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New conspiracy theories

May 05, 2011

LET’S say we believe Osama bin Laden is dead (I believe he’s dead). Why the reluctance to release the photograph, with the bullet wound over the left eye? Why did they bury the body at sea, the one place whence it could never be exhumed?

‘Deather’ theorists believe either that Bin Laden isn’t dead, or has been dead since either 2001 or 2009 (there is quite a complicated back-story about his kidneys), and this has all been staged to boost Obama’s poll ratings. Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, said to the BBC on Tuesday: “We should have the body displayed, paraded, journalists should see it. We shouldn’t rely on the American side of the story; we deserve to know the truth.”

One can appreciate his frustration — as credulous as I am, I cannot shift the fishy smell of the sea burial — but the fact is, unless they paraded Bin Laden’s body across the world, took his remains into the living room of everybody who expressed an interest, there would be someone, somewhere, asking for better evidence.

It’s a conundrum: if you believe a conspiracy, you ally yourself with the superstitious and the paranoid, for whom no statement is as trustworthy as the wildest speculation, and evidence is meaningless unless they can bite it to see if it’s real.

And yet if you dismiss the rumours and reject anything not announced by a reputable source, then you will quite often get things wrong.

The White House released a painstaking tick-tock (American for ‘minute-by-minute account’; you have to admit it’s stylish).

Key details turned out to be untrue almost immediately: first, Bin Laden used his wife as a human shield; later she was someone else’s wife; later still no woman had been used as a shield. In the initial telling, Bin Laden was armed; later an official said: “I’m not aware of him having a weapon.” Originally, Bin Laden’s son Khalid had been killed; this was later amended to Hamza.

Nicholas Tomalin’s remark to fellow journalist Max Hastings before the latter went to Vietnam is the one that sticks in my mind, but it could have come from any journalist, observing official statements about any conflict: “They lie. Never forget they lie, they lie, they lie.” Ask not how plausible their press release is: ask what proportion of press releases from the past has turned out to be true.

Seminal world events raise all the threats to credibility in one hit: slippery politicians; the mendacious potential of technology (remember when a photograph was a document of unarguable truth? No, me neither, but apparently that really helped); and the famous ‘fog of war’, which loosely translates as ‘Don’t ask, because we can’t really remember, we couldn’t really see, and we won’t tell you anyway’.

Larger conspiracy theories do not fade away; if anything they intensify. The memory of what kind of person was promulgating them recedes, and we’re left with only the murky recollection that things weren’t as they seemed.

The death of Diana is an apposite example: at the time, when the person divining the hand of MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, was Mohamed Al Fayed, his very involvement made the notion ludicrous. But the official records — almost in acknowledgment of the fact that feelings were running too high to accept the mundanity of a drink-driving verdict — put partial blame on the paparazzi. As if anybody who wasn’t drunk would ever drive into a pillar to escape men with cameras.

Yet that line has permeated so completely that the tabloids now express their fealty to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge by promising not to chase them to their romantic honeymoon hideaway. The narrative we’re left with has been shaped by its attempt to refute the conspiracy: so it sounds not so much untrue as somehow off, leaving the door ajar for a fresh conspiracy.

It’s like the lie-detector plot twist in an ’80s cop show. In politics, one always has the sense that they’re fibbing about something, because they always are: just by the laws of the known universe, there will be something that they’re not allowed to tell us. It could be something incredibly small, but once we have perceived falsity in their bearing, it is impossible to stop picking over the carrion, looking for the lie. — The Guardian, London