The surprise news of Osama bin Laden's death, the dramatic raid on his suburban compound, the swift identification and disposal of his body, the presidential announcement that "conveniently" interrupted Celebrity Apprentice. All these add up to a pot of gold for conspiracy theorists who refuse to believe the world's public enemy no. 1 was actually killed in Abbottabad. News outlets from this one to the Los Angeles Times to CBS News have run stories pointing out the growing brigade of "deathers" who demand further proof that Bin Laden is dead.
The main method of proof used by the United States to identify Bin Laden's body was a DNA test. There are also photographs, the White House says, but they're so graphic officials are still deciding whether or not to release them. The photographic evidence (or lack thereof) has fueled some of the deather speculation, especially since a picture of an ostensibly shot Bin Laden that ran in many papers turned out to be a fake. Plenty of deathers are also calling into question the science behind the DNA tests. Their main objections: The speed at which the tests were completed and the accuracy of the sample used to verify Bin Laden's DNA.
"How can Bin Ladens DNA been confirmed within hours? Can someone please explain this to me. As far as I knew, that takes months. Weeks if you have lots of $$$. Days if you have supercomputers," reads a typical post on Abovetopsecret.com. And science writers answered the call. Observations of a Nerd, written by grad student Christie Wilcox, is one of the many sites running explanations on how DNA testing works, and this one comes with a time stamp for each step. Scientists can isolate a person's DNA, amplify it, and analyze it in four hours and 15 minutes, according to Wilcox. And that's only using the kind of equipment she's got in her lab: "for all I know, the FBI has a faster way of doing it--I wouldn't exactly be shocked."
As for the samples for comparison, despite reports of brain matter from a half-sister being used, The New York Times says the the relationship of the sample source to Bin Laden hasn't been clarified by officials. The Times, among others, reports that it was probably "a close relative, like a child or parent with whom he shared half his genes." In fact, officials have taken many samples since the 2011 attacks, the paper notes, and "they said the analysis, which was performed the day Bin Laden was killed but after his body was buried at sea, confirmed his identity with 99.9 percent accuracy." The report notes that Bin Laden had no full siblings but more than 50 half siblings, and "collecting DNA from several half-siblings would increase the likelihood of making a match."
But for many, the science of the DNA test is irrelevant. "This all came out right at the time that Obama's approval rating was dropping like a rock to an all-time low… right as this happens there's this big propaganda victory and what do they do? They take the body and throw it in the ocean. No one is buying that," Alex Jones said on his site Info Wars. And famed Iraq war protester Cindy Sheehan posted a by-now well-known screed on her Facebook page, "I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you're stupid."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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