As news of Osama bin Laden’s death circulates and the circumstances become more widely known, we can expect a myriad new conspiracy theories to spring up in its wake. But why? What is it that makes people tell themselves stories of secrecy, cover-up, hidden controlling powers and forbidden knowledge? And what is it that makes those stories resonate across American culture in particular?
Peter Knight, in his book Conspiracy Theories in American History, calls conspiracy theories “part of the lingua franca of everyday American life and entertainment”. He traces their history as far back as the first settlers on the continent, and argues that the country’s diversity combined with American exceptionalism to form a particularly fertile ground for certain types of conspiracy theory.
Popular conspiracies, like best-selling novels, solve problems; cultures talk to themselves, telling themselves soothing tales that may or may not accurately reflect reality. Where off-beat narratives like Roswell or the Illuminati flourish, they do so because they resolve some conflict within society that causes anxiety.
In 1964 Richard Hofstadter wrote a seminal essay diagnosing a paranoid style in American politics. At that time it was easy to characterise conspiratorial viewpoints as being held only by the fringe elements of society; since then conspiracy theories have hit the mainstream again. JFK’s assassination, international banking, the moon landings, alien abductions, 9/11, the birther movement – all these have captured the imaginations of large segments of the American public.
Conspiracies have tended to fall into roughly one of two groups. Some conspiracies involve attacks by outside groups on America – for instance, communists, Jews, Masons, Catholics or, going back before the Civil War, slaves and abolitionists. Others involve attacks or systematic deceptions perpetrated on the American people by its government or by those in positions of power over it – examples include the belief that the moon landings were faked, the various theories that the US government knew about 9/11 before it happened, fluoride in the water, CIA drug experiments, and so on.
If there is one man who combines these two strands of fear almost perfectly, it is Barack Obama. Simultaneously the most powerful government official in the US, he is also perceived as an imposter, an outsider, in large part due to the colour of his skin.
And, for all that the paranoid style seems designed to increase rather than decrease fear and anxiety, its success comes from the fact that it resolves underlying conflicts in a way that renders them understandable to the man on the street, and less threatening. Hofstadter in 1964 ran down a list of reasons why the American right wing felt dispossessed, and had latched on to conspiracy as a way of regaining control; today, the Tea Party and the current cornucopia of conspiracy represent an even stronger expression of a stronger sense of unease and lack of control.
The birther movement is an elegant synthesis of the two prevailing concerns of American conspiracy theories into one hypothesis: if Obama was not born in the US, then his very existence is both an external attack on America and a mass deception perpetrated by those in power on the American people. Obama represents the threat of both in one body; perhaps this is why the theory has proven so attractive to so many people, even to potential presidential candidates like Donald Trump, to the extent that earlier this week Obama produced his long form birth certificate as proof.
(It won’t work, of course. Conspiracy theories interpret inconvenient facts as damage and route around them in much the same way that the internet does.)
And if there was another man who reconciles and combines these threats, it was Osama bin Laden. He was a vanishingly rare example of the conspiracy theory made flesh, a living, breathing individual who was demonstrably guilty of those terrible crimes that conspiracy theorists ascribe to their enemies. To borrow from Hofstadter again:
[He] is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way.
Bin Laden, while living, was the perfect pantomime villain in this theatre of conspiracy. He already embodied the threat against America from outside groups, and his actions were incorporated into anti-government conspiracy theories as people sought to make sense of the senseless horror and brutality of the events of 9/11.
His death will not lay conspiracies to rest, because his death does not solve the problems that those conspiracies do. His death will not resolve the insecurities that divide America, the fears that have driven the paranoid style to such great heights and made it a prevailing feature of US politics. And the circumstances surrounding the death – a highly-secretive government mission that has left no body to be examined – leave it wide open for reinterpretation.
Perhaps that’s a wise move from Obama. If Bin Laden becomes the bad guy, perhaps Obama can finally lay to rest some of the conspiracy theories surrounding his own existence. Or perhaps that would be one conspiracy too far.