The New York Times just reported that Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have convinced Obama that releasing pictures of Bin Laden’s mutilated body would pose a national security risk.
“There is no doubt that we killed Osama bin Laden,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” according to a transcript read to reporters by Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “We don’t need to spike the football.”
I don’t for a moment believe that Osama bin Laden wasn’t killed on Sunday. Nor do I believe that there could be any evidence–even an apparition of his ghost, Hamlet-style–that would satisfy the kind of people who need to believe that he’s still alive, or who reflexively assume the worst of the US government. But good Lord. If I wanted to create a conspiracy theory in a petri dish, I would be doing pretty much what Obama and his people have been doing since Monday morning. First I would rush onto TV with a bunch of improbable stories that I’d have to roll back later. Then I’d drop hints that I’m going to release pictures and not release them. How could pictures pose remotely the sort of security risk that killing Bin Laden entailed?
I got a call from Russia Today TV this afternoon and they asked me what I thought was going on. I repeated what I said in this space yesterday–that I find the whole thing baffling, especially after the weekend that Obama just had. Friday he released the birth certificate, belatedly conceding that conspiracy theories do matter but finally putting that particular one to rest. Saturday he eviscerated Donald Trump while wearing a tuxedo and a smile and Sunday he announced that he’d taken out the most hated man in the world. And then Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, he couldn’t stop tripping over his feet. Our Skype connection was pretty unstable; they only used a second of the interview, but you can watch their package here if you’re interested.
They aced the operation, but the subsequent messaging has been really uneven, to say the very least. I suspect that what we’re seeing is the result of a lack of consensus within the White House team on what the message actually is. One group–let’s call them the grownups–thinks that we should be bending over backwards to show our Muslim allies that we’re respectful, that we’re not gloating over or desecrating the body of a man that some regard as a religious leader. Another group–the political guys–figured that what happened wasn’t dramatic enough, that it needed the kind of artful, morally-telling touches that you’d see on TV, like Osama shielding himself with his young wife’s body before dying in a firefight, instead of simply having his head blown off when soldiers burst into the room where he was hiding. When the grownups rushed in to undo the damage that the political guys were causing, they planted the germ of cognitive dissonance that conspiracy theories grow out of.
Let me make myself clear: It’s not a conspiracy or a coverup that we’ve been watching unfold–if they’d all put their heads together and agreed to tell one story, then that would be the only story we’d be hearing. The fact that they’re falling all over themselves tells you that what we’re seeing is the real thing–not exactly the fog of war, but its foggy, awkward, puzzling aftermath.
But here’s the thing: You can’t blow someone away and at the same time satisfy his followers that you respect their religious customs; you can’t spill blood and keep your hands clean. I think that pictures of the dead Osama bin Laden will be out there very soon because that’s what happens, but since they’ll have been leaked, they won’t have any more credibility than the photo-shopped ones that were making the rounds yesterday.
And the conspiracy theories are already taking root–Russia Today wouldn’t have called me if they weren’t.