Why Jeffrey Epstein's death is fueling conspiracy theories

The circumstances of his apparent suicide practically scream foul play. But there's more to it than that.

Epstein mugshot
(Image credit: New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services/Handout via REUTERS)

If you weren't out of cell phone range all weekend, you probably already know that Jeffrey Epstein, the notorious pseudo-financier and jet-setting friend of the wealthy and powerful, accused of multiple counts of sex trafficking and sexual abuse of minors, was found dead in his prison cell on Saturday. In spite of a previous apparent suicide attempt only three weeks before, he was removed from suicide watch, and then left largely unmonitored in what looks like a violation of standard procedure. Given the number of prominent people who would have surely loved for him never to testify at trial, the circumstances of his death practically scream conspiracy and foul play.

Even educated, informed, and well-connected individuals responded to the news of Epstein's death with incredulity. Here is Paul Krugman's reaction:

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Is there anyone left in America who could possibly convince us otherwise?

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I mean that question seriously. Let's say that Attorney General William Barr oversees a thorough investigation of Epstein's death, as he has said he will, involving both the FBI and the Justice Department's inspector general. Let's say he concludes this was just an unfortunate screw-up: The chief psychologist at the prison foolishly allowed Epstein to talk his way out of suicide watch, and the overworked prison staff let him slip through the cracks after that. Would anyone believe him?

Say further that Barr actively encourages congressional oversight of those investigations, to assure Americans that it is not a coverup. He even reaches out to an experienced veteran of unimpeachable integrity — Robert Mueller, say — to independently confirm the investigation's findings. Would that put the case to rest?

I doubt it. Part of what made the Epstein story so gruesomely compelling was precisely the confirmatory evidence it supplied that all branches of the American elite are rotten to the core. A well-known sleaze bag whose money seemed to appear out of nowhere was on excellent terms with business elites, legal lions, British royals, and two presidents. It's reasonable to ask if the young girls (and the dirty money) were not merely overlooked, but were the basis of those friendships. A bipartisan conclusion that there was nothing to see here would only confirm for many the vast scale of the coverup.

Meanwhile, with our conspiracy-monger-in-chief President Trump actively tying Epstein's death to decades-old fantasies of Clintonian infamy, it surely won't be long before many on the left conclude that Trump is trying to distract from the "real" conspiracy, in which he himself is implicated, by peddling a fake one. The easiest escape from the Scylla of dashed belief in all authority is to be sucked back into the comfortable Charybdis of purely partisan paranoia.

Belief in conspiracies is a fairly normal response both to endemic corruption and to a loss of personal control over one's circumstances. But while such beliefs provide a welcome feeling of understanding, they actually foster a collective psychology which makes corruption worse, and conspiracies easier to mount. As Trump's successful run for president should have demonstrated once and for all, there's no better place to hide than in plain sight.

I don't exempt myself at all from the phenomenon I am describing. I am aware that deaths in prison, suicides very much included, have gotten more and more common; that Epstein was clearly very good at conning people and could well have conned them into believing he was not suicidal; that the truly vast conspiracies are open conspiracies of silence where huge numbers of people know the truth, but nobody does anything about it. Epstein's own career was one of these. His death is unlikely to have been one. But I still felt pretty much the way Krugman did when I heard the news. It seems ridiculous to imagine that the state could, through mere ineptness, lose such a valuable witness to widespread corruption. Surely there's more to the story.

And there may be. But unless we trust someone to ferret it out and tell it, we'll never hear it. If we can't find our way back to general confidence in someone's integrity, honesty, and zeal for the truth, then we'll very quickly be in a world where no one expects someone like Jeffrey Epstein to live to stand trial, and where, therefore, no one like him ever does.

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