The Bin Laden Tape Conspiracy: Something for Everyone (Notes for a Conspiracy Theory Primer

Sunday, December 15 - Last Thursday, after great anticipation and expected delays, the Pentagon released "the Bin Laden Tape." It's been received with the expected reactions, because everyone got what precisely what they wanted.

  • "Those who complacently accepted Bin Laden's guilt - even though no evidence was provided, no indictment was granted, and no judge or jury convicted him - found the tape vindicating confirmation of their own convictions.
  • The patriots - those who maintained their belief in the American justice system - and therefore resisted the temptation to jump to conclusions and action without some evidence to go on - breathed a sigh of relief that there was finally something to go on (even though the rest of the country had already went). They may still have reservations about the translation and the "inaudibles," but they've got enough to go on. And that's what they've desperately longed for.
  • The "conspiracy theorists" saw a troubling network of signs that confirmed their convictions.

So everyone was happy - perhaps even Bin Laden. Which, perhaps, goes a long way to explaining the conspiracy theorists' position(s).

In typical conspiracy theory fashion, each theorist has their own object and motivation for their paranoia (e.g. Mulder's sister's abduction). For example, those who object to American foreign policy reject the tape's authenticity, not simply because they reject Bin Laden's guilt, but because it confirms their suspicions about American culture. So, for some of these theorists, the "independent translation" demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Islam consistent with American popular media (just the notion that four Westernized Muslims can accurately translate any Arabic language and dialect confirms suspicions that Americans have a uniform vision of the East).

But, make no mistake: the problem with the conspiracy theorists is the conclusions they come to, not the evidence they site. Just look at the evidence: who can blame them?

1. "Methinks the smoking gun doth smoke too much."

Bin Laden and his groupies just lay it all out. It's as if it's the commonly rushed conclusion of a Law & Order episode - the bit where the suspect suddenly breaks down in front of the District Attorneys and tells all, making the trial unnecessary - and just in time for the credits. Or, for a more accessible analogy - it's as if Batman and Robin are in a seemingly inescapable trap, so the Riddler has no trouble telling them his entire plan. It simply conforms too well to modern Western storytelling. Why? Each conspiracy theorist will answer differently.

2. "Methinks the smoking gun doth smoke too much" - Redux.

Along the same lines, Bin Laden lays it all out, step by step, in front of a video camera, and then leaves the tape in a house. There's practically a neon sign over the house brightly blinking "CLUE HERE," with the tape clearly labeled "smoking gun skit." It's a mystery more worthy of Scooby-Doo than highly trained Special Ops teams. We were meant to have it, and meant to have it the way Bin Laden wants it. Why? Each conspiracy theorist will answer differently.

3. Delayed Hollywood Premier

By all reports, the Pentagon originally hoped to release the tape to the media on Wednesday. It's not clear whether there was an official explanation - presumably it has something to do with the translation. But it's difficult to overlook that after the tape was released Thursday, other important news from the Pentagon ran across the ticker: 1) Al-Qaeda was running out of food and ammo in their final stronghold in the Tora Bora mountains; and 2) voice prints from intercepted radio transmissions suggested Bin Laden was cornered in Tora Bora. Together, the two stories - the tape and the suggestion that Bin Laden's capture was close-at-hand - worked together to provide a perfect cinematic conclusion: his capture/death, and the evidence that justifies it (and any necessary force). The show's premier was timed and marketed perfectly. Why? Well…

4. Mockumentary Production Quality

Three suspected terrorists meet in a house to make a videotape of a meeting. The videotape was found two months later in an abandoned house in Kandahar.

It doesn't just sound like the groundbreaking but hollow film The Blair Witch Project, it also looks like it. The anticipation the media helped build, the poor production quality, our fascination, and the debates about the tape's authenticity make Bin Laden's video a perfect repetition of the Blair Witch - and a much better sequel than the official Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows.
Blair Witch's success was a product of our established popular fascination with mockumentaries and "reality TV": from Cops to Real World to the Spinal Tap resurgence, Blair Witch spoon-fed us everything we were looking for in a film.
In the wake of Blair Witch, we demand more from our mockumentaries and reality TV, but there's no question that our love affair with them remains strong. The Bin Laden Tape speaks directly to that love; it's the perfect product for an established market. Let the conspiracy theorists figure out why.

5. Everyone's Happy

The ideal goal of democratic politics. It's Perfect politics. And it's What no politician or party has pulled off in recent memory. It's a pipedream. In the month preceding the tape's release, the only thing that got more coverage was Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Bets on a trilogy?

For conspiracy theorists, the tape of Bin Laden and his cronies that was found in Afghanistan offers one of two things: the first of these is a medium for dementia. We all live in a world of symbols, and we apprehend reality through those symbols. But while the rest of us can deal with the moments when our symbolic system falls short and is unable to explain our experiences, the psychotic mind masters reality by ensuring that all of reality fits into a symbolic system: for the schizophrenic, all signs point to the same thing. For the paranoiac, they all point to an empty hole that can be filled by anything: the CIA, the Government, the mafia…They're interchangeable.

But for the rest of the conspiracy theorists out there, the Kennedy assassination, Jimmy Hoffa's death, the pyramids of Giza, and the mysterious water damage on the Sphinx offer something different: the opportunity to manipulate and interpret evidence. This armchair detective work, an infinite intellectual puzzle, is similar to psychosis in so far as it entails making "all signs point to yes." But these conspiracy theorists have to work at it.

Conspiracy theorists are one step ahead of us. At least they can explain their fascination. The rest of us watch the Bin Laden Tape footage on CNN, unaware we're watching the perfectly constructed cult film: a newsworthy Scooby Doo, Law and Order, X-Files, Buffy, Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Blair Witch Project. If Bin Laden's tape isn't "a hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly, its characters…psychologically implausible, its actors [acting] in a mannered way," Umberto Eco's description of a cult film, I don't know what is.

The footage, in addition, offers exactly what these other cult classics offer: archetypal images. As Eco writes, "the term 'archetype' does not claim to have any particular psychoanalytic or mythic connotation, but serves only to indicate a preestablished and frequently reappearing narrative situation, cited or in some way recycled by innumerable other texts and provoking in the addressee a sort of intense emotion accompanied by the vague feeling of a déjà vu, that everybody yearns to see again." The Bin Laden Tape does just that. "It is not one movie. It is movies." The cult film succeeds - or fails, depending on how you look at it - where other films do not: it takes a divergent and irreconcilable set of symbols, and integrates them into a coherent whole. It's a rickety whole; it threatens to fall apart at every moment. But we do the work to keep it together. Like the psychotic, the paranoiac, and the armchair detective.

In this way, our pleasure of the cult film, and our fascination with the Bin Laden Tape, is similar to the work of the armchair conspiracy theorist or the psychotic. But, as a Rocky Horror promotional line says, "Don't Dream it, Be it." While the conspiracy theorists Dream It, we and the psychotics Be It. We don't wonder. We don't question. We take it as it comes to us. It satisfies our voyeuristic intention, it offers us impossible answers to an impossible question. And we say "thank you."



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