Displayed over a blurred image of Osama bin Laden, the headline on the cover of The New York Times Magazine for October 18 reads, “Do we really know the truth about his death? The mysteries of Attobad.”
Weirdly, the article is not an investigation of the truth about bin Laden’s death — it’s an investigation of other investigations. Jonathan Mahler decided to report on two competing narratives about the raid in Abbottabad. His article is a soul-searching reflection on how we can know which version of events is true, or if the truth about our government’s actions can ever be known at all.
As Mahler explains, the White House version of the raid was documented by Mark Bowden in his book, The Finish. In this heroic version, the raid took the Pakistani government by surprise and the SEAL team succeeded against all odds.
A more recent counter-narrative by Seymour Hersh (famous for uncovering the My Lai massacre and the abuses at Abu Ghraib) argues that the compound in Abbottabad was maintained by the Pakistani intelligence service. Bin Laden wasn’t hiding at all — he was living in a safe house, and our government knew that there would be no attempt to thwart our incursion into Pakistani territory. In sum, Hersh concludes that the “daring raid wasn’t especially daring.”
Mahler traces the differences between the two accounts in detail and his article makes a good, if controversial, read. In his concern to avoid generating just one more “narrative” that “bends the facts,” he refuses to take sides. He concludes with this hedge: “It’s not that the truth about bin Laden’s death is unknowable; it’s that we don’t know it.”
After reading his article, it’s fair to wonder if we ever will. Mahler writes that Hersh raised a “disturbing notion” in their conversations: “What if no one’s version could be trusted?”
Indeed! If our concern is to learn the facts of the raid, we may easily get lost in a tangle of facts and lies. But that is a truth in itself — a truth of how violence works to destroy the truth.
We need to state the obvious here: the subject of all this reporting is a death by violence. The subject of this story is not the truth. The subject is violence itself.
There are some things we can know for sure when we encounter narratives of violence:
One, people lie about violence often without moral misgivings about the lying or the violence.
Two, people who use violence to achieve their ends do not tend to doubt their own goodness.
Three, people who use violence often don’t think of themselves as violent people.
Four, perpetrators don’t tell the truth about violence. Victims do.
The truth about bin Laden’s death is that it was murder. But the only ones who will call it that are bin Laden himself, his family, and his supporters. All other players insist on calling his murder by some other name: justice, revenge, necessity, collateral damage, legal, noble, even good. But his death was a murder, no matter what his murderers say.
The awful truth about our own violence is that it often comes to us from the mouths of those we have condemned to death. It comes from the mouths of other criminals and murderers, from warriors for the wrong cause, from believers in the wrong God, from our enemies. By refusing to accord bin Laden the basic human right to life that he denied others, we showed we have learned from him.
Squirm and reject this logic if you must, but please don’t pretend we don’t know the truth about bin Laden’s death. It was murder by another name. And more disturbing than the notion that no one’s version of violent events can be trusted is the idea that the version of truth that can most be trusted belongs to our victims.
Bin Laden and his followers reject that notion. Let’s not make the same mistake.