A Georgia monument was destroyed. Locals blame conspiracy theories.
Usually when Daniel Graves visits his local coffee shop for breakfast Wednesdays, somebody asks him about the Georgia Guidestones.
"It's usually some new Facebook post, or some new YouTube video, or some quirky little thing" that pops up, said Graves, the mayor of Elberton, Ga. His typical response is that he's proud to have them.
For more than four decades the Georgia Guidestones served as an unusual rural roadside attraction and a testament to the region's granite industry.
Until somebody decided to blow it up this month. Around 4 a.m. on July 6, someone placed an explosive device at the base of the granite monument just outside of town and demolished one of the 19-foot-tall slabs. For safety reasons, the rest soon followed.
"My initial reaction was heartbreak and anger, frustration," Graves said. "And I think that's consistent with the community's reaction."
To call the Guidestones unique is to be guilty of monumental understatement. Picture, if you will, several granite slabs, also dubbed "America's Stonehenge," with cryptic messages carved in multiple languages like "Be not a cancer on earth" or "Avoid petty laws and useless officials."
Some people keyed in on other guides like "Keep the population below 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature" and to "Guide reproduction wisely." That's led to protests, plenty of conspiracy theories about ties to Satan and sometimes, light vandalism.
"There's been numerous occasions that people have come over and spray painted it, they've put the NWO - the 'New World Order' – they've sprayed that on it a bunch of times," Mart Clam, the owner of Clamp Sandblasting. The Guidestones are a bit of a family affair for him.
"My father sandblasted all of the lettering into the Guidestones, and for the last 25 years I have maintained the Guidestones any time somebody came up that graffitied or did any kind of damage to them," he said.
Clamp points the finger for the bombing at the recent trend of monument removals – sanctioned and unsanctioned – plus a fringe candidate for governor calling for the demolition of the Guidestones as her top priority. "It sets the mood for the crazies to come out and do their thing," Clamp said.
That failed candidate, as well as others who believe conspiracies about the Guidestones, have falsely claimed that God struck the monument down with righteous lightning – despite surveillance video showing a person planting a device and running away.
Elberton Mayor Daniel Graves says his county is a solidly conservative and religiously observant, so outside voices claiming Satan's hold on the stones don't add up. "Our view of righteousness is not an Almighty God that needs zealots to do his dirty work and destruction," Graves said. "That's hatred... all the dynamite in the world can't change a man's heart."
Conspiracy theories spilling over into real life
Conspiracy theories aren't a new phenomenon, and neither is people acting out on them in real life. But Jared Holt, an extremism researched with the Institute for Strategic Dialog, said the Guidestones are a perfect example of how pervasive conspiracy thinking has become.
"Whether it's elected officials appealing to online conspiracists or online conspiracists trying to become elected officials, we're really starting to see the effects of that in clear and obvious ways," he said.
The line between posting things on the internet and doing them in real life is blurring more and more, and the current political climate often rewards extreme rhetoric. And when these events do happen, "they have really disproportionate effects and the damage can last well beyond and certainly extend much past any property destroyed," Holt said.
That's certainly true in Elberton, billed as the "Granite Capital of the World." The Guidestones were a major tourist draw to an otherwise isolated area. That means fewer people eating at local restaurants, shopping at local stores and sleeping at the town's hotel.
"I do think that we will slowly start to see just how big of an impact they had, because it will affect our tourism," said Rose Scoggins, editor of the Elberton Star. "I think we will unfortunately see that decline."
Scoggins was in disbelief when she went to cover the scene of the half-demolished monument. The paper put out a special section about the stones just days later, complete with personal letters and memories and righteous anger at their destruction.
Beyond that, community members are coming to terms with the loss of the monument's other meaning for a place built on generations of granite. "It was honestly a part of their family legacy," Scoggins said. "It showed how much work and craftsmanship that the granite industry, those in the granite industry and their descendants put into it."
For now, law enforcement, including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, is still searching for those who planted the explosive device. The GBI released surveillance videos from the site but have not shared any other details.
Local prosecutors have suggested the bombing comes with a steep sentence of at least 20 years in prison, since the stones were owned and maintained by the county and considered a public building. And the residents of Elberton are left picking up the pieces - literally and metaphorically - after the bombing.
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