- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2011

He’s dead. He’s not dead. He died 10 years ago.

And so it goes for Osama bin Laden, at the very epicenter of the conspiracy du jour — and possibly the decade. Fueled by a hyperactive Internet and conflicting details, the week’s events have fostered creative notions that parse the fate of bin Laden and the White House version of his death.

We’ve not lost our taste for cheeky conspiracy theories. Americans and much of the world are in full cry.

“The White House decision not to release the bin Laden death photos will only fuel conspiracy theorists. Trust is in very short supply these days, particularly trust in government and other institutions. And when the official story of an event like this is ambiguous, when there is uncertainty, people entertain a range of theories,” said Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association.

Reuters news agency has released a trio of images revealing the bodies of others from the scene where bin Laden was killed. But the main target? In an interview to air on CBS, President Obama defended his decision to withhold photos, noting, “Conspiracy theorists will just claim the photos have been doctored anyway.”

Yet the White House sideshow has played right into the public’s imagination.

“In the bin Laden matter, the events transpired so quickly, with different explanations, different stories. The body was whisked away and buried at sea. Buried at sea? This sounds like something from a 19th-century navy. Who’s been buried at sea lately? As an official act of government, this is genuinely weird,” Mr. Farley said. “No doubt a Hollywood movie is already in the works.”

Like Elvis Presley, bin Laden has long drawn the curiosity of rumormongers.

In the past decade, serious press accounts provided ideas about his whereabouts, some of them mythic in scope, some comedic.

Within months of the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden was “spotted” riding on a white horse along Pakistan’s border. He was also said to be living in a gray Toyota Corolla in Iraq with a top aide, or dead — and cryogenically frozen in an undisclosed location. Some reports said he had escaped the Middle East in the hold of an oil freighter, others claimed the terrorist had altered his appearance with plastic surgery and lived in London — or Australia.

Journalists also can enter the conspirator fray, with some accuracy.

While HBO talk-show host Bill Maher, comedian Garry Shandling and actor Alec Baldwin bantered over bin Laden’s status during a 2008 broadcast, then-PBS correspondent Christiane Amanpour adamantly claimed that an unnamed U.S. intelligence source assured her that bin Laden was in Pakistan, “living in a nice comfortable villa, not in some cave.”

Scientists were also intrigued by the bin Laden mystery.

In 2009, University of California at Los Angeles geography professor Thomas Gillespie used complex “biogeographic” data — bin Laden’s cultural background, last-known location, his health and security needs — to pinpoint the terrorist’s location, with exact coordinates.

Mr. Gillespie established that there was a 90 percent chance that bin Laden was in a heavily fortified compound in Pakistan’s Kurram province, most likely in the town of Parachinar, about 112 miles west of where he was found.

It’s gotten a lot more convenient to promulgate such fare, though. The public can find their own conspiracy “niche” anywhere on the Internet, Mr. Farley said, augmented with tweets and message boards suited for die-hards who detect conspiracies everywhere, as well as people seeking to form their own cogent argument.

This week, the arguments — cogent and otherwise — contend that bin Laden was a CIA operative who died years ago. “Peace Mom” activist Cindy Sheehan, who now is an online radio host, supports this idea.

“If you believe the newest death of Osama bin Laden, you’re stupid,” she said, also noting that in 2007, Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto insisted that bin Laden was dead.

Rock guitarist Jim Corr, a “truther” who believes that the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers was masterminded within our own borders, thinks bin Laden died a decade ago. He’s already created a parody movie poster emblazoned with the motto “Obama Zombie 6: They dug him up and killed him again.”

In Pakistan, the news media, as well as many local residents, claim that the U.S. staged bin Laden’s death for a variety of reasons, and now demand “proof,” according to Radio Mashaal, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty project. Similar rumors have persisted in Middle Eastern news accounts.

All this activity could be reflection of the world we live in, and how we deal with it, however.

“I believe that much of what we hear about the conspiracy theories is indeed the product of coping mechanisms individuals have developed to deal with current world events, the terrorist acts on 9/11 and the fears and stressors that surround those events,” said David Solly, a psychology professor at the University of the Rockies.

“Coping is the set of active efforts we make to master, reduce or tolerate the demands created by stress,” he added. “We find many creative methods to do this, of which conspiracy theory certainly can be one.”

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