— 'You may call it “nonsense” if you like … but I've heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!'
—The Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass
by Richard King
When Seymour Hersh published his 10,000-word essay ‘The Killing of Osama bin Laden' last May he entered a strange and murky realm of information and counter-information in which nothing and no one is quite the real deal – a through-the-looking-glass world (to use one of his own tropes) in which black is white and up is down and four is not always divisible by two. No, not the shadowy world of ‘intelligence' in which his sources and their opposite numbers move, though the dissimulation and disinformation that characterise that milieu had their parts to play; I mean the brave new world of online media and instantaneous ‘analysis', of truth subordinated to tribe and identity, of epistemic closure and flat-out confusion. An intervention in, and challenge to, the official version of the war on terror, ‘The Killing of Osama bin Laden' became a (small) battle in the reality wars.
I am certainly not the first to notice how the reaction to Hersh's article – which was published in the London Review of Books and alleged, inter alia, that the CIA had lied about the provenance of the information that led the Navy SEALs to Abbottabad; that Pakistan's military leaders had secretly agreed to the murder/execution of Osama bin Laden; that a frail and unarmed bin Laden was killed, not at the end of a chaotic shoot-out, but at close range and with high-calibre rifles; and that his mangled body was thrown, bit by bit, from a helicopter over the Hindu Kush – displayed a lack of journalistic rigour. A few days after the story broke, Trevor Timm published an essay in the Columbia Journalism Review anatomising the media's response to the piece. Noting that the online magazine Slate had run no less than five hit-jobs on Hersh's story in the space of just thirty-six hours, and noting as well the collective deaf ear turned to the many documented falsehoods offered by the CIA to the US government and by the US government to the US citizenry, Timm described that reaction as ‘disgraceful'. This was the kind of press, he implied, of which most governments can only dream. No wonder the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest looked so relaxed when he fronted the media in order to rebut Hersh's version of events.
The principal allegation levelled against Hersh (who has recently published the essay in book form) is that his story is ‘a conspiracy theory' – a fantasy concocted on the back of sources too scarce and too anonymous to be trusted. This is a charge to which Hersh's record of breaking big stories is apparently no impediment, though anyone making it feels called upon to pay the grizzled old muckraker his due, noting in particular his sterling work on the My Lai massacre (for which he won a Pulitzer) and his key role in breaking the Abu Ghraib story.
Indeed, it is obligatory, it seems, to set out one's criticisms of Hersh's thesis in the register of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, to tip the hat while shaking the head. ‘The story simply does not hold up to scrutiny', wrote Max Fisher in the online magazine Vox, ‘and, sadly, is in line with Hersh's recent turn away from the investigative reporting that made him famous into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.' ‘Sadly', yes, though how much ‘scrutiny' Fisher was able to apply to Hersh's essay in the hours between its publication online (on May 10, 2015) and filing his own story (on May 11, 2015) is an open question …
Why were some journalists so eager to dismiss ‘The Killing of Osama bin Laden'? Yes, the story is thinly sourced and elements of it don't ring true. But Hersh's version of the events in Abbottabad is scarcely less remarkable or eyebrow-raising than the official version, which invites us to believe that Osama bin Laden was hiding under the noses of the Pakistani military and that photographs of his burial at sea were withheld from the public for security reasons. At the very least, one would think that journalists would embrace the opportunity to revisit that official version and reflect on the black spots in and around it. Surely it is incumbent on journalists accusing a colleague of a lack of journalistic rigour to exhibit a bit of rigour themselves.
Well, you'd think so; but these are strange times, times in which the question of what counts as evidence is fraught with doubt and controversy. Certainly a respectable journalist would not wish to be accused of formulating, or even of giving credence to, a conspiracy theory: to be tarred with that brush would be professional death. Never mind that for Hersh's story to check out no Elders of Zion or secret cabals or holograms or controlled detonations are required (save, of course, for the controlled detonation that got the SEALs into bin Laden's compound). It is best, in these circumstances, to be on the safe side and to put as much distance as possible between oneself and the gibbering paranoid cranks who believe 9/11 was ‘an inside job' and that alien reptiles are pulling the strings. Better to be wrong with Scully than right with Mulder.
In one sense this is understandable; for the cranks are out in force at the moment, their tinfoil headgear glinting in the sun. For them, the problem with Hersh's piece is not that it is a conspiracy theory but that it isn't the right kind of conspiracy theory; the problem with it is that it is incompatible with conspiracy theories already in play. To move from the articles on Hersh's essay to the conversation threads unravelling beneath them is to move from a world in which there are at least some agreed-upon standards of evidence to one in which frenzied imaginations and anti-state paranoia run riot. Thus Hersh's version can't be true because it assumes that bin Laden was the guy who attacked New York and Washington and not the convenient bogeyman of the New World Order ushered in in the wake of that (self-inflicted) wound. Alternatively, Hersh's version can't be true because bin Laden was never killed in 2011: when the story broke he'd been dead for a decade! Paul Craig Roberts, who as former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy lends a veneer of respectability to this theory, has suggested that Hersh was being played, not by Pakistani intelligence, but by US operatives eager to bolster the story that the SEAL team killed bin Laden. This dovetails nicely with the bogeyman theory and assumes that the announcement of bin Laden's death in 2011 was politically expedient – aimed, no doubt, at boosting the popularity (then in rather low water) of President Obama, the CIA stooge/secret Muslim currently cluttering up the White House.
To lump together ‘The Killing of Osama bin Laden' with such paranoid fairy tales would be to do Hersh a great injustice, and few are the journalists who went that far. And yet my sense is that the reaction to that article was born, in part, of a desire to avoid derision by association. Conspiracy theories are now so ubiquitous that the journalist who wants to be taken seriously had better be very careful indeed about what she passes on to her readers. Moreover, it is probably more ‘respectable' to be duped by power than by its critics, given the massive resources at its disposal. Who is the more derided figure: the journalist who toed the official line on the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1990s, or the journalist who maintains that the Iraq War was initiated by Halliburton in order to secure a new market for its services? One doesn't have to buy into the second conspiracy in order to be struck by the easy ride given to the hacks that fell for the first one.
The fact is that, increasingly, the purveyors of conspiracy and apologists for power need each other in order to thrive, that they are separate but related manifestations of the same deep crisis of truth and trust – a crisis in which conspiracy thinking (and the accusation of conspiracy thinking) is commingled with various forms of denialism and shot through with what Stephen Colbert calls ‘truthiness': the sense that the truth is what we feel it to be or what our ideology demands it is. Conspiracies happen, and happen frequently – this much is undeniable; but the conspiracy theorist sees them everywhere and the fact that he does so allows those in power, and their apologists in an increasingly cash-strapped media, to dismiss legitimate analysis and honest doubt as the ramblings of a paranoid minority. Thus bad logic and bad faith combine and scepticism becomes a byword for cynicism (except where global warming is concerned, in which case it's employed as a synonym for scientific illiteracy). The result? A shouting match of the deaf in which the truly sceptical voice is barely audible.
To a greater extent than is commonly acknowledged, conspiracy theories emanate from the mind's need for a plausible explanation in the face of official dissimulation and untruth. So it counts as something of an irony that political elites should benefit so directly from the very epistemic confusion they themselves have helped to sow (and indeed to manure) with their shady behaviour. For the tragedy now is that those elites can not only point to any version of events that doesn't accord with the official one and describe it as ‘a conspiracy theory' but that they can also rely on a large section of the press to put the case for them before they open their mouths. That is what happened in the case of Hersh. Dismissing a well-founded distrust as paranoia, and craving the kind of respectability that only such a dismissal can get you, many commentators simply rolled their eyes and parroted the official line. I only wish I could be so confident about which side of the looking glass I'm on.
NOTE: The Killing of Osama bin Laden by Seymour M. Hersh is published by Verso.
ALSO NOTE: Richard King's website is The Bloody Crossroads.