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What Happens If…

February 29th, 2004

What happens if, sometime in October this year, news agencies report that Osama bin Laden has been captured?

The story comes from Iran, where state radio has announced that bin Laden has already been captured; that he was captured in a tribal area of Pakistan, and that Rumsfeld’s latest visit to the area was in relation to this. The IRNA news agency claims this all comes from “a very reliable source.” So far, it is not being widely reported in the U.S. (except mostly for denials), but international news organizations are reporting on it quite a bit, particularly in the Middle East and India, though the story is spreading (The Telegraph, Daily Times, Haaretz, The Australian, Xinhua, Express India, Bloomberg). This supplements conspiracy-theory rumors in the U.S., where not only are theorists contemplating a bin Laden capture, but there are more than a few doubts about whether Saddam had been captured weeks earlier and released according to political timing. The Pentagon denies bin Laden has been captured, as does Pakistan, but there are fresh rumors that there will be an “October Surprise.”

The October Surprise scenario is not unimaginable; in 1980 and ’81, Iran withheld the hostage release until Reagan took office, clearly to damage Carter; it is rumored, though of course not confirmed, that Reagan’s people made deals with the Iranians (considered to be the first contacts in what later became the arms-for-hostages scandal) to not release the hostages until Reagan could take credit for it.

Now here’s the problem with conspiracy theories: they sound like conspiracy theories, and from association with nutball conspiracy theories (the government is practicing mind control, Clinton had JFK Jr. killed), you sound like another nutball. On the other hand, some conspiracy theories are very possible, and some are certainly true. It’s certainly a big plus for someone planning a conspiracy–just call anyone who accuses you a “conspiracy theorist,” and you’re golden, so long as there is no smoking gun. Such theories are also next to impossible to disprove, meaning that believing in them is usually an article of faith.

So what happens if it is announced that bin Laden is captured sometime in October? Or even in August or September? The timing will be suspicious–but there will be so much happiness and relief that most people will not care when he was captured. Many will be wary, but without proof, Bush will be able to laugh off any accusers and bask in the light of “winning” the war on terror.

One problem with that, of course, is that the war on terror is unwinnable; just as capturing Saddam did nothing to stop the resistance in Iraq, capturing bin Laden will not stop the terrorists. And here’s where a timing problem comes in: if the conspiracy theories are true and Bush has bin Laden, when should he announce it? If he does so too close to the election, suspicion about an “October Surprise” will be strengthened. But if he releases bin Laden too early, his people may carry out one or more terrorist attacks to demonstrate that they are still in business.

Suffice it to say that if we hear reports of a bin Laden capture before the election, I for one will be extremely suspicious; these current reports would bolster that feeling. Frankly, considering what Bush has already done, it is more than conceivable that he would not hesitate to stoop to something like this. One can only hope that if it is true, then more than just an anonymous report from Iran pops up.

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