Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fueling the Fires of Skepticism

"The central belief of every moron is that he is the victim of a mysterious conspiracy against his common rights and true deserts. He ascribes all his failure to get on in the world, all of his congenital incapacity and damfoolishness, to the machinations of werewolves assembled in Wall Street, or some other such den of infamy."

H.L. Mencken
Baltimore Evening Sun
June 15, 1936

It's been nearly 75 years since Mencken wrote those words, and I often wonder whether Americans have learned much in all that time.

It is from that perspective, therefore, that I have a question — well, a few of 'em, actually, but they all relate to the same thing — for Barack Obama.

Remember that flap over your birth certificate? It wasn't so long ago. It should be fresh in your memory.

Did you learn anything from that?

Remember how long that dragged on? It went on (with varying levels of intensity) until recently — when you finally had to give your critics what they were screaming for because they simply would not stop screaming.

I figured that would be the last experience you would want to repeat with an election coming up — but, apparently, I was wrong.

It was an honest mistake on my part. You spoke about how this "birther" business had been a huge distraction from the things that have to be done — and you were right about that — but still you capitulated in large part because the distraction kept growing.

You resisted as long as you could, then you capitulated. You proved your point, but so did your adversaries. It has been their contention all along that you are weak and malleable. They kept up the pressure and forced you to go from proactive to reactive.

Still, you did prove your point — and, if simply proving your point was the objective, then all I can say (to borrow the words of your predecessor) is, "Mission accomplished."

You established that you were an American citizen, qualified to be president of the United States — and when you did, polls show, the segment of the population that still believed that you were not an American dwindled to about 3%.

Then, as if to prove the additional point that you are strong and resolute and will not back down, you authorized a hit squad to take down Osama bin Laden a couple of days later — almost as if the knowledge of his whereabouts was some kind of wild card you had been holding for just the right moment.

That strategy — if that is what it was — might have worked, too.

But you blew it. Your story kept changing. I don't know why it kept changing. Perhaps it was a series of well–intentioned decisions that were meant to somehow protect society from itself — but, instead, things got out of hand.

I saw — with my own eyes — proof of this skepticism in a group that you have openly encouraged to be politically active — the young — and I can only conclude that, unless you do something both dramatic and substantive, you will not be able to count on the young to support you in droves the way they did in 2008.

I teach developmental writing at a campus in the local community college system. Much of the time in class is devoted, as you might expect, to actual writing — and there are times when I ask my students to write short essays.

When bin Laden was killed, I asked my students to write an essay about this event. I told them to describe how they heard the news and what their thoughts had been about the debate over releasing the photographic evidence. I would not grade them on their opinions, I assured the students. I would only grade how they used the elements of writing that we had discussed in class.

Nevertheless, I was interested in seeing what their thoughts were — and those thoughts were revealing.

They all seemed to feel that killing bin Laden was justified, but some objected to the idea that an unarmed man had been shot. Others contended that it had never been the intention of the special opps squad to capture bin Laden, only to kill him. Nearly all recoiled at the thought of the celebrations in the streets when the news of bin Laden's death spread.

And some asserted (in an account that sounded eerily similar to one I have heard before) that the whole thing had been staged. Only a handful of people probably were in on it, they wrote, and the "body" that was buried at sea was no body at all — or maybe it was the corpse of another 6–foot–4 man.

There aren't many of those, as far as I can see, but wait awhile. I have the feeling that these "deathers," as they are being called, could be much like the "birthers." They have the potential to be around a year from now.

Welcome to the wacky world of conspiracy theories. They take on lives of their own. Eventually, I think, most presidents learn (some belatedly) that the only way you can control conspiracy theories is to get out front from the start and be as up front as you can. It's no guarantee of success, but it beats the Nixonian stonewall approach.

Resisting is not a good idea even if the theory seems to be ridiculous — because there are always some people who will believe it, and their numbers only multiply the longer there is doubt.

I'll grant you, conspiracy theories are often ridiculous. I've been hearing them all my life — and, since I am about the same age as you are, Mr. President, I would guess that you have been hearing them all your life as well.

Therefore, I am sure you must have heard these stories — and others, too:
  • "Hitler never committed suicide. He escaped to South America, just like Eichmann and Mengele."

  • "The moon landing was a fraud. It was done on a Hollywood sound stage."

  • "Oswald didn't act alone."

  • "9/11 was an inside job."

  • "The [Catholics, Jews, Muslims — or any other demographic group] are engaged in a conspiracy to seize control of [name of state, country, region, etc.]."

  • "HIV/AIDS has been spread deliberately in the black community by agents working for the U.S. government."
And the story of bin Laden's death may be more of the same.

Surely, it seems to me that the decision not to release evidence to the public confirming that he was dead is likely to be fodder for conspiracy theorists.

Conspiracies, of course, aren't always theories. They do exist. People do conspire to commit all sorts of crimes and deceptions. They do so every day. In fact, folks have been using the phrase "conspiracy theory" for more than a century.

Originally, it was a phrase that was neither positive nor negative, simply a statement of informed speculation, but after the Kennedy assassination, it began to take on its largely lunatic fringe reputation. Most conspiracy theories are still, for the most part, speculative in nature, but they tend to be less credible than they once were.

And, although most conspiracy theories should not be taken seriously, most conspiracy theorists should.

They are the ones who perpetuate misinformation.

Obama compared the act of proving that the world's most wanted terrorist was dead to spiking the football in the end zone and suggested that it would be unseemly to do that.

But that isn't what this is about. It isn't about celebration. It's about that transparency thing Obama spoke of at the dawn of his administration.

I don't remember when I first heard this said, but it had to have been shortly after the September 11 attacks. People were saying that if bin Laden was captured, it would be necessary for him to be brought before the cameras of the world.

Even if it was eventually decided that he would be executed for ordering the attacks.

He was so notorious the world over that it would be necessary to parade him in front of those cameras over and over again for people to believe he was in custody.

But, after nearly a decade spent pursuing bin Laden, the story about his death is so full of holes you could drive a Hummer through it.

The mission supposedly was carried out by a special ops squad. In the public's mind, that's comparable to a police unit. And ordinary citizens know that cops are trained to shoot people who are armed and believed to be threats to their safety.

Therefore, in the initial story, bin Laden was armed — and, to make him even more reprehensible, he was said to have used a woman as a human shield. But, as the story evolved, it turned out bin Laden had no weapon. There is plenty of reason to doubt whether a woman (at first said to be his wife) was used as a human shield.

In fact, it appears that bin Laden may have peeked outside and been fired at, but that shot apparently missed. The next two shots apparently found their target.

But let's go back to that special ops angle for a second or two.

We were told that it was a kill or capture mission. I never served in the military, and someone who did serve in the military might have better information than I do, but it is my understanding that a special ops unit like the Navy SEALS is rarely called upon to capture anyone. They would do so only under ideal circumstances — and a mission in which an apparently top secret stealth helicopter crashed and could not be retrieved completely by American forces would hardly be ideal.

Also, if the special ops guys — like a unit of policemen — were instructed only to shoot if they felt threatened, does anyone honestly think they would feel threatened by an unarmed Osama bin Laden?

It doesn't sound like a kill–or–capture mission to me.

Subsequent versions said bin Laden was not armed — but there was an arsenal of weapons in the compound. The presence of weapons, even if they weren't readily accessible, justifies everything, I suppose.

Then — very conveniently, in the minds of conspiracy theorists — quite soon after the world was told that bin Laden was dead, it was told that he had been buried at sea.

The only evidence that he is dead are some photographs, and (presumably) the administration won't release them because they are so gruesome. The government did share them with a bipartisan panel of lawmakers — reminiscent, to some people, of how the Nixon administration initially refused to release Oval Office recordings or transcripts (it later reversed itself), offering instead to allow a single senator (an elderly Southern Democrat who was known to be a Nixon supporter) to review the tapes for the special prosecutor.

(The prosecutor refused Nixon's compromise solution, sparking the Saturday Night Massacre.)

Beyond that, we are told to trust our government.

That, essentially, is what we were told when the administration had made up its mind to invade Iraq, facts be damned. Too many people swallowed that back in 2003. We can't afford to do it again.

And many people voted for Obama primarily because they believed he would be a different kind of president — that they would not be expected to accept something important on face value alone.

I've been interested in the reasoning that has been offered to justify releasing the evidence to the public.

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, for example, writes that he would have released the photos of bin Laden.

Robinson's logic is different than mine. He thinks the photos would have had a chilling effect on other terrorists and made them think twice about taking on the United States. It has symbolic value, he argues.

It's an interesting point, but I disagree. The people who were drawn to bin Laden had already demonstrated that they were not afraid to die. In fact, they welcomed it. They believed they would be treated as martyrs. Bin Laden himself may have believed, as he was dying, that he would be treated as a martyr.

I really don't see the photos as having much value as a propaganda weapon with America's enemies. But I do think it would help its supporters' resolve.

There is no doubt in my mind, really, that an evil man was killed. For that matter, there is no doubt in my mind that bin Laden was killed. I don't require proof.

But others do. As long as there is any lingering doubt about bin Laden's fate, it will detract from anything else Obama may wish to emphasize in 2012.

No comments: