At least ten people were killed today in a subway explosion in St. Petersburg, Russia, that appears to be an act of terrorism. So here's a prediction: before very long, if not already, you should be able to find someone online claiming that President Putin was behind the attack, that whoever actually carried it out was enabled or abetted by the Russian government. When you consider how many people still think that the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. were secretly masterminded by the U.S. government, an ostensibly democratic regime despite the controversy of the previous year's presidential election, how many more would be willing to believe that an authoritarian personality like Putin, the former KGB man, would do something like this in order to have an excuse to crack down further on civil liberties after an embarrassing outbreak of protests across the country last week? The concept of the "false flag" attack appeals to a modern paranoia driven by fear of the state and fear of war. The idea goes back at least to the 1933 Reichstag fire which, having been exploited by the Nazis to justify an already-desired crackdown on the German left, was soon widely believed to have been perpetrated by the Nazis themselves, although evidence still points to a lone-wolf perpetrator rather than the conspiracy alleged by the Nazis or the alleged Nazi conspiracy. In the 21st century U.S., "truthers" claim that the U.S. government allowed (or organized) the 2001 attacks to justify an already-desired regime-changing intervention in the Middle East, since that's the sort of thing that "power" does.
"False flag" denialism in our time has relatively little to do with a desire to protect Muslims from blame or retaliation, since few "truthers," or few other than left-wing "truthers," have much or any love for Islam. It's more a matter of anti-statist paranoia that imagines an omnipotent "Big Brother" capable of manipulating everyone and everything, from the fanatic dupe to the enraged victims, for its own selfish ends. It's a kind of blanket denial of responsibility, covering not just the culpability of actual perpetrators but the implicit duty to respond to the offense. "Truthers" opposed the invasion of Iraq, as did many other people who did not dispute the fundamental responsibility of al-Qaeda for the 2001 attacks. For "truthers," however, it was not enough to refute arguments linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks, however easily that could be done. Instead, since they assumed that anger over "9/11" fueled public support for the impending invasion, they had to discredit the accepted story of the terrorist attacks. If it followed from the attacks that something had to be done about the Middle East at the risk of American lives, then people had to understand that the attacks were not what they thought them to be. In more general terms, the false-flag impulse rejects the idea that events impose obligations on people, or on citizens especially. Recognizing this fallacy doesn't mean accepting that events always impose obligations, but reasonable people can debate the obligations imposed by events without denying that events can happen by some will other than that of the state, the elite, the Illuminati or Bilderbergers, etc., and must be addressed accordingly. While the reasonable debate is over what to do, if anything, the denialist knows from the beginning that he doesn't want to do anything and tells a "false flag" story to justify his refusal. Of course, there's also a more disinterested denialism that you'll hear if people start blaming Putin for the St. Petersburg bombing. There's no risk to the paranoid outsider in whatever Putin does about the attacks, but those paranoids who see Putin as an existential "authoritarian" threat to world order may take it for granted that he'd sacrifice his own people to further his own agenda, whether that's a crackdown on Muslims or a crackdown on dissent in general. He may well exploit what happened to an unjustified extent, targeting people utterly innocent of today's atrocity, but that would make him at worst a cynical opportunist, not the author of the original crime. The false-flag mentality assumes that the worst thing that can happen is for the state to act, and that when the worst happens, the state must be behind it. It's not hard to see the world more clearly, though that doesn't necessarily make the response to terrible events any easier.