Within days of the 9/11 attacks, the conspiracy theories started: “Why were Jews told not to go to work that day? We’ve got to get to the bottom of this!” The first 9/11 conspiracy theory was an anti-semitic attack.

9/11 conspiracy theories became a cottage industry. “Bush ordered it!” “Bankers did it to make money on real estate!” “Shadowy government operatives carried it out to destroy evidence!” “There were no planes, it was all faked with Hollywood special effects!” “All the people who allegedly died were paid off and now they’re in hiding!”

Books were sold and made money. Warriors spread through internet message boards. Theories spread like cancer.

We’d had this before — the Moon landing hoaxers and so on. But 9/11 swelled their ranks. Even so, the beast was kind of small. Dangerous, but it could be contained.

But then, people in power — and people who wanted power — began to appeal to these crazy people with their crazy theories. They found they could harness their energy and feed their distrust and anger enough that they’d do things for them — commit crimes, shoot people, blow things up. Unscrupulous people discovered that conspiracy theorists were effective political weapons. There were the Obama birthers, people who claimed the government carried out mass shootings to steal our guns, QAnon, and now the Big Election Lie contingent. People with hate in their hearts were given targets and set loose.

Amoral politicians are willing to feed gasoline to the flames of conspiracy theorists, hoping they’ll burn it all down. These power-hungry people know that times of fear and uncertainty are when demagogues can become dictators, so anything that breeds more fear and uncertainty will be good for them.

The problem is that once you’ve turned conspiracy theorists into weapons, once they’re done getting your enemies for you, they’ll turn on you. Once the beast is out of the cage, it can’t be controlled. It can never be controlled. Throwing red meat to the ravenous only makes them want more meat.