from other ranting online troglodytes was his tenured position at FAU in Boca Raton. The university administration was duly embarrassed and apologetic, but also compelled to note that Tracy had posted the rubbish on his own blog, on his own time.

Within days, a queasy reality took hold of the professor himself, and he began to backpedal. In an interview with West Palm Beach’s WPTV, he said:

“In terms of saying that Sandy Hook, the Newtown massacre, did not take place is really a simplification — an oversimplification — of what I said.”

Oh, how he must have wished that were true. Then, lurching onward: “I said there may very well be elements of that event that are synthetic to some degree, that are somewhat contrived. I think that, overall, the media really did drop the ball.”

If you’re waiting to hear Tracy’s version of what really happened in Newtown, don’t hold your breath. He hasn’t specified which aspects of the press coverage were “synthetic” or “contrived,” though he has tepidly conceded that 20 first-graders probably did die from gunfire that day in the school.

Well, at least those darn reporters got something right.

On-scene bedlam is part of any mass murder. Conflicting and even wrong information always gets passed along in the first frantic minutes. That happened in Newtown, just as it did in lower Manhattan in 2001.

It wasn’t a conspiracy at Sandy Hook Elementary; it was honest human error. Law-enforcement sources told journalists things that turned out to be inaccurate (misidentifying the shooter as his brother, for example, and stating that their mother was a teacher at the school). The mistakes were corrected within hours.

In the end, the facts of the crime remain hideously simple. Twenty-six people, most of them first-graders, were shot dead by a single, heavily armed man named Adam Lanza. The blood on the walls was real, the bodies were real, and so is the lifelong heartbreak.

Many believe that the pain caused to the families by Tracy’s blogging justifies his firing by FAU. Others, including some who are mortified by his postings, say his views should be tolerated because campuses ought to be havens of intellectual freedom.

Incompetence is a separate issue. That a professor of communications is so ignorant of basic news-gathering practices is pathetic, but at this point Tracy’s value in the classroom is not as an instructor but rather as a case study.

He’s not just another academic blowhard with scant real-world experience. He’s a bona fide conspiracy kook who appears disarmingly normal. For that reason alone he’s worth observing, though it remains to be seen how many students will be flocking to his lectures.

If FAU dumps him, Tracy will be a hero in the sweaty universe of anti-government paranoids, who already blame sinister forces for the professor’s misfortunes.

These days he’s keeping a low profile, ducking Anderson Cooper and hunkering in the shadows of the Internet, where no idea is too repugnant to find a fan base.

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