Florida has several leading industries that keep our economy roaring. Tourism is No. 1, of course. Without it, we'd have far fewer tattoo parlors and strip joints. Development is booming again, and (judging by their regular appearances in police reports) sales of machetes and Samurai swords are doing well.
I recently learned we have another leading industry: conspiracy theories.
Not just any conspiracy theories, either. Florida is home to the loudest voices claiming the 2012 massacre of 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., never happened. They call themselves "Truthers," though the truth is not in them. We've got:
• James Tracey, an ex-Florida Atlantic University professor who says the federal government perpetrated a hoax at Sandy Hook with paid actors pretending to be victims.
• The Rev. Carl Gallups, a Panhandle minister who contends that not one of the 154 shots that were fired by the Sandy Hook killer were, in fact, fired. This year he gave the invocation at a rally for the man who's about to be sworn in as our president.
• Wolfgang Halbig,* a Lake Mary retiree who has trumpeted his Sandy Hook hoax story so loudly that he's appeared on Alex Jones' Infowars show, the dizzying center of our nation's tinfoil hat galaxy.
Halbig once demanded a bereaved Sandy Hook parent, Lenny Pozner, exhume his 6-year-old's body to prove the boy really existed. He has been collecting thousands of dollars from contributors to continue his bogus crusade.
When I asked the staff of state Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Adam Putnam about whether that is legal, I was told that state law limits their authority to take action, "regardless of the tastefulness of the cause itself."
Last month a woman was arrested in Tampa for threatening to kill Pozner. She was apparently convinced by those other guys that he deserved killing because he set up an organization to combat their lies and protect his son's memory.
Why would someone fake a massacre? So the Obama administration could take everyone's guns away, of course! Just one problem, though: I've still got mine. Nobody has taken it away yet. Still, one of the hoaxers, Mr. Halbig, has in fact lost a gun. A teenager stole it while he was in charge of Seminole County's school security.
I asked my colleague Steve Contorno, who covered the Sandy Hook massacre, if he was sure it really happened.
"If it was a hoax, then the entire town of 27,000 was in on it," he told me. He interviewed dozens of people who knew the victims, and "their pain could not have been faked."
Conspiracy theories are not new. In any bar or bus station, you're liable to find folks who deny the Holocaust happened, or claim the moon landing was faked, or swear on a stack of Bibles that JFK is alive and hanging out with Elvis and Walt Disney. In Tallahassee you'll even find a few who still insist that climate change is a lot of hooey and will keep doing so until the rising sea starts lapping at their tasseled loafers.
What surprises me, though, is that we have so many Florida folks focused on debunking this one thoroughly documented event. Who knew our paradise was so full of paranoiacs? I asked an eminent historian, Jim Clark of the University of Central Florida, for perspective.
"Please remember that we have always marched to a different drummer in Florida," he said. "The line between dreamer and crazy is thinner in Florida than in any other state. … When a Russian immigrant said he was going to build a railroad and create St. Petersburg, we said he was crazy. Unfortunately, most of the people we label as crazy are crazy."
My theory is that we have so many people fantasizing about a Sandy Hook conspiracy because fantasy is such a big part of what makes us Florida. I'm not talking about just the plastic pretending in our theme parks. I'm talking about the fantasies we employ to sell to outsiders a state prone to sinkholes, lightning strikes and shark attacks as paradise. A few years back, the New Yorker branded us "The Ponzi State" because we need a steady flow of new suckers — excuse me, residents — to keep the economy going.
My fellow Floridians, let's agree to start with the new year and stop being suckers. Don't let the fake truthers trip you up. If you see something outlandish on the Internet, or even hear it over the back fence, check it out before you pass it along. Run it through PolitiFact. Look for four or five sources, not just one.
Of course, if it involves something outlandish happening in Florida, it probably is true. Especially if it involves a machete.
Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this column. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.
*Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct Wolfgang Halbig's last name.