05 May 2011

Habeus Corpus: Bin Laden's body and the age of bad faith

Should the world see Osama bin Laden's corpse? The President of the United States has decided that there's no need, and a number of Republicans agree with him. Speaker Boehner has endorsed Obama's decision, while the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee notes that the corpse, or the photos of it, should not be treated as a trophy. Republicans and Democrats alike have made the usual argument that such a display of the dead terrorist would inflame his surviving followers and endanger Americans in and out of uniform. An apparently smaller number of Republicans are disappointed by the President's decision. Sarah Palin, for instance, thinks that the photos might have a deterrent effect and should be shown to warn would-be terrorists of the risks involved in attacking America. It's worth noting that Palin doesn't seem to consider the photos necessary as proof of bin Laden's death, though she may speak indirectly for others who are more demanding. Meanwhile, Sen. Graham of South Carolina thinks that not releasing the photos defeats the purpose of Sunday's operation. If we did not intend to recover a body that would then be identified for all the world to see, he suggests, why didn't we just bomb his compound instead of sending in Navy SEALS at greater personal risk?

Does anyone doubt that bin Laden was killed last weekend? I'd be surprised if no one did, but I'm also surprised to see so few on the Islamist side expressing doubt. The Pakistani Taliban are reportedly denying the kill, but the impression I've had is that much of the Muslim world, apart from the protests of HAMAS in Palestine, has responded to bin Laden's death with a collective shrug. If there is widespread doubt about what happened in Abbottabad, it's probably more likely to be found in the West than in the Dar al-Islam. The refusal to release the death photos, added to the decision to dump bin Laden's body in the ocean, will only strengthen some skeptics' conviction that the "Geronimo" operation was a big lie. But as the Intelligence Committee chairman noted, many conspiracymongers would still doubt the story even if the photos had been released. Photos can be faked, after all, and power has motive to fake things. Advances in science and technology have only fueled a surge of superstition in its modern form -- conspiracy theory.

Skepticism becomes a kind of credulity once it assumes that everything is a trick and that everyone is out to trick the skeptic. This reflexive skepticism defines our present age of bad faith. You see it in "birthers" and "truthers" and in many previous phenomena. The historical fact of cover-ups leads to the suspicion that everything is some kind of cover-up. Every complex system becomes a kind of conspiracy that can only be hostile to the observer who sees himself excluded from it. Everyone seems out to enslave or at least con everyone else. Does this describe an atomized late-capitalist society actually existing today, or dystopian fears of a depersonalized, hyper-networked future? Even if the answer is both, the only remedy is for people to learn to trust each other in general. It's easy to say that we need a generation of trustworthy leaders first, but trust will have to be extended before anyone can have a chance to justify it. It may be, after all, that people are untrustworthy because they don't trust anyone -- consider how often cover-ups are justified by the assumption that ordinary people will misunderstand or misinterpret whatever they might find out. What can be done to correct that assumption, or all the other assumptions of bad faith? Whatever your answer, you'll have to trust someone to help you do it. The object isn't to instill blind faith in people or institutions; free societies will always require a degree of vigilance against ambition or corruption. But vigilance has grown indiscriminate in many quarters, with skepticism about bin Laden being just a relatively trivial instance of it. Only a sounder understanding of our own place as individuals in society and government can restore a moderate balance of vigilance and trust -- but that, too, will require trust if we hope to reach that understanding together.


Anonymous said...

More to the point, there have been numerous coverups by our government, so why should anyone believe, without proof, that anything the government says isn't a lie or coverup? It is mainly the fault of the government for being dishonest for so long, that Americans no longer automatically trust or believe what the government claims.

In this particular case, I have no reason to believe that bin Laden hasn't been dead for some time and was just being used as a bogeyman to justify continued occupation of the middle east by American military forces.

Samuel Wilson said...

If so, why declare him dead now? Do you trust Obama to actually pull out of Afghanistan? Given how the White House narrative of the operation has changed daily, one has to wonder about the story behind the story. It may be as simple as keeping bin Laden the top story as long as it benefits the President, but who knows?

As for my larger point, I repeat that it's easy to say that replacing the current liars is a precondition to restoring trust, but people are going to have to trust any replacements before the replacements even have a chance to prove their trustworthiness as political leaders. Given our collective abstract fear of "power" and "government," that trust may be hard to come by no matter who gets elected.

Anonymous said...

It's not merely a point of replacing the current liars with a new set of liars. The government has to earn trust. The first thing is to stop lying to the public.

The problem is, since lies are what keeps them in power, they will not stop. That has become the stock-in-trade of this country. In government, in business, in religion. Everything is based on lies.