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The government has only itself to blame.
"The X-Files" -- which started its third season this month -- is the Fox network's most-watched show. It has spawned a multitude of copycats, the latest being Fox's "Millennium."

The premise behind it all: Paranoia runs deep.

Why shouldn't it? This is America. Land of the free, home of the covert.

"The X-Files" is entertainment, and often hokey entertainment at that. But at its core is the most frightening premise of a free society: Government lies, covert forces control policy, and average citizens are pawns.

"The X-Files" couldn't have existed in the pre-JFK, pre-Vietnam 1950s. But decades of deceit and secret operations have led to our collective skepticism.

Our fear isn't of some monolithic enemy -- communists, alien invaders -- but a government that knows more than it tells. Or secretly pulls subversive levers.

The enemy within.

"The X-Files" resonates because history has taught us virtually anything is plausible.

The show's most terrifying character isn't some alien visitor or genetic mutant. He's a chain-smoking, shifty-eyed guy in a business suit. Presumably a CIA operative, he moves in the shadows and keeps the curtain pulled over the government's insidious machinery.

Typical was a recent show, where the two protagonists -- FBI agents who work on unexplained phenomena -- uncovered a long-standing government program: to track citizens through a tracer implanted when they were vaccinated for smallpox as kids.

Preposterous? Sure. But anyone who paid attention the past 30 years understands that something similar could have happened. And that plausibility feeds the show's appeal.

Equally preposterous notions turned out to be true. The government -- in the infamous Tuskegee Experiment -- for 40 years studied the effects of untreated syphilis on black men. Government agents, in the Iran-contra scandal, secretly sold arms to a hostile power to finance a war in Nicaragua.

Such once-hidden history is the breeding ground for "The X-Files" and its imitators.

In one episode, a group of business-suited white men meet secretly in a plush office. Unidentified, we assume it's a sinister cabal of the usual suspects: government operatives, international drug smugglers, renegade CIA agents. That such a group exists is unlikely. But not beyond the realm of possibility.

We have seen and heard too much: FBI wiretaps of Martin Luther King. U.S.-sponsored "death squads" killing priests in El Salvador. Secret plots to assassinate Castro. The mining of Nicaraguan harbors. Still-classified JFK assassination files. The lastest is the charge that the CIA let tons of cocaine into the country, with profits funneled through a drug ring to a CIA-run guerrilla army in Nicaragua.

All seemingly unbelievable. All (except the unproven CIA-cocaine report) true.

The consequence is lost innocence.

In the 1950s, giant bugs and deformed monsters roamed the TV and movie screens, reflecting our fears in the new nuclear age. The fallout now isn't about rampant radiation or menacing communists. It's about paranoia.

The show's mantra: Trust no one.

Given what we've learned the past few decades, it's the postmodern e pluribus unum.

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