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“For many years I sincerely believed that an extraterrestrial threat existed and that it was the most important driving force behind world events. I was wrong and for that I most deeply and humbly apologize.” — Bill Cooper

The conspiracist M. William Cooper (but you can call him Bill) was born in 1943. According to his bio, he was a Vietnam-era veteran of both the Navy and the Air Force, and later some sort of photographer, before making a name for himself in the “UFOlogist” counterculture of the 1980s with extraordinary tales of extraterrestrial races, secret human populations on the moon, and a predilection for championing known hoaxes (such as the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion) as documentary evidence of a worldwide global conspiracy of the rich and powerful, intent on enslaving every last one of us. Cooper even had a term for you and I, the everyday schlubs who refuse to see the truth in his message and join him on his crusade. We were mere “sheeple,” he’d say — a portmanteau of sheep and people — “cattle by choice and by consent.”

“I read while in Naval Intelligence,” he claimed in his book Behold A Pale Horse, “that at least once a year, maybe more, two nuclear submarines meet beneath the polar icecap and mate together at an airlock. Representatives of the Soviet Union meet with the Policy Committee of the Bilderberg Group. The Russians are given the script for their next performance. Items on the agenda include the combined efforts in the secret space program.”

The secret space program, of course, is the operation that has established a military presence on the moon and Mars.

Cooper continues: “I now have in my possession official NASA photographs of a moonbase in the crater Copernicus.”

Conspiracy theorists all tend to draw on a common pool of elements, but few could match Cooper in his ability to account for almost every fringe idea out there. The effect, for those who accepted his message, must have been profound — like having the veil lifted from your eyes and, for the first time, seeing the world as it really is. Even though I thought the whole thing was nuts, his was still a compelling and highly entertaining alternate universe; one where every day the forces of good and evil were locked in conflict, where every question could be explained by invoking the Illuminati or the New World Order. Cooper described a world where everything had its place and everything was significant. No one — not the History Channel, not Steven Spielberg — could make history come alive quite like him. Even if his “history” was often no more real than the one where Kirk and Spock are caught infiltrating the Space Nazis in violation of the Prime Directive.

This might be a photo from the Branch Davidian siege, but it’s probably from the TV miniseries Waco

This might be a photo from the Branch Davidian siege, but it’s probably from the TV miniseries Waco

April 19, 1993 was a cool spring morning. My dad drove me out to some shitty small town somewhere out in Erie County to apply for a job at a mill or cardboard box factory or something. It was my senior year at General McLane High School, and most of my graduating class was getting ready to either join the military, move on to a state school of higher education, or go work in a plant somewhere. None of those options appealed to me, so the guidance counselor at my vocational school set me up with an interview for a gig as a COBOL programmer ( which I was totally unqualified for). As we made the trip in silence, I prayed to God that I wouldn’t get the job. And for the first time in my life, I’m pleased to say, the power of prayer worked.

I still remember sitting in the car on the way home, hearing the news that the ATF was rolling up to the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in armored vehicles and filling it with tear gas. I didn’t know what to think about it, except that it didn’t sound like a good development. Wasn’t that place full of kids? It soon turned out that we were ear-witnessing a slow-motion, cold-blooded murder on AM news radio. In total, 87 people died (28 were under the age of 21) for no good reason. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious that the massacre was an FBI fuck-up of monstrous proportions, and that the raid itself was unwarranted.

Throughout the 51-day siege, I was captivated by Bill Cooper’s radio show, The Hour of the Time. Each episode began with an air raid siren, then a sort of poem read in a weird robot voice (which bears considerable resemblance to Vincent Price’s opening monologue on the cult-classic Canadian kids show The Hilarious House of Frightenstein). Add the marching of jackboot thugs, screams, and dogs barking, and you’re primed for nightmares before Cooper even opens his mouth.

The show’s formula was strikingly similar to the one that Alex Jones follows today. Essentially, the facts of the siege were bent beyond recognition in an effort to make the tragedy fit his pet New World Order conspiracy theory. (To give credit where it’s due, Cooper was one of the first to report that the Branch Davidians were a mostly harmless Christian sect with ties to the community, which turned out to be true. He also said that he caught the ATF on video doing some sort of Satanic-Illuminati rain dance around the smoldering remains of the compound, which has yet to be definitively proven.)

Bill Cooper died soon after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. He had been holed up in his home in a small town in Arizona for a number of years, wanted by the feds for tax evasion. Like many of those militia-types, he had done the calculations and decided that, through a series of regulatory perambulations I could never quite fathom (including something about writing “the united States of America” with a lowercase “united”) that the income tax was unconstitutional, and therefore he simply wouldn’t pay it. This, of course, made “Wild Bill” a criminal, by definition. For years the feds knew where he was, but they never went after him. The last thing they wanted, after Waco, was another bloodbath.

In the end, Bill’s death came at the hands of local law enforcement. Responding to an aggravated assault complaint, they tried to coax him out of his yard sometime before noon on November 5, 2001. A gunfight ensued: one officer was critically wounded, and Cooper was killed. Since then, the aftershocks of two major cultural forces — the September 11 attacks and the growing power of the internet — have splintered his message into innumerable pieces and scattered them throughout our society. Everything from the 9/11 truthers to the yuppie war against vaccination, from the current crop of post-apocalyptic, anti-authoritarian Young Adult novels to the absurd practice of taking loaded assault rifles into Chipotle and Instagramming about it later; the doomsday rhetoric thrown around by the likes of Glenn Beck and the late Michael Ruppert all contain somewhere within it the DNA of Bill Cooper.

(The above originally appeared in The Conspiracy Review on March 31, 2015)

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In 2018, I interviewed author Mark Jacobson about his new book Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America. The following is taken from that conversation, in which we talk about Cooper’s origins and his influence on the community of UFO true believers.

You can hear the whole conversation here:

LENNY: One of the reviews I read of your book, it basically said that since you didn't interrogate Cooper's claims enough that [your book] was pro-conspiracy or dangerous somehow. I just thought it was really absurd.

MARK: Like anything else, there is good conspiracy and bad conspiracy. Like there's good comedies and bad comedies. But the book was a character study of a guy who kind of had a parallel life to the way the world was going. In a strange way, the American Republic, for a real fleeting moment, was on the same wavelength as William Cooper. You know, he was on the same wavelength as America.

It seemed like the underlying message to me of that review — and this is something I see a lot on Twitter and social media and among people, you know, with capital-I “Ideas” — it's that Bill Cooper's craziest ideas are not dangerous, or bad ideas, because they're wrong. They're bad ideas because they will inflict damage on the Democratic Party.

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Well, yeah. I mean, that's the dumbest version of it, you know?

He's a person that was really an extremist his entire life. But a lot of people are like that. He just sort of carried it through to the nth degree, which made him interesting enough for me to write a book about.

If an adult can't read a book that says, you know, that we have slave colonies on the moon or something, and can't be trusted to make their own decision as to whether or not that's true, why are you even reading a book?

When John Lear tells you that there are a half-billion people living on the moon — I mean, I was in his house, where he's telling me this, right? So like, I'm saying, “how come like nobody else knows this?” [laughs]

Was UFOlogy Bill Cooper's first foray into this alternative media world?

I think Cooper was kind of a fuckup. He was from a military family, and they're all officers. Every single one of them was an officer, and eventually became officers in the Army Air Corps. His father was what they call a “light colonel,” Lieutenant Colonel. But Cooper went in as an enlisted man, which I always wondered about, I never really could track it down. Like, why wouldn’t a guy from a family of all officers become an officer? Now, I don't know what that is.

He wants to be in the Navy, but he got seasick so he couldn't be in the Navy. So he went in the Air Force, and the first thing they do, he's more or less cleaning the atom bombs. So you got this kind of apocalyptic thing going on because he can't get away from these atom bombs, the things that are gonna blow up the entire Earth. So he's got this existential problem about that, and he writes about it [in his book Behold A Pale Horse], and it's pretty moving.

Then he finally gets into the Navy. He wants to fight in the Vietnam War, because that's what's going on then. So Cooper's a gung-ho guy. He gets sent to the front and becomes a PT boat captain, where he begins to notice that things aren't quite the way they presented them stateside. We're not really fighting for freedom [in Vietnam].

I'm not putting words in his mouth. He says it: We're here to subjugate these people. And this is their home, not ours, you know? He basically becomes this Vietnam War veteran against the war. And this shatters his whole worldview. He comes from a military family, and the commanding officer who would be identified with your father, and he realizes that everything they're telling him is a lie. This is a shattering experience that probably informed the rest of his life.

When he gets out of the war, he's got this nasty case of PTSD. I have the documentation. He was in the VA hospital for this on at least two occasions, and he was an outpatient for a long time as well.

When he got back from Vietnam, he tried to live a normal life. But it wasn't working out. He had at least five wives, maybe more. But I was able to track down five different marriages that he had. Bill Cooper's dream was to be a normal regular family man in the American sense. Sort of the Leave It to Beaver kind of existence that he was never able to live when it was actually happening.

There's a dark period in the 1980s where he works for a bunch of colleges, and he's trying to make a living. He's always pressed for money. He’s living in trailers. And he's a drunk. He's definitely a drunk, he beats up his wives. They all leave him.

In the late 1980s, the flying saucer business was huge. One of the main dichotomies of people that are interested in flying saucers, the question is: Are the people from outer space good guys? Are they bad guys? It comes down to your view of the unknown — is the unknown good or bad?

The idea of these spiritual masters, those are the risen masters that are mostly cribbed out of Madame Blavatsky's ideas, theosophy and stuff like that, that these risen masters are going to help us out, and they are from outer space. And then there's the other people. X-Files is the popularization of all these nasty alien stories. The idea that they've infiltrated the government. That Kennedy was killed because he was going to blow the lid on the UFO thing. Cooper and his guys, the people around him, were very instrumental in creating that whole X-Files scenario. In fact, Cooper was very angry at Chris Carter, the guy who created X-Files, because he totally ripped them off. And in fact, I talked back to Chris Carter, and he admitted that he ripped off Cooper!

The truth is out there (really out there)

The truth is out there (really out there)

What if Cooper is just revealing our history? You know, then Carter didn't really rip him off.

Well, I mean, if it's a fact, that's one thing. [laughs] I think I'd like to see the proof myself personally.

A lot of his stuff is reductionist, in the sense that it's taking things like social ills, or what he perceives as social ills, and blaming them on secret societies or something. But at the same time, you know, he's not a dull guy. He was a deep thinker, and poetic at times.

Bill Cooper was an intellectual. That's what he was. He was an intellectual, he was somebody who was interested in the life of the mind. He was interested in this kind of stuff. That was really his main goal. He's an intellectual who was trying to figure stuff out. I mean, he may not be doing it in the way that most people that go to Harvard do it. But that's completely legitimate, and I don't think that he should be put down just because he only went to community college.

I live in Brooklyn, New York. I'm a native New Yorker. I grew up in this city. I went to public schools. My father was a New York City public school teacher. I have a certain orientation towards the public-private sector battle that goes on in this country, that's always going to be there. So most of the people I know might be called liberals, right? But I don't agree with hardly anything they say these days, because I feel that they're not trying to think outside the box. They learned certain stuff in college, and they just keep repeating it to themselves.

When I said I was working on a book about a guy like Bill Cooper, most people said, “I never heard of him, who is he?” But I've written a lot of books. So I said, “Well, he was this guy who had a radio show,” and after hearing a bit about him, they reply, “he sounds like a right-winger!” Well, who cares? [laughs] Right-wingers are people too! I mean, I'm a journalist, man. I'm not a polemicist. I'm not here to like, not even care what half the people in the country do just because they vote for the Republican Party. I mean, it's not my orientation.