Conspiracy Corner – The Mysterious Death of Michael Hastings (Redux)

Every Thursday, about 8:15am, Matthew talks with Zac about conspiracy theories on 95bFM’s “Breakfast Show”.

Michael Hastings, the journalist who wrote “The Runaway General” and died in a freak accident on the 18th of June this year, is someone I’ve talked about before and I revisited today, due to new information (the toxicology report).

At the time of his death, there was an open question in certain communities as to whether the freak accident which resulted in Michael Hasting’s death was really just happenstance or whether it was the next step in America’s war on whistleblowers? Back in June I wondered what the toxicology report was going to say about Hasting’s state of health at the time of the accident, given that I was leaning towards the freak accident hypothesis rather than the conspiracy theory; if Hastings was under the influence, then his accident, tragic as it was, would be the most likely explanation, given that freak accidents happen all the time.

Now, I meant to cover this material a fortnight ago, when it was recent news, but then the Colin Craig thing came up and last week I had a severe bout of tonsillitis. ((If you are thinking of getting tonsillitis for Christmas, think again. It’s really much more horrible than you imagine it to be.)) Anyway, long story long, the toxicology report came back and it showed he had traces of alcohol and amphetamines in his system. Meanwhile, this report in the New York Times goes on to suggest that Hastings’s not only had a troubled relationship with drinking but that he had been using other substances in recent months as well (which might well have fuelled his well-documented paranoia).

Now, any advocate of a “They killed him!” theory worth their salt will go “Well, of course that’s the narrative “they” (the conspirators) want you to believe!” Indeed, even if Michael Hastings’s was under the influence when he died, that doesn’t mean we can completely wash away the hypothesis that he was assassinated; whilst the fact he had trace elements of pot and speed in his system certainly gives weight to the theory he died because he was driving under the influence, it doesn’t preclude the possibility that

  1. He was murdered and
  2. Either the story about his substance use is manufactured or his actual substance use is a convenient distraction from the real cause of his accident.

The conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Michael Hastings centre on two distinct (but often conflated) hypotheses.

  1. He was a problem that needed dealing with.
  2. His death was mysterious.

Now, whilst the former plays into the latter, they are still distinct theories in their own right. The former, the theory that Hastings was a problem–in that he had embarrassed the Establishment–is meant to give us a reason as to why someone or some group might desire his death. After all, Michael Hastings exposed a rogue general running a counterinsurgency programme according to his own dictates, rather than that of Congress. ((Given that Chrystal’s successor, General David Petreaus, really didn’t do anything particularly different, if it was a rogue operation, changing Generals didn’t seem to result in a change of policy.)) Hastings was also reported to be working on a report about the Director of the CIA, John Brennan, who is a pretty powerful target who might not like having exposes written about him. As such, there’s a story you can tell which goes “Look, he pissed off people in power and it looks like he was going to do it all over again; let’s get rid of the guy!”

However, “getting rid of the guy” doesn’t entail “Let’s kill him!” There are lots of ways to get rid of someone whilst leaving them conveniently alive. You could tarnish their reputation, for example (as people claim has happened to Julian Assange); murder by death is not the only card that can be played here.

The mysterious death of Michael Hastings certainly fits with the theory he needed to be dealt with (if you think that’s a plausible theory to begin with) but it isn’t entailed by it. This is why we have to ask “Just how mysterious was his death?” If it turns out his death most closely resembles a tragic accident, then that weighs against the theory he was murdered because tragic accidents happen all the time, whilst state-sanctioned murders are, relatively, rare.

Indeed, what I think is doing a lot of the work here is is that Hasting’s death was remarkable-qua-a famous person died. ((Conspiracy theories are abounding about the tragic car accident which killed the movie star, Paul Walker. “Dying whilst famous” basically gets you a free conspiracy theory these days.)) If dying whilst famous is the only thing which distinguishes this tragic accident from some other, similar accident, then that’s a problem, I think, for the conspiracy theory.

As I said at the time, Michael Hasting’s death looked like it was a tragic accident and whilst it’s understandable to say “I wonder if his work meant certain people were pleased he was dead” it’s a mistake to think that means it’s likely he was killed. The toxicology report, I think, lends even more support to the tragic accident thesis. That being said, given the mysterious nature of his death, and the fact that the trace elements of pot and speed are at a level people are going to go “Well, he could have been more under the influence!”, I imagine the conspiracy theories about this case will continue to persist. America, with its seeming hatred of transparency and its vendetta against those who would hold it to account, is not helping here at all.