Some conspiracy theories come with real consequences

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn arrives at Trump Tower, Nov. 17, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and high level positions for the new administration. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn arrives at Trump Tower, Nov. 17, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and high level positions for the new administration. 
There was a very scary scene in Washington, D.C., yesterday, when a North Carolina man, armed with an assault rifle, walked into a popular pizza place and pulled the trigger. Incredibly, no one was killed, but what makes this story especially notable is the gunman's motivation.The Washington Post reported that the man told police officers he had come to the restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, in order to "'self-investigate' a false election-related conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton that spread online during her presidential campaign."

The popular family restaurant ... was swept up in the onslaught of fake news and conspiracy theories that were prevalent during the presidential campaign. The restaurant, its owner, staff and nearby businesses have been attacked on social media and received death threats. [...]The restaurant's owner and employees were threatened on social media in the days before the election after fake news stories circulated claiming that then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief were running a child sex ring from the restaurant's backrooms. Even Michael Flynn, a retired general whom President-elect Donald Trump has tapped to advise him on national security, shared stories about another anti-Clinton conspiracy theory involving pedophilia. None of them were true. But the fake stories and threats persisted, some even aimed at children of Comet Ping Pong employees and patrons. The restaurant's owner was forced to contact the FBI, local police, Facebook and other social-media platforms in an effort to remove the articles.

The ridiculous conspiracy theory, which came to be known as "pizzagate," was clearly on the fringes of political thought, but there was a striking contingent of conservatives who genuinely believed Hillary Clinton and her aides were overseeing a child sex ring out of the back of a pizza shop in D.C. Some on the right took this quite seriously -- and one man showed up at the restaurant yesterday with an AR-15.But reading the Post's reporting, it was Michael Flynn's name that stood out as especially noteworthy.Flynn, soon to become the National Security Advisor in Donald Trump's White House, used his Twitter account shortly before the election to share allegations that Clinton was involved in "sex crimes with children." In reality, she wasn't, but the retired general peddled this garbage anyway. (Michael Flynn Jr., the incoming NSA's son and chief of staff, has been an active proponent of "pizzagate.")A National Security Advisor has to be able to understand sensitive and timely information, separating what matters from what doesn't, quickly recognizing the difference between fiction and fact. Everything we're seeing from Michael Flynn Sr., however, raises doubts about his judgment.

During a tense gathering of senior officials at an off-site retreat, he gave the assembled group a taste of his leadership philosophy, according to one person who attended the meeting and insisted on anonymity to discuss classified matters. Mr. Flynn said that the first thing everyone needed to know was that he was always right. His staff would know they were right, he said, when their views melded to his. The room fell silent, as employees processed the lecture from their new boss.Current and former employees said Mr. Flynn had trouble adjusting his style for an organization with a 16,500-person work force that was 80 percent civilian. He was used to a strict military chain of command, and was at times uncomfortable with the often-messy give-and-take that is common among intelligence analysts.Some also described him as a Captain Queeg-like character, paranoid that his staff members were undercutting him and credulous of conspiracy theories.

Yes, this is the guy who'll be advising the president about matters of national security. What could possibly go wrong?