Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The death of Birtherism ... and the birth of Deatherism?

May 4, 2011 by Holly Munson


Last week President Barack Obama sought to bring an end to questions about his citizenship by releasing his long-form birth certificate. Dependably, Fox News reporters approached the document with close scrutiny, and in the end the so-called Birthers were more or less silenced. But with the demise of one conspiracy theory, it seems, comes the birth of another.

Obama's Sunday-night announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden prompted a wave of jubilation across the U.S., particularly in New York City and Washington, D.C., but it was also accompanied by a quick surge of skepticism and a handful of conspiracy theories. Slate columnist David Weigel has suggested a name for this new phenomenon: "Deatherism."

Some people have expressed their doubts about the terrorist leader's prompt burial at sea, arguing that the operation was faked by the military or that the military was trying to hide something by disposing of the body. (Arguably, there were many reasons behind the decision to bury bin Laden's body at sea, the most important being to avoid creating a gravesite on land that could be turned into a shrine by supporters.) Others have jokingly quipped on their Facebook and Twitter feeds, "Remember, Osama is not dead until Donald Trump has seen the death certificate!"

In addition to taking issue with the controversial burial, many people have also called for the U.S. government to release photos or other proof of bin Laden's death. Government officials have been hesitant to release any images due to concern about their gruesome nature and the risk of sparking violent reactions from bin Laden's supporters, but some, including several senators, have expressed support for releasing the photos. According to NPR, John Brennan, the White House's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, said they would do "anything possible so no one has any basis for doubting that we got bin Laden."

Graph of trust in government (click for more)

The issues of Birtherism and Deatherism--the citizenship of our President and the death of a prominent terrorist leader--are oddly intertwined. By happenstance, they have both risen to prominence in public debate around the same time. And both issues have shined a spotlight on citizens expressing skepticism of their government.

Indeed, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, only 22 percent of Americans say they trust the government "just about always" or "most of the time," representing the highest level of distrust in half a century. (For an interactive graphic of trust over the past few decades, click here.) The report cited "a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials" as sources for distrust.

Our nation was founded by people who disagreed with their Old World authorities; perhaps it's simply part of being American to be skeptical, to challenge what we're told, to want to see things for ourselves. But if we can't trust our elected leaders, or our military, or our fellow citizens, what hope do we have to come together and address the daunting problems of our time? Here's hoping that we can rebuild relationships of trust between leaders, citizens, and each other--and leave matters of birth and death to hospitals and funeral homes.


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