In the wake of alleged LAX gunman Paul Anthony Ciancia’s shooting rampage that left one TSA agent dead and two others wounded, police are analyzing a handwritten note—riddled with anti-government sentiment—that they say Ciancia was carrying at the time of the attack. Among the ramblings about law enforcement “pigs” and “fiat currency,” the letter reportedly contains a reference to the “NWO”—the New World Order, a common topic among conspiracy theorists and fringe groups. As it turns out, the idea of a New World Order has been around for decades—and has long been tinged by the specter of violence. The Daily Beast traces the evolution of the idea from the First World War to the end of the Cold War and beyond.
‘The Open Conspiracy’
It might be easy to mistake the NWO as a concept born out of Tea Party politics, since the movement occasionally throws the term around, especially when talking about the Obama administration. But Jesse Walker, author of The United States of Paranoia, says that the idea has been a constant in modern American political life and its historical roots run deep. Today, paranoiacs associate the phrase ‘New World Order’ with a shadowy one-world government—one in which sinister bankers, United Nations officials, and corrupt government leaders collude in secret to make the rest of us into Orwellian mind-slaves.
According to Walker, the League of Nations introduced the term to the political and cultural lexicon after the First World War to describe “evolving world institutions.” The New World Order was also the titular subject of writer H.G. Wells’ 1940 treatise, published one year after the outbreak of World War II, which advocated that nation states band together to prevent future outbreaks of war (“I am not going to write peace propaganda here,” Wells wrote.) The idea of a one-world government also appears, in a thinly-veiled form, in Wells’ 1933 book The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints For a World Revolution (whose subtitle he later changed to, “What Are We To Do With Our Lives?”), which encouraged a “mental sanitation process” to erase nationalistic ideals from people’s consciousness so they can accept their new roles as “world citizen[s].”
The Birchers Vs. Soviet Communists
A new band of conspiracy theorists perpetuated NWO paranoia in the 1950s, championed by the John Birch Society, named after an American intelligence officer and Baptist missionary killed during a melee with Chinese communists. Birch, often called the “first victim of the Cold War,” became a martyr for the far right.
“They were infamous for accusing prominent, powerful Americans of being tools of an international communist conspiracy,” says Walker of the Birch Society. “By the 1960s, Birch Society people and others of that orientation started picking up on [the New World Order]... It’s tied up with an anxiety not just about a loss of sovereignty but a fear of centralized power of all kinds.” (These days, the John Birch Society often comes up in articles and blog posts about the billionaire Koch brothers, whose father was a prominent member.)
‘90s Counterculture Adopts NWO Theories
As the Cold War receded into history, the New World Order was redefined again. In the 1990s, NWO conspiracy theorists believed the bipolar world—in which the superpower of the West faced off against the superpower of Communism—would be replaced with a one-world government established by the Cold War victors. It didn’t help when, in a 1990 speech, President George H.W. Bush used the term to define the new post-Cold War era.
The populist right, the militia movement, and anti-Bush leftists became obsessed by the phrase—and it entered the counterculture. “It summarizes this whole idea that not only are we losing our individual liberty to big government at home but we’re losing national sovereignty to some larger global force,” says Walker. “Conspiracy theories often take real trends and turn them into a metaphor where there’s a vast intelligence behind that trend. So someone writing critically about the NWO in a conspiratorial way and a non-conspiratorial way might be criticizing the same thing.”
In comparison to other NWO conspiracy theorists, experts say Ciancia is an outlier. Yet, as Walker notes, the leap from despising a New World Order to demonizing TSA agents is, sadly, not a huge one. “Of course, if you’re worried about moving towards a dictatorship or a police state—the creation of a new police-like agency with intrusive powers—I’m not surprised that someone who complains about NWO complains about TSA.”