Sunday, 29 May 2011

"The Crowning Attainment of Historical Study" - David Aaronovitch on the Death of Osama bin Laden

THE TIMES | Tuesday May 10 2011
Times Modern, pp4-5
Bin Laden dead? Only in theory
With the death of Osama bin Laden, the conspiracy theorists have mined a rich vein of incredulity. Yet, asks David Aaronovitch, are the internet and 24-hour   news channels making us all susceptible to exotic disbelief
What Americans now "needed" to do, the BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner told Radio 5 listeners on Saturday night, was to match the newly released video of a blanketed Osama bin Laden watching TV with the rooms in the house where he was killed. And to do it so that we could all see. That was what was required.
But, the sceptical soul demands, why would President Obama and company "need" to do any such odd thing? Might such "proof" be of assistance to the US in fighting the remnants of al-Qaeda? Hard to see how. Or could it help to reassure the world community — some of whom seem to believe that bin Laden should have been taken as though he were a local villain being apprehended by the parish plod — that the killing was justified? Nope.

Sceptical? What is the scepticism about here? Sceptical about what Obama "needs" to do? That's a funny kind of thing to claim scepticism about; more a practical matter than one of belief. Or is the scepticism about there being any necessity to provide evidence? Again, that's a funny thing to be sceptical about. It's almost a one-liner: You say we should not believe things without evidence, but I'm sceptical. (You can have that one for your next dinner party.)

I think it's really a matter of the 'sceptical soul' - that is the person who is by nature a sceptic - and I think Aaronovitch is suggesting that scepticism is relevant here because - you guessed it - he's about to go off on another sneering binge, in which he and the rest of the quietists are, despite appearances, sceptical by nature, while the rest of us are flaky weirdos with fixed ideas.

Gardner's concern was not, in fact, connected with the practicalities or ethics of what we may not any longer call the War on Terror. His advice was aimed at quieting the idea that it wasn't bin Laden who was shot that night in Abbottabad, or that if it was bin Laden he was already dead, or any of the other exotic conspiracy theories that started almost the instant the news broke.
The fact that Aaronovitch has chosen Frank Gardner, of all people, to upbraid for conceding too much to the shabby basement-dwellers illustrates just how implacable his demand for orthodoxy is. And see how the sceptical stance 'account of covert op not to be trusted' has been transformed into a positive thesis - that what actually happened was one of (x,y,z...), that is, anything incompatible with the official account, including its bare denial. In other words, the rejection of a claim has been presented as a family of positive assertions, the only common component of which is of course the rejection of the claim. Thus scepticism becomes credulity, credulity scepticism. Voodoo Bollocks!

Producers on the BBC World Service described themselves as "astonished" by the number of listeners round the globe who contacted them by phone, tweet and e-mail to say that they did not believe that OBL was extinct On the BBC's website Have Your Say communicants such as one Honor Savage Scott mailed that "I'm not into conspiracy theories, but it seems odd they wouldn't take a picture for proof before throwing his body in the sea"
'I'm not into conspiracy theories, but' - no, that won't wash. Of course you're into conspiracy theories - otherwise how could you find an aspect of an official story odd? I mean, by any reasonable standard, it is indeed odd, but if you should say so, Aaronovitch's paranoid ear will hear an insinuation of... well, something or other; he'll let you know what you're insinuating later. But whatever it is, it's a conspiracy theory. That much is certain, bedrock of Aaronovitch's intellectual life.

Of course you might mean you're not into conspiracy theories as a rule, you're not a conspiracy theory hobbyist. But that's not good enough. Any hint that there could be any funny business, so much as a simple bit of noble lying, means not only that you're propounding some impossibly detailed theory as truth, but that you believe anything else Aaronovitch can dream up.
Within hours there were internet sites pointing to the imagined strange coincidence of the raid with the anniversary of George W. Bush's "mission accomplished" soundbite, with Hitler's birthday and even the event's proximity to the royal wedding. (Alas, conspiracists missed what my colleague Daniel Finkelstein noticed: that Osama bin Laden is an anagram of "lob da man in sea". Very fishy.)
There were - yes I bet there were, along with internet sites saying just about anything else you can imagine. What of it? The anagram, though - nice. I love anagrams. They're funny and clever. Not. Especially not when they require deviant spelling/strained slang. You have to admire Aaronovitch for this though - he can't resist this: it's the kind of faux-'clue' the conspiracists in his head would love, so he reports that they 'missed' this one.
In the lexicon of conspiracy theory, "truthers" refers to those who believe that George Bush brought down the twin towers. "Birthers" are those who contend that Obama was not born a US citizen and therefore was not qualified to become leader of the free world. To which we can now add "deathers" — the people who argue that bin Laden was not killed last week by US Navy Seals, for the uncomplicated reason that he had expired a few years earlier.
The 9/11 truthers are rather forced into this view by the logic of their own favoured conspiracy theory. If the malignant, omnipotent Bush conspired to fake the attacks on September 11, then it follows that bin Laden was not responsible. In which case one has to account for the subsequent videos claiming responsibility. Answer? They were faked. But why did bin Laden not disown these forgeries? Because, dummy, he was no more. According to a man who'd met a man who knew a doctor in Dubai, he'd been pushing up desert daisies since 2001. So whose was the body that the Americans let slide into the Persian Gulf? Either that of the long-frozen bin Laden brought out of cold storage like a timely casserole, or of a doppelganger.
Ah, I see - it came from some recess of David Aaronovitch. What do we call him and his ilk then? Spoofers?
Truthers and birthers are both served by such a narrative. For anti-Obama conspiracists in the US there is something too "convenient" about the business in Abbottabad. How fortunate for the beleaguered President, criticised for his weakness abroad, that — just eight months before the presidential election cycle kicks in again — he should be afforded such a masculine success. It all reminds them of the so-called October Surprise theory from the Carter-Reagan election in 1980. According to this story Ronald Reagan's intermediaries secretly acted to prevent the release of the Iranian hostages, for fear that it would assist the incumbent Jimmy Carter. They weren't released in time and Carter lost.
Divide and rule. Think there may be something in the October Surprise (and why wouldn't you)? Turn to defending that - by showing how it's different from whatever Aaronovitch says the 'deathers' believe. Think it must be rubbish? Well, exactly - then so must the story believed by the 'deep-freezers', deathers, truthers, birthers, what was it? Them, anyway. What you're unlikely to do, as Aaronovitch knows, is infer from the fact that the October Surprise scenario is plausible that the hotch-potch theory devised by Aaronovitch is too. 
Conspiracy theories, like other stories, tend to some shapes more than others. The idea of body swaps or body movements is a favourite conspiracist notion. John Kennedy's brain was supposed to have gone missing, Lee Harvey Oswald was said to have a double, the murdered anti-nuclear campaigner Hilda Murrell's body was theorised to have been moved by British state servants, as was that of Dr David Kelly, as was the corpse of Bill Clinton's dead aide, Vince Foster, in 1994. The bin Laden theories fit this preoccupation with cadaver mobility.
Aaronovitch, of course, also believes that fact tends to some shapes (the cock-up, the co-incidence) more than others (the sneaky trick, the institutional stitch-up). In his Voodoo book, he claims to have reached The crowning attainment of historical intuitive understanding of how things do not happen.

And the 'shape' Aaronovitch observes is not of course common to conspiracy theories that are not about suspicious deaths. And those that are are, it's entirely reasonable that they should take this 'shape'. Cover-ups of suspicious deaths may be expected to involve some degree of tampering with the body or parts thereof. Tampering with dead bodies is suggestive of concealment of what really happened to them. How Lee and Harvey Oswald are supposed to fit in to Aaronovitch's latest voodoo theory is anyone's guess.
This stuff can seem maddening, but is it, in any way, dangerous? In the US and here, whatever some may say, conspiracism is a minority pastime. Obama's stated reason for not releasing photographs of the dead bin Laden — that the gruesome nature of the pictures might inflame opinion against the US (Arab sites are not known for their squeamishness) — seem solid to Americans. An NBC poll showed that nearly two thirds agreed with Obama's view. Unlike Frank Gardner, the President took the view that even if he produced a whole album of kicked-bucket photos, there would still be those convinced that bin Laden was not killed on May 2.
Maddening. Well, he said it. But the premise seems to be that the only reason why the public deserve to be provided with any kind of evidence is to stop them slandering the state. And even if we accept that, we certainly shouldn't suppose that providing such evidence would be pointless just because 'there would still be those convinced that bin Laden was not killed on May 2' - the sceptical switch is openly done here - the aim is not to convince the public of a narrative, but merely to prevent them from clinging to mad delusions. As if Aaronovitch would be satisfied if the population reserved judgement.

Aaronovitch also tries the reverse bandwagon by saying 'conspiracism' is a minority pastime (not something you, dear reader, would want to get involved in). This is obviously at odds with the message of his voodoo book, which presents 'conspiracism' as a source of all history's ills and associates the 'role of the conspiracy theory in shaping history' with Hitler, Stalin, McCarthy/HUAC, and about 15 flavours of virulent antisemitism), but a propagandist must use whichever tool is needed on a given occasion, and of course consistency (thus truth) is one of the first casualties of such an approach. 

But there are places where conspiracism is not such a harmless hobby. At the weekend the pollster YouGov published the results of a survey in Pakistan, conducted just after the Abbottabad raid. The poll, probably over-representing Pakistan's educated classes, was not reassuring. No less than 66 per cent of the sample believed that, whatever else happened that night, the death of Osama bin Laden didn't. And less than 25 per cent thought that al-Qaeda had brought down the twin towers in the first place.
Ah yes, the curious habit of ex-colonials to be distrustful of the West. Being a conspiracist is evidently one of those Yes, Minister irregular verbs. 'I am a judicious consumer of credible intelligence, you are a pathetic loser who should be embarrassed, they are dangerous maniacs who must be stopped. Just for the record, the answer that 66% of respondents chose was 'No, I suspect the person they say they killed was not Osama Bin Laden'. The precise semantics of this labyrinthine formula resist analysis (I'm pretty sure the person they say they killed was UBL), but the verb 'suspect', rather than 'believe' is rather prominent. 

Also for the record, the less-than-25% figure excludes both the 46% who said  'Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda had nothing to do with the attacks', and the 31% in the 'Don't know/ prefer not to say' camp. The usual Aaronovitch shenanigans when it comes to interpreting doubt and uncertainty: suspicion or doubt is translated into certainty one way or the other, as it suits him.

Notice that we haven't had any explanation of why Aaronovitch says that in Pakistan, 'conspiracism is not a harmless hobby'. If he had established anything relevant at all, it would be that 'conspiracism' is quite widespread, which is not the same thing. 
The political context of this finding was more worrying. Maybe as a consequence of this conspiracism, maybe as its precursor, three quarters agreed with the view that the US "does not respect Islam and considers itself at war with the Muslim world" — 86 per cent opposed drone attacks and 70 per cent were against accepting economic aid from America. In other words, conspiracist thought fits the pattern of distrust of America. If bin Laden didn't launch the 9/11 attack, then everything subsequently done in Afghanistan and Pakistan is based on another, ulterior motive.
OK, so this is worrying rather than harmless because conspiracist thought fits the pattern of distrust of America? This is weasellyer than a Kenneth Graham battle scene. Fits the pattern? What does that even mean? Correlation? Where is this correlation? And do we have any reason to suppose that such a correlation would indicate causation from the 'conspiracism' of "don't trust their story about a recent covert op" to the virulent anti_Americanism of "don't like their flying killer robots" and "don't want to be dependent on their largesse/have the junta borrowing money from them and saddling us with the repayments"?

Surely if the point is to establish that 'conspiracism' has harmful effects, we should have something a bit more convincing than a transparently evasive remark about 'fitting a pattern'? (And note that Aaronovitch is very fond of accusing the 'conspiracists' of imposing patterns where there aren't any.) Still, Aaronovitch wasn't able to establish this thesis in the course of a sizable book supposedly dedicated to exactly that purpose, so we shouldn't expect too much from him here. I suppose the point must lie in the final sentence, which exemplifies another favourite tactic of Aaronovitch's - telling other people what they 'must' believe. For one thing,
believing that everything subsequently done in Afghanistan and Pakistan is based on a motive other than - what? Catching UBL? is neither an odd belief, nor one that depends on any view at all about who did 9/11.

But what about the inference that Aaronovitch does attribute to the mad Pakistani conspiracists? 
If Bin Laden had nothing to do with 9/11, then... what? Well, Aaronovitch supposes (as anti-9/11 strawmanners will) that the only alternative is that 'Bush' dunnit. Non-USians are of course capable of observing that the erstwhile Mr President is not the sharpest apple in the barrel, so this idea itself is hardly going to be a runner. More to the point, Aaronovitch is rather obviously not using one of his favourite tools here: the anti-semitism card. Surely everyone knows that conspiracy theories are intimately intertwined with antisemitic accusations that the Mossad get up to dodgy activities, especially in the mid-East/Muslim Central Asia, all round there, you know what they're like. And many of the more substantial and detailed 9/11 hypotheses posit Israeli (and domestic pro-Israeli) involvement. So the fact that he's overlooked that possibility would be very odd, except of course that it doesn't suit his purposes in this particular sentence to consider it. 
Then there was another finding, just as relevant. By far the biggest concern among Pakistanis was official corruption. There is no trust whatsoever in officialdom, or government sources. Indeed, government tells you one thing in Pakistan, it seems most prudent to believe the opposite, no matter how far-fetched.
One question is whether, over time, Pakistan will become more like us, or we'll become more like them. Is it possible that the capacity of the internet to permit the rapid dissemination of bizarre "truths" is making more of us liable to conspiracist thought?
Possible? Weeell, yes, I suppose so. (It's good to ask people questions to which they can only really answer 'yes'. It softens them up and makes them think they agree with you.) 
But just to piss in Aaronovitch's swimming pool a bit, I'd like to point out that the biggest concern among Pakistanis was official corruption is not actually the same as, and doesn't imply, There is no trust whatsoever in officialdom, or government sources. Oh yeah, and neither of these implies the ridiculous government tells you one thing in Pakistan, it seems most prudent to believe the opposite, no matter how far-fetched. No-one uses heuristics like that - not even Aaronovitch and his anti-conspiratorial colleagues, who are concerned about opinion, not provenance. Maybe characters in logic puzzles, or something. 

But, really. I mean, Aaronovitch actually is saying what he says: that Pakistanis automatically believe the opposite of the official story - no matter how far fetched. (Let's hope the junta don't find out, or they might work out a cunning logic trick to get round the problem of mistrust at a stroke.) What a knob-end.
So, to re-program all you bovine consumers, let me provide my own push-polling question: is it possible that distrust of the government is due to having a corrupt government, rather than something to do with a mysterious infection called 'conspiracism'? Say yes. No, actually say it. Good.
This last weekend the online Guardian newspaper published an article by the actor Keith Allen (Lily's dad, for you youngsters). The subject was a "documentary" that Allen is showing at the Cannes Film Festival this week.. The film is called Unlawful Killing and concerns itself with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the subsequent inquest in 2007-8. Allen's ostensible complaint was that the film couldn't be shown in Britain because "lawyers" had demanded 87 cuts that he wasn't prepared to make. Allen portrayed this as a sinister form of muzzling by the British Establishment of a film that clearly raised big questions about Establishment complicity in Diana's death.
What Allen doesn't tell readers is that the censoring lawyers were almost certainly his, and that their advice [almost certainly?] was based on his vulnerability to actions for libel and slander. [slander?] This is unsurprising, given the tone of a five-minute YouTube section of the film linked to by Allen himself in his article. In essence [rather than actually] this clip accuses the Duke of Edinburgh of being a Nazi when younger because he attended a school in Germany in the 1930s and "marched" in a filmed funeral procession alongside Nazi bigwigs. In fact the Duke followed the Jewish founder of the German school Kurt Hahn to Britain after two terms, and was just 17 at the time of the funeral of his sister, brother-in-law and two nephews who had been killed in an air crash in Ostend.
Allen claims to have been convinced by Michael Mansfield, the vain but brilliant QC who represented
Mohamed AI Fayed at the Diana inquest, that there was something very suspicious about the crash that killed her. Mansfield has repeated his suspicions in his recent autobiography. But the actor fails somehow to notice what happened at that inquest. In summary Mansfield was humiliated by the difficulty in providing even the most basic evidence for Al Fayed's contentions. His cross-examination of Diana and Dodi's Fayed-hired bodyguards was at times catastrophic.
[For more conspiracy theories and to tell us yours, go to]
Shhhhlpp..unh? Whassat? Oh it's a sidebar. Nodded off for a bit there. Sorry, I think I may have dribbled on your shoulder. Let me know if we get back to the topic.
Even so, the film is instructive in technique and intention. He claims there was a conspiracy-not just by the Royal Family and MI5 "but collectively by the British Establishment— judges, lawyers, politicians, police chiefs; secret services, even newspaper editors". Allen includes interviews with a Simone Simmons (Diana's medium), the schlock biographer Kitty Kelley, his own researcher, an American comedienne, the late Tony Curtis (an interview conducted, one hopes, before his death) and the former newspaper editor and now star of CNN Piers Morgan.
Hang on, I think that was a gag. The late.. Yes. Definitely a gag.
Morgan is interviewed by Allen in a restaurant. He tells Allen of his incredulity on hearing the claim that the British security agencies hadn't assassinated anyone for 50 years.
Morgan: "I laughed out loud! What's the point of them then? We've all been to James Bond movies ... So if you don't believe that where does that leave the rest of the Establishment evidence? It's weird when you think that the British Establishment can think of nothing worse than Dodi Al Fayed impregnating and possibly marrying Diana, that she's conducting an international offensive against landmines, with all the crippling economic problems that would bring for the British Establishment again, and the British Government .. .
Allen: "And America."
Morgan: "And America. If you add all those to the mix then if you were going to do something dodgy to Diana then that's the time you would do it. As she used to say to me. 'I'm trouble to them. I won't go away. I won't go quietly'."
Allen (voiceover): "Presidents have been killed for less."
Viewed as Allen presents it, Morgan's comments are the essence of conspiracism. It defies his intuitive belief in how things happen that Diana would not have been a target for the royals and the "Establishment", and therefore she probably was.
Ah, the intuitive belief in how things happen. Where have I heard that before? Ah yes, Voodoo Theories
fraught though the understanding of history is, and although there can be no science of historical probability, those who understand history develop an intuitive sense of likelihood and unlikelihood. This does not mean they are endorsing the status quo. As the great British historian Lewis Namier wrote, 'The crowning attainment of historical study is a historical sense — an intuitive under-standing of how things do not happen.'' Conspiracy theories are theories that, among other things, offend my understanding of how things happen by positing as a norm how they do not happen.
It may be that, in this case, Morgan was the victim. According to him, his interview was misrepresented by Allen. "I don't think Diana was killed," he tweeted on Sunday, "nor do I think there was a plot to kill her. I was asked why I thought others believed that"
Because they wanted to, Piers. Because they wanted to. And something else that increasingly unites the Pakistani truthers and recreational theorists in the West. [sic.] The era of 24-hour satellite news means that people who now see so much and who hardly trust what they do see, will certainly not trust what they don't see. From Cairo to Java, they expect to be shown the thing, from the body to the birth certificate. Meanwhile, internet access turns everyone into their own instant expert, surfing the sites to see which truths they prefer, and which authority (no matter how precariously claimed) they wish to acknowledge. So much so that countering the claims of these faux experts can be seen, as Frank Gardner saw it, as being almost as important as fighting terrorism itself.
The era of 24-hour satellite news means that people who now see so much and who hardly trust what they do see, will certainly not trust what they don't see? Can you run that past me again, please? Actually, don't bother.

[UPDATE 30 May 2011 16:30: spelling, grammar, style, minor expansions and clarifications]

1 comment:

  1. First thing first. I've just discovered this site and am pleased to have done so. I've disliked the wretched Aaronovitch intensely for many years now. So it's a real delight to find a site where tearing Aaronovitch a new one whenever an occasion arises is the order of the day.

    I am an unabashed 9/11 Truther.
    Here is a small package I devised for the purpose of blowing a hole through the official story for those new to the game. The whole pack takes only 30 mins to consume:

    [David Chandler 9/11 - WTC7 NIST Finally Admits Freefall (Part 1). (10:48 mins}

    David Chandler 9/11 - WTC7 NIST Finally Admits Freefall (Part II). (5:40 mins)

    David Chandler 9/11 - WTC7 NIST Finally Admits Freefall (Part III). (10:16 mins)

    At the start of his introductory speech at the puplic meeting announcing the Final Report into The Collapse of WTC7, Dr Sunder, Director of NIST's investigation team, said that WTC7 was the FIRST ever steel framed building to collapse due to fire.
    Well unprecedented first events are by their nature unforseeable.
    Here is the building's owner not only forseeing it but admitting to discussing organising that very collapse with the fire chief.

    WTC 7 - Pull It By Larry Silverstein]