You’ve seen home videos like it: family scurrying in a kitchen while preparing a holiday meal. A father carrying a turkey to the counter to be carved; a mother washing dishes. Young daughters, anxious, watching the whole mess. Hours of recorded footage to be savored later—or to simply sit in a box, forgotten.
It was Thanksgiving Day, 1998, in Eagar, Arizona. The FBI was monitoring the family inside a small home atop a hill in the White Mountains. The home belonged to Milton William Cooper, a veteran of the Vietnam war who worked in Naval Intelligence. Host of The Hour of the Time, an infamous shortwave radio show that opened with an air-raid siren, commanding voices, barking dogs, screams, and stomping jackboots. Author of Behold a Pale Horse, one of the most shoplifted books in America—and one of the most-read books in prisons. There was a warrant out for Cooper’s arrest: He’d been indicted on tax evasion and bank fraud. In response, Cooper posted a warning on his website: “Any attempt by the federal government or anyone else to execute the unconstitutional and unlawful arrest warrants will be met with armed resistance.” It was a warning, and prediction, that would later come true.
Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America by Mark Jacobson is a worthwhile introduction to one of the most unique personalities in the world of conspiracy theories. In a business full of hucksters, paranoiacs, and would-be messiahs, Cooper is the prototype: the insider-turned-outsider, the radio show host behind a movement. Jacobson, an investigative journalist and contributing editor for New York magazine, creates a complex portrayal of Cooper that recognizes why he has become a mythic figure but doesn’t fall prey to the legend. Jacobson is clear that Cooper was physically abusive in his personal relationships and that his paranoid view of the world reached a dangerous fever pitch.
Soon after that Thanksgiving movie was filmed (and sold online to his supporters), Cooper’s wife Annie and her daughters left the home, never to return. Cooper’s drinking had fueled battles with his previous wives and girlfriends, but even when he cut down, his temper caused problems. The passion that Cooper poured into his research, writing, and radio show was not performance: He could be volatile and mercurial, but he could also be prescient.
To his credit, Jacobson is able to present Cooper’s alleged predictions with a grain of salt. In 1991, within Behold a Pale Horse, Cooper seemed to foresee the rise of school shootings: “The sharp increase of prescriptions of psychoactive drugs like Prozac and Ritalin to younger and younger children will inevitably lead to a rash of horrific school shootings … [these incidents] will be used by elements of the federal government as an excuse to infringe upon the citizenry’s Second Amendment rights.” Jacobson is careful to couch these predictions within a particular worldview—as an author, he doesn’t think Cooper’s internal analysis is actually sound—to demonstrate how Cooper’s beliefs influenced and nurtured a burgeoning “patriot” movement.
On June 2, 2001, Cooper began talking about Osama bin Laden during his recording of The Hour of the Time. He claimed that bin Laden was trained and funded by the CIA. “I’m telling you to be prepared for a major attack,” he warned. “Something terrible is going to happen in this country. And whatever is going to happen they’re going to blame on Osama bin Laden. Don’t you even believe it.”
Did William Cooper, a shortwave radio host, predict the 9/11 attacks two months prior, in a small home studio near the New Mexico border? “Predict,” as Jacobson is aware, suggests preternatural knowledge. Back in 1999, CNN was already publishing articles with headlines like “Bin Laden Feared to Be Planning Terrorist Attack” and even identifying Washington D.C. as one of the potential locations. It might be better to claim that Cooper, like other radio host and raconteurs who speak in recursive sentences laden with ambiguity, was able to make us think that he could connect the mysterious dots of the world without actually drawing the lines.
Cooper would often give his audience a suggestion: “Listen to everyone, read everything, believe nothing until you, yourself, can prove it with your own research.” Such advice sounds reasonable, but democratization of knowledge tends to make expertise less important than personal experience. Cooper began his own investigative journey at Long Beach College, where he expressed his anger at how Vietnam veterans were treated upon their return. Cooper was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and received treatment at the VA hospital in Long Beach, California, twice, in 1981 and 1982.
His interest in conspiracy theories began with Roswell. A central myth of American UFO lore, the event had been resurrected by The Roswell Incident, a 1980 book by Charles Berlitz, language school scion and paranormal researcher. Jacobson writes, “Now the weakness of the Roswell narrative—the insufficient eyewitness testimony, the lack of compelling physical evidence—became the case’s greatest selling point. If Roswell was relegated to obscurity, someone at the top must have wanted it that way. It was an axiom of modern life: the extent of obfuscation is in direct proportion to what the authorities felt they needed to hide. The bigger the secret, the bigger the cover-up.”
Jacobson is on to something with such observations, but he quickly returns to a biography of Cooper. It is a fascinating biography, to be sure. Ol’ Dirty Bastard called Cooper “curriculum,” one that was studied and even preached by Big Daddy Kane, Busta Rhymes, Tupac Shakur, Mobb Deep, and Nas. Domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh was a fan of Cooper’s radio show and writings, even visiting him once before the Oklahoma City attack (Cooper had been unnerved by the encounter, describing McVeigh, who was unknown to him, as acting like a zombie; after the attack, Cooper recounted the incident to the FBI and even offered a tip that a Florida militia man was planning a similar attack).
Pale Horse Rider begins to consider the lineage between Cooper and Alex Jones, but it would have benefitted from a fuller examination. Although some claim that Cooper even predicted an “outsider” president like Donald Trump, more consideration of the overlap between the rhetoric of Cooper and Trump is warranted. Jacobson gives us a taste; his first chapter is a concise overview of the road from Cooper to Trump. Still, there’s more to be said. The route between the men and their supporters is not a direct one, though. Cooper’s worldview was a menagerie of folklore and fear, but he was doggedly American. Trump, never a veteran of peacetime or war, is something else entirely.
Is this too much to ask of a biography? Should we expect Jacobson to keep digging and create a more forceful argument connecting Cooper to our present moment? Maybe. Pale Horse Rider is a request that Milton William Cooper is worthy of our sustained attention. It is a hypnotic dive into a world where theory is considered fact.
Film critics have lauded the French thriller Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One) with adjectives fit for a personal ad: “taut,” “sexy,” “smart…” Having recently caught a matinee, I’m willing to attest to its tautness. However, the climax reminded me that dramatic smarts entail more than a pensive hero and a Gallic pedigree. By way of elaboration, I will now spoil the ending: A bad guy, training a gun on the hero, maps out one of the most convoluted conspiracies this side of Behold, A Pale Horse. Then he orders the hero to keep listening: “But wait, there’s more. I also killed your father.”The “Let me explain my master plan” speech is a staple of crime novels, and has enlivened any number of TV shows. We accept the convention without balking because generic narratives like The ABC Murders, Scooby Doo, and Murder, She Wrote aren’t claiming to be “smart”; they’re meant to entertain. But when characters who’ve been granted all the appurtenances of serious drama – histories, mannerisms, tastes – are suddenly reduced to conduits for information, as they are in Tell No One, the reader experiences cognitive dissonance. Who writes this stuff? he wonders.The answer, in this case, is the quintessentially American Harlan Coben, from whose novel the film was adapted. In a memorable Atlantic Monthly profile last year, Eric Konigsberg portrayed Coben as a nice guy, albeit slightly insecure about his reputation vis-a-vis that of his Amherst dorm-mate, David Foster Wallace. But this being the Atlantic, the profile also attempted to pose questions (or stoke resentments) about the nature of literary distinction:In Las Vegas, I asked Coben how he felt about being invisible to the world represented by The New York Times Book Review, and about the parallel-universe status that so much crime fiction, including his books, has. At first he was au fait about it, but then he got worked up. ‘If I asked you to name five great books that survived 100 years ago that don’t have a crime in them, you couldn’t,’ he said.Not having read the work, I was willing to give Coben the benefit of the doubt. Now, after seeing the movie, I’m more inclined to agree with his later admission, “It’s not like I’m an artist.”Konigsberg and Coben are right to suggest (and I’ve argued before) that the distinction between art and genre fiction rests on false premises. Cormac McCarthy alone should demonstrate that a novel can contain a murder, or an apocalypse, or a dead mule, and still be literature. Yet to imply that a writer of westerns, thrillers, or romances automatically deserves to be considered alongside Dostoevsky is to err in the other direction. If anything, the NYTBR’s problem is not that it accords too little serious consideration to genre writers, but that it accords too much to novelists toiling in the vineyards of literary fiction.That is, there is a distinction between art and entertainment; it’s just not the one we’ve been thinking of. FSG’s Jonathan Galassi and Grove/Atlantic’s Morgan Entrekin came close to pinning it down at a publishing panel last year, when they suggested that “genre fiction” aims to repeat an excitement, by meeting established conventions, whereas literature inaugurates new conventions, and thus new excitements. (Of course, innovations of character and of language require more column-inches to explain to potential readers.) By this definition, plenty of the short stories in The New Yorker constitute genre fiction, while some “crime novels” – those of Richard Price, for example – are literature. And even great artists – the Dickens of Little Dorrit, comes to mind – can lean too heavily on crutches like the expository filibuster.Without knocking the pure entertainment value of watching Harlan Coben’s characters fulfill their generic destinies, Tell No One is no Crime and Punishment. It’s not even The Fugitive. Yet it seems frivolous to bemoan the literary establishment’s “parallel universe” when your own universe comprises a vast audience and sums of money Dostoevsky only dreamed of. If literary discrimination is, by definition, elitism, it is, in America, an elitism without teeth. And even when elitists like me campaign to preserve the meaning of the words “smart” and “literary,” we know that a taut, sexy, and ultimately silly thriller is still nothing to sniff at.