Spike the football
By Daniel M. Ryan
Imagine you're watching a football game. Team Blue scores a touchdown at the last minute; it's a clear game-winner. Since Team Blue is the home team, the stands go wild: the fans see victory. The winning player touches the football to the ground beyond the goal line, making for a legal touchdown. It's all over at that point.
Then, something funny happens. The guy responsible starts to showboat with the ball, dancing around the goal post near the point where he touched the football to the turf. Then, all of a sudden, he bonks his shoulder on the goal post and gets thrown for a loop. Looking stunned, he picks himself up and wavers off the field.
Next comes the one point kick. The kicker runs out to the field, looking fit and ready to add the coup de grâce. A few seconds later, the head coach runs on the field and accosts the man who's ready to shove his foot into the pigskin. Several seconds of hurried conversation ensue, and the kicker goes back to the bench looking confused. Another fellow comes out to do the chore. Again, the head coach checks his roster and bolts out into the field. The second kicker goes back to the bench, looking embarrassed.
Then, a third one comes on the gridiron. For some odd reason, the place-kick football holder hasn't been put on the field. So, the kicker makes a drop kick. The ball bounces wild, he misses it and the one-point shot is blown.
The commentators go out of their way to assure the audience that the original touchdown was in fact a legal score. Despite their assurances, questions are beginning to arise on Twitter and other sources of less formal commentary. What those informals ask is: how could a team that bollixed up things so badly scored the touchdown in the first place? More and more demands for a re-ref'ed replay hit the Internet. Team Red, the ones who end up losing the game, don't make the same demand. They accept the touchdown as legitimate, even though a growing segment of their fans don't. The head coach of Team Blue tries to take the high road, saying the game is won and that's that; there's no sense in dragging out the agony by pulling out the stop-motion camera. Team Red goes along with it, but a lot of their fans refuse to. Conspiracy theories start to arise, with these questions fuelling them: "How could a bunch of screw-ups score the winning touchdown? Isn't that prima facie evidence that there's a conspiracy between the refs and Team Blue? Is the League itself involved?"
The above analogy serves as a good intro to the way the Obama Administration handled the announcements of the killing of Osama bin Laden. I want to make clear that it does not refer to the operation itself, which was done in an expert and professional manner. The above illustration refers to politics, publicity and the popularity bounce expected for President Obama.
There are those who thought the first announcement was timed so that it would interrupt the latest episode of The Apprentice. Donald Trump being one of President Obama's recent irritants, the timing theory is plausible. If true, then the whole episode deserves to be passed along as a cautionary tale on the hazards of showboating. Timing a very serious matter of state to knock down a political opponent exhibits the same lapse of judgement that's responsible for relaying supposed facts before they're checked.
Of course, the timing may be coincidental. If so, then it doesn't make the Obama Administration look better: in fact, they look worse. The picture of high officials rushing to blurt out narratives that mysteriously switch from day to day makes them look, to be impolite, like screw-ups. Vindictiveness makes them look less mistake-prone.
We know how the story has changed. First, bin Laden may have been armed; then he was; then he wasn't. He used his wife as a human shield; he didn't. There was one huge firefight; then several. Waterboarding had nothing to do with garnering the needed intelligence; it was crucial. The White House had a live feed on the action; it didn't. There were live cameras recording the event; they went blank. That now-notorious photo showing President Obama, Vice-President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, a top general and other Administration figures conveyed the impression that they were all on top of the mission. Now, it just looks like hastily-concocted war theatre.
There is, of course, more. There was camera footage of bin Laden's death; there wasn't. A photograph of bin Laden was to be released; it wasn't. Given the shift and turns last week, the suppositions masquerading as facts crashing into other suppositions and sometimes real facts, it's no wonder that bin Laden's burial at sea is being questioned too. A cluster of inconsistencies and shifting narratives tend to invite questions even about facts that don't change, even about facts that are solidly substantiated.
The Role Of Conspiracy Theorizing
And, of course, the confusion at the top spawned conspiracy theories from below. Normally, the significance of them isn't much remarked on in American politics. Politicians, plus writers and academics who follow in the wake of politicians, dismiss conspiracy theorizing as evidence of mass mental illness. The common-sensical question, so simple even a candid child could think of it, is never answered: "Why would so many people go so nuts all of a sudden? What set them off?"
The usual attempts at an answer never speak to the timing. We are assured that mass mental illness arises like a plague of gremlins from some unknown source. We are told that people, quite capable of spotting a nut, are suddenly transfixed as if by a witch's spell into treating nutty people as both sane and insightful. We are expected to believe that the rate of mental illness lurches up and down from time to time, despite what statistics from mental-health professionals show. We're expected to swallow the notion that pre-existing grudges which can be vented more easily in a more direct fashion, if only on the sly are responsible. We're expected to not ask "why then?" and be content with "why them?" Those who push the former question are expected to be content with generalities rather than specific flash points. When questioned, the "mass insanity" narrative ends up being "for some strange reason, cranks became imbued with some mysterious charisma" or "people just went nuts all of a sudden."
The same causative vacuum exists for the more homely equivalent, namely "they just hate the President." People who hate the President can express their hatred directly. Every President accumulates enough mistakes, or backs away from enough promises, to provide enough grist for his haters to vent away. They have no need for a conspiracy theory; if anything, a conspiracy theory tends to complicate the attacks. A conspiracy theory needs explaining; jumping on mistakes or broken promises doesn't. Why bother to spin a complex tale when good old-fashioned confronting will do?
Fact is, conspiracy theories become widespread when the leadership either acts like they're wearing masks or they show they don't know what they're doing. The mask-wearing, or plain insincerity, tends to feed "insider" conspiracy theories. The second, bumbling leadership or an inadequate job done on a matter that's vital, tends to feed "enemy within" conspiracy theories. The latter take root among people who believe that the top leadership are in fact their betters. The idea that their supposed betters may have been plain incompetent, or fell asleep at the switch, induces too much cognitive dissonance to be accepted. Thus, a conspiracy is resorted to. No mistakes were made by U.S. intelligence and the Roosevelt Administration right before Pearl Harbour: oh no, FDR knew about the Japanese attack and welcomed it! U.S. intelligence wasn't asleep at the switch before 9/11; oh no, it was America's Reichstag Fire!
And now, we have another conspiracy theory: we were all lied to on May the First. Bin Laden wasn't shot down by U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6, oh no…
Admittedly, the idea of a widespread conspiracy being a blemish on the leadership raises too high a bar for politicians to reasonably observe. No President, in the heat of an attack on the United States, is going to apologize for his Administration falling asleep at the switch. No ordinary politician would, either. To do so effectively requires the innate nobility and aplomb of a Sovereign. Holding a demotic politician to a standard fit for a King or Queen is quite simply unrealistic. In cases like Pearl Harbour or 9/11, dismissing the conspiracy theorists as sad and unbent souls is the most reasonable approach for a practicing politician to take. People want action, not admissions, when a country is attacked. Draining conspiracy theories doesn't even make the to-do list.
But, in times when the country is not threatened, a widespread conspiracy theory can give indirect information about the leadership – even to the leadership. Is the birther movement a sign that President Obama sometimes acts like he's not all there? Is the new "deather" movement a sign that more time should have been spent getting the facts straight? Prioritizing the initial speech to be less fact-driven and more celebratory of the victory? Could widespread conspiracy theories about the "Illumati" and such be the result of too many public figures cultivating a secretive side? Could the conspiracy theories surrounding President Roosevelt be caused by his partisans (some of which are credentialed historians) stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that FDR had definite weak points?
As for the bin-Laden-death-announcement bobbles, it could result from President Obama and his Administration being of their age. We're more tolerant of mistakes than we used to be, and such easygoingness does make its way up the ladder to Washington D.C. How widespread and telling the criticisms of Obama et. al. are, will indicate how much of our age they really are. Regardless, we now know well that they are not our betters.