Is bin Laden Dead? The Burden of Proof in the Fog of War
Our government will never pass the burden of proof test concerning the death of Osama bin Laden if there is a general failure to comprehend the nature of evidence.
From 2011-2014, Daniel Honan was the Managing Editor at Big Think. Prior to Big Think, Daniel was Vice President of Production for Plum TV, a niche cable network he helped launch in 2002. The production team he oversaw won over two dozen Emmy awards. Daniel has created numerous shows and documentaries for television, and his film credits include Stealing the Fire, a documentary on the black market for nuclear weapons technology.
Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanielHonan
To sum up the events of the last week, it was goodbye birthers, hello "deathers": The dust had hardly settled from the birth certificate controversy when the Obama administration found itself facing another burden of proof test concerning the death of Osama bin Laden.
The night before the raid Obama played the truthiness card to great comedic effect at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. It was an amazingly cool performance given the decision Obama was facing on whether to order a raid to kill bin Laden. Having finally closed the book on the birther controversy, the President said "now we can focus on more important matters like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?"
No one could have known at the time that the death of Osama bin Laden would soon be added to the vast annals of conspiracy theories that plague the Obama administration. What proof could the White House offer to preempt the inevitable doubters? There was a photograph!
It promised to be the most-viewed photograph of our epoch, easily surpassing scrutiny of Kate Middleton's waist. But what effect would the release of such a photograph have on both our friends and enemies? Would this be Al Qaeda's version of the famous photo published in Time Magazine in 1943 of three dead American soldiers on an obscure Pacific island? (That photo was cleared by the Office of War Information censors at the time because President Roosevelt feared the American public was growing complacent about the war's rising death toll.)
Public trust in government has eroded a great deal since The Good War, owing to many factors, such as Watergate. And yet the notion has been kept alive, contrary to Thomas Jefferson, that we should always trust our government in a time of crisis. Karl Rove exploited this to great political advantage in the 2002 midterm elections and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, along with other prominent members of both parties appealed to this notion after bin Laden's death. No photo was to be released, but the public needed to trust their government.
Healthy skepticism, of course, is an important requisite of a functioning democracy. The public also needs to accept a basic set of facts if a credible government is going to exist. Sadly, this public trust was undermined by the fact that three Republican Senators--including none other than Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), the vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee--were duped by a fake photo of the dead bin Laden. Timeout: the vice chairman of the U.S. Senate Selected Committee on Intelligence authenticated a picture he said "looked like it was a picture of bin Laden." The source of these fake photos is still not clear. Could they be the same ones being spammed across Facebook and Twitter?
And Chambliss, of course, wasn't alone. Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) had earlier told a New England cable network “Let me assure you that he is dead, that bin Laden is dead — I have seen the photos," only to issue an embarrassing retraction later.
In the past week we have learned many fresh details about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Marijuana plants were grown around his Pakistani mansion and Nestle crunch bars were hoarded inside. A commando dog--perhaps a German shepherd or a Belgian Malinois (we don't know for sure)--was used in the raid, as was a radar-evading 'stealth helicopter' that aviation experts had never seen before. It would, of course, be great to learn more about the DNA tests the government ran on Osama, which apparently is forthcoming. If the fact that Al Qaeda confirmed bin Laden's death fails to silence the doubters, perhaps nothing will.
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