In the spring of 1865, assassin John Wilkes Booth was cornered by Union troops in a Virginia tobacco barn and shot dead. His body was loaded onto a ship and taken back to Washington, autopsied and incontrovertibly identified on the basis of a ragged neck scar and a tattooed hand. Then, in full view of a crowd gathered on the shore, his body, wrapped in sheets and weighted down with cannon shot, was rowed to the middle of the Potomac and dumped.
Only much later did the public learn it had been duped. Booth’s body hadn’t been committed to the fetid depths of the Potomac. It had been buried in a gun-box under the floor of a warehouse at the nearby Navy Arsenal. He was joined there in death by the bodies of three men and one woman hanged as his closest accomplices. The body was later repatriated to the family and buried along with his parents and siblings in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.
Even before the Government tacitly acknowledged its duplicity in Booth’s burial, the speculation had begun. It wasn’t Booth that had been captured and killed in Virginia. He had escaped — to the South, to the West, to Europe, to South America. He was “sighted” in India, in Ceylon, in China, the South Seas. He became an actor in California, a minister in Richmond, Virginia, a bar-keep in Granbury, Texas. In 1903, a drifter named David E. George committed suicide in Enid, Oklahoma. He spent much of the next four decades traveling sideshow circuit as the mummified corpse of John Wilkes Booth.
The lesson? Nothing straps walking shoes on a corpse faster than an unseen death and hasty burial. Not two days after the death of Osama Bin Laden, he’s already lacing up his Sketchers. And there isn't much anyone can do to change that.
Bin Laden is dead, just as Booth was dead and whether he was buried at sea or in, say, an unmarked grave in Afghanistan, the salient point is: dead. But that seems to be not-quite-enough for a growing Coalition of the Un-Persuaded. Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan says: "I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you're stupid.” Her polar opposite, Jim Geraghty at the National Review, says we should look at it as “Osama’s final photo-op.” Charles Blow of the New York Times tweets that: “’Buried at sea’ is just a little too ‘it’s just a weather balloon.’ Conspiracy theorists will run with that one for decades.” The almost masturbatory bloodlust apparent on other blogs and comment streams are frankly too depressing to reprint.
With the pressure mountin, Jake Tapper at ABC News says the White House is debating the release of photos of Osama in death, perhaps along with the helmet-cam video of the raid that killed him and a record of the burial at sea.
So what’s the hold-up? For starters: the photos are purportedly super-gruesome, with a gaping wound above the decedent’s left eye, with blood and brains exposed. And the video is — well, it’s a video of several people meeting violent ends. It’s not family-friendly fare. It has to have network executives (who have, after all, spent the last decade very deliberately not airing photos or video of violent, gruesome, bloody death) chugging the Maloxx. At the same time, intelligence experts must be weighing the psychological value of the photos to Americans against the propaganda value to radical groups around the world.
It's fascinating to watch all this unfold. The documentation will likely be released, perhaps as early as today, but, in the end, it’s just another raggedy sideshow mummy. Incontrovertible photos? Photoshop. Video proof? They faked the moon landing, didn’t they? DNA evidence? Psuedo-science. Sloppy lab-work. Fake. (See: OJ Simpson)
Here's what we need to come to grips with: Osama will stay alive for all those who need him to be alive. He’ll die, over and over, for those who need him to be dead. How could it be otherwise? Bin Laden was never so much a living being in the public consciousness as he was a metaphor, a specter, a messenger, a hobgoblin. Mostly silent and hidden, he could be anything to anyone. His physical death is just another chapter in a continuing career.
Cross-posted at the What Now?|Now What? mirror blog.