So President Obama has announced that no photos of Osama bin Laden’s body will be released. As loathe as I usually am to speculate about the political calculations behind decisions like this, I wonder if perhaps in this instance Obama really is playing 11th-Dimensional chess.
When I first learned that bin Laden’s body had been buried at sea, I thought this was a really, really bad mistake. (You can see my initial take on the news of bin Laden’s death here.) I predicted that the same impulses that drive the unhinged Birthers would give rise to a new conspiracy group – the Deathers, they are now called – who would claim that bin Laden really hadn’t been killed, that he had been captured and was being held or that Obama had cut a deal with him and that this was all a huge conspiracy to help get Obama re-elected.
And, indeed, despite the fact that (i) the election is still a year and a half away (which makes that conspiracy seem a little, um, poorly timed) and (ii) a conspiracy of this magnitude would be almost impossible to pull off, something of a “Deather Movement” does seem to be getting started. For example, Andrew Breitbart’s site has posts suggesting darkly that something fishy seems to be going on without a body to view. Fox Business News has some bloviator suggesting two days ago that without a body there will always be some “lingering questions” and “how will we know he’s dead.”
(As Jon Stewart said, mocking this douchebag: “When are we going to stop pretending, as a country, that there is a level of empirical proof that will satisfy the conspiracy seekers amongst us? These things are never about evidence. We could have a videotape of the terror leader himself holding up Sunday’s New York Post and his birth certificate in his ‘I am bin Laden, Seriously’ t-shirt, saying on camera ‘I think this dude’s about the fuck me up big time,’ [and it] wouldn’t matter.”)
Brian Kilmeade over at Fox and Friends wondered what the rush was to get the body buried at sea (saying that he agrees with Senator Graham “what’s the rush?” – so I guess Lindsay Graham is out there raising questions about this too, although I’ve not seen that myself).
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Moreover, these conspiracy impulses the crazy 27% (see here for what “crazy 27% means”) among us hold seem to be melding with the bloodlust that comes out whenever America kills off someone we can all agree was an evil person. Here’s a recent message board thread where the participants discuss how “fishy” the whole deal is, and suspect that bin Laden isn’t really dead. At 7:33 AM “1RockinDude” (who does believe there is evidence of bin Laden’s death and who credits Obama with giving a good speech) writes “Im [sic] sorry the United States doesnt [sic] put a head on a stick”). Sarah Palin recently tweeted: “Show photo as warning to others seeking America's destruction. No pussy-footing around, no politicking, no drama; it's part of the mission." (emphasis added).
And some other conservative commentator (sorry, I can’t remember which one it was) asserted recently that he and all other Americans have the right not only to view the corpse, but to stick pins in it if they want.
But Obama has decided not to release photos of the body nor, I believe, any footage of the raid. This is going to drive all of these people absolutely batshit insane, and further fuel the Deather Conspiracy that I predicted would arise the moment I learned the body had been disposed of.
But, y’know . . . this may just be a brilliant political move.
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I am not a big believer in “11th-Dimensional chess” – I doubt most people, including undeniably smart people like Barack Obama, really think that very far ahead. On the other hand, I remember watching Obama’s debates with John McCain during the campaign and complaining loudly after each one that Obama had missed opportunities to really “stick it” to McCain, and yet after every debate Obama was scored the winner and his poll numbers ticked up, so who am I to critique his performance? I’ve got some opinions, sure, about how people should debate and campaign, but Obama is obviously much much better at making these decisions than I will ever be.
And I can’t help but think that Obama had a really, really good week last week. The release of his long-form birth certificate on Wednesday took the wind out of Donald Trump’s sails (and those of Orly Taitz, Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin, and the rest of the unhinged right) and put the crazy birthers on the defensive. He then capitalized on that with a devastating performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner (which you can watch here or just read about here). Then he capped the weekend with a late-night announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed – an announcement watched by more than 56 million Americans and that sucked all the oxygen out of the room for any other story.
Just a few weeks ago Karl Rove was claiming that it was Obama who was keeping the birth certificate controversy alive, and this was clearly insane. The so-called “conspiracy” surfaced prior to Obama being elected, and Obama certainly hasn’t done anything to “keep it alive.” But I think Rove understood that it was, in fact, very easy for Obama to torpedo this stupid idea merely by having the damned thing released, which he did. And Rove may be right to think that Obama did deliberately allow this stupid debate to go on as long as it did, and to become as mainstream as it became, because it presented an easy opportunity for him to shoot it down and reveal the Birthers for the insane fools that they are.
I am not so sure that a similar political calculation might be taking place here. Look, there are valid reasons for not releasing photos or video footage, just as it turns out there is a valid reason for disposing of the body at sea (Islamic law requires the burial of a body within 24 hours of death, and no one wants to create a shrine to OBL; out of similar considerations, the defendants executed at Nuremberg were cremated and their ashes tossed into a river some 60-odd years ago). To be sure, there is no reason for America to go out of its way to invite enmity and attack from Muslim religious extremists by desecrating the body or appearing to do some barbaric victory dance now that OBL is dead.
But while all of this is true, it is also true that the photos and video footage are merely being kept by the White House and can be released any time Obama changes his mind. And who knows? If, say, a few weeks immediately prior to next year’s election the Deather Conspiracy has become as big as the Birther Conspiracy was, might not Obama decide to release some of this material “to put the issue to rest?” By then the fact of OBL’s death will have been acknowledged for a year and a half, and the response of Muslim religious extremists might very well be tempered. And doing so would immediately suck all of the oxygen out of the room for anything other than an examination of these grisly trophies, and remind everybody that – yeah – Barack Obama was the guy who finally got bin Laden.
After last week’s success with the birth certificate, I can certainly see why Obama might be keeping this little re-election trick tucked safely away, all the while giving the crazy 27% enough rope with which to hang themselves.
POSTSCRIPT: Like a lot of people in this country, I took a certain grim satisfaction when I learned that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Some of the images of people celebrating the news, however, did make me cringe. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly understand the bloodlust displayed, but that kind of reaction is not the best of us and it seemed odd to be celebrating death with chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” the singing of the Star Spangled Banner, the climbing on light posts and tossing about of beach balls.
However, you really should check out this link. (I haven’t yet figured out how to embed YouTube videos here.) Apparently, the night the announcement was made, some kid at Penn State dressed up in his full-blown Captain America costume – complete with shield and mask – and went down to a local pub where the other drunken students hoisted him up for some crowd surfing and did the “U.S.A.” chant. This is so monumentally silly that it made me smile and say to myself, “I love this goofy country.”