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It's been a banner year for conspiracy theories. Forget the old days when the panic seemed confined to crop-circle farmers and alien-friendly hippies -- today, conspiracy theories are not just for the kooky fringe. The practice of outlandish hypothesizing has gone mainstream.

Everyone from your local bartender to the Queen of England is citing dark "unknown forces" that control society from the shadows. Consider it equal-opportunity paranoia.

This year, The New Statesman compiled a list of recent international opinion polls revealing that an extraordinary number of people believe that world events are being controlled by shadowy off-stage elements.

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Among the revelations: A near-majority of the Arab world believes that Jews were warned of the World Trade Center attacks; an actual majority believes that the Princess of Wales was murdered because she had a Muslim boyfriend; more than 50 per cent of all black Americans believe that the Central Intelligence Agency approves of widespread drug use in their community because of its pacifying effect, and one-fifth believe that the AIDS epidemic was introduced by the CIA; 80 per cent of all Americans believe that the U.S. government is deliberately concealing the true explanation behind Gulf War syndrome.

Add to this the runaway success of Thierry Meyssan's book L'Effroyable Impasture (The Horrible Fraud), which insists that no plane crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 -- rather, he says, it was a planned internal bombing by the U.S. government to control rogue elements within the military.

The book was an unprecedented bestseller in France, breaking the national record for first-month sales previously held by Madonna's Sex.

Are we all losing our minds together? Not at all, Toronto psychotherapist Catherine Gildiner says. As each day reveals the latest news of another encoded Osama bin Laden tape, another alleged sexual assault at the Buckingham Palace and warnings of where the next terrorist attack might be, it's only natural the darkest parts of our imaginations are running wild.

"Conspiracy theories are really a contagious form of paranoia which encompasses a society," she said.

"All of this conspiracy theorizing going on now is a collective form of post-traumatic stress disorder. It's our brains preparing ourselves for the next attack. In psychiatric terms, it's called hyper-vigilance.

"What do we do to ward off trauma as a society? We try to be prepared."

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This is assuming, of course, that most conspiracy theories are not worth the Web sites they're posted on. Recent world events make conspiracy master-theorist (and former BBC television presenter) David Icke look halfway to normal. If they can blow up the World Trade Center and have orgies aboard the Royal Britannia, why shouldn't the world be ruled by an intimate and all-powerful coterie of 12-foot intergalactic lizards?

Jon Ronson's book, Them: Adventures With Extremists,is about the increasingly mainstream world of conspiracies and the people who espouse them. From the Ku Klux Klan to David Icke to the real live secret order of world leaders, the Bilderberg Group.

Mr. Ronson manages to sneak into a meeting of the Bilderberg where he witnessed statesmen and captains of industry paying homage to a 50-foot stone owl and ritualistically urinating against trees in unison -- and yes, by the way, these people run the world.

None of it comes as a surprise to David Bell (who didn't want his real name used -- don't call him paranoid), a 35-year-old Toronto financier, who is one of the seemingly growing number of "normal" conspiracy theorists out there -- people who operate in mainstream society, but hold highly unorthodox views about the world.

After reading hundreds of books about conspiracies on everything from the Order of the Knights of the Templar to who killed JFK (hint: it wasn't Lee Harvey Oswald), Mr. Bell says he is absolutely convinced that no plane hit the Pentagon, that the Bush family is a criminal organization, and that the moon is really a space ship. And that's just for starters.

"I try not to be locked in one belief system and to be open to the most far-out ideas," he said. "The truth is, I like to believe this stuff -- I want to believe it. I can't imagine the dull reality most people live in." Leah McLaren is a Globe and Mail correspondent in London.

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