No one knows exactly what the death of Osama bin Laden will mean for the future of global terrorism. One thing, however, is certain: there will be tons of conspiracy theories about it. Matthew Gray of Foreign Affairs rounds up some of the best conspiracy theories and asks: Why is the Middle East so open to them in the first place?
Only a few days after bin Laden's death, some extraordinarily ornate conspiracy theories have already appeared, not just on the internet but in newspapers. One theory, Gray writes, has
proposed that bin Laden had been collaborating with Washington all along. Another one had it that bin Laden died years ago but that his body had been frozen and retained for later use by the United States; still others suggested that he remained alive.... Some have even suggested that the world’s most wanted terrorist was not real but an American invention.
There are conspiracy theories everywhere, of course -- but why are they so quick to sprout in the Middle East? In part, Gray points out, it's simply because the region "has been subject to an unusually high number of actual conspiracies in the past": "The overthrow of Iranian President Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 was driven by a secret U.S. and British plot to remove him, and the 1956 Suez War was the result of a covert British-French-Israeli agreement struck in France." Conspiracy theories are also a natural response when you live in an authoritarian state: you're powerless, and in many ways the government really is conspiring against you.
Unfortunately, if you've been cast in a conspiracy theory, there's not much you can do about it. Counterargument is exactly what the conspiracy theorists expect from you -- in fact, it may make the theorizing more intense. The best thing to do, Gray concludes, is ignore the conspiracy theorists: "Most anti-Catholic and anti-Mason conspiracies in the United States have atrophied this way."
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.