I'm watching a near-constant scroll of reactions to Osama bin Laden's death roll past on various blog sites, Facebook and Twitter, and I'm alarmed at the number of folks I see who want "proof" of bin Laden's death. The news that he's been buried at sea has been met with a chorus of "show us the proof!" and "now we'll never know!" and the like. Gizmodo has already gone to bat against a fake picture of dead Osama (graphic), and though the joke about Donald Trump wanting to see the long-form death certificate was old the second time it was told, there's a kernel of truth in the idea that someone will always want to see more. Dave Weigel at Slate points out that even Cindy Sheehan has gotten in on the act, and he writes "Osama bin Trutherism is born."
The USS Carl Vinson, from where bin Laden was committed to the sea.
The problem, of course, is that there's almost no way to definitively prove anything these days. The clearer the answers that technology can give, the clearer the answers that it can invent. So there's DNA testing, but some will argue that could have been staged or faked, contaminated, or misreported. There's certainly photographic evidence, and though the White House is saying it may not be released officially, someone will make it public, someday -- though in an age where Photoshop can create entire parks at the click and swivel of your mouse, it's hard to know what's real and what's invented. There will, at some point, be the debriefing and testimony of those involved in the raid; there's the contemporaneous account of that poor dude on Twitter; there are maps and video of fires at this compound. There is the word of one of bin Laden's wives.
Beyond this proof -- these facts that will seem to some too easily manipulable in modern days -- the only proof will be bin Laden's absence from the world. There will be no new tapes -- but, then again, maybe there will be. How hard would it be to forge a new recording, or to leak an old but unreleased tape onto the Internet or into the hands of his most rabid followers?
The problem is this: even if there were a body, the thousands who need more proof would never have had it. We are again in an age where only the naked eye, only the personal experience, seems to serve as proof enough, and there would never have been a chance for everyone to walk by and see this man's body.
I believe he is dead because the president told me so. I believe that the president knows he is dead, and he's a smart enough man to know when he's being lied to. Thinking cynically and skeptically, the consequences for getting this wrong are too severe for me to believe that there would ever be enough of an upside for someone to cover up the failure to kill a leader as famous and famously hated and hunted as bin Laden. He is dead. He is gone. Yesterday was an ending.
For conspiracy theorists, though, it was just a new beginning. Those who lack faith in our leaders will not be so easily convinced. I imagine the next six months -- whether they are filled with the silent secrecy of a mission gone well or the inane chatter of bragging -- will produce enough fodder to feed the conspiracy cannons for decades.