Jacob Heilbrunn

The New Elvis: Is Osama bin Laden Really Dead?

 Today's Los Angeles Times features an excellent story chronicling the rise of conspiracy theories about Osama bin Laden: Is the death of Osama bin Laden a hoax? Did President Obama fake his death to try and help secure his reelection? Why was his body dumped so hastily for burial at sea?

Those are the kinds of questions that conspiracy theorists around the globe are pondering as they lash themselves into a frenzy about a government con job. Apparently Tea Party websites are abuzz about whether or not bin Laden expired as well. The radical left has its theories as well. According to the LAT,


I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you're stupid," antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan posted on herFacebook page. "Just think to yourself — they paraded Saddam's dead sons around to prove they were dead — why do you suppose they hastily buried this version of OBL at sea?"Infowars, the website of Libertarian radio host Alex Jones, was crammed with stories charging that the U.S. government had concocted the killing to justify a security crackdown. The Tea Party Nation website brimmed with indignant posts questioning the timing of Obama's announcement.

And in the Middle East some refuse to accept his death as well. The death of bin Laden is viewed as an impossibility. He's too clever to have been caught and killed, so the thinking goes.

As with Elvis, there will doubtless be sightings of bin Laden. Which is why the Obama administration is thinking about releasing photos of bin Laden. Sen. Joseph Lieberman says it's necessary to combat the belief that bin Laden remains alive. But the will to believe is a powerful one. Elvis sightings remain routine. Conspiracy theories continue to swirl around the assassination of JFK. President Obama is viewed is as an alien Muslim, not a godfearing American. And so on.

So perhaps a few photos will satisfy some of the skeptics. But a goodly number will doubtless claim that the photos were themselves faked. Conspiracy theories amount to nonfalsifiable hypotheses. If you reject the premise of the theory, then you yourself are part and parcel of the plot. 

It's inevitable that bin Laden's demise would trigger a new round of fevered thinking. But the good news appears to be that, as Fouad Ajami observes in the Wall Street Journal today, the temperature of the Arab world seems to be going down. Al-Qaeda may not be a spent force, but its appeal and credibility are decidedly on the wane as the Arab Spring takes hold.

Which is why I'm not as worried as my TNI colleague Paul Pillar who decries what he sees as America's obsession with bin Laden. Pillar is apprehensive that bin Laden will become a martyr. To me that doesn't sound quite right. Pillar is right to warn against demonizing America's enemies. Terrorist attacks, in new forms, led by fresh leaders, will emerge. But it seems unlikely that they will be able to promote their particular eschatology with the fervor and veneer of plausibility that bin Laden and his confederates were able to muster, as they droned on about the return of the Caliphate. 

The real danger was that bin Laden would escape retribution and demonstrate that it's possible to defy and attack America without suffering any consequences. He did not die a heroic death. He was shot down behind a female human shield. Moreover, the myth of him being some kind of Robin Hood figure living out in the wilderness was punctured, too. He was living in relative comfort (probably thanks to the indulgence of the Pakistani military). Now the credo that bin Laden espoused is beginning to expire along with him.