Seymour Hersh, a great journalist with superb sources and the courage to challenge conventional wisdom, has presented a counter-narrative of the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but Hersh’s story compelling in many respects, even to the New York Times has some elements that stretch credulity, says John Gardner.
By John Gardner
In my endlessly unfolding book on the history of the North American Great Lakes Region, one of the most puzzling conundrums is The Kensington Stone. The Stone is either a piece of historical evidence that undoes the standard narrative of the European-American encounter, or a hoax. It’s a stone unearthed by a semi-literate Swedish-American farmer in the 1880s that, ultimately translated by medieval rune scholars, depicted an Indian massacre of a bunch of Norse adventurers in 1341, near the Red River in Minnesota.
There are a lot of reasons why the stone is a hoax, including most persuasively some anachronisms in the runic characters — futmarks, they’re called; the lack of any corroborating evidence for an expedition, which would necessarily have had royal sponsorship by King Magnusson III, whose court was comparatively well-documented; and the sheer implausibility of medieval Norsemen exploring that far from ocean.
Norse adventurers were intrepid, and went great distances; possibly around Cape Horn, even to China. But they didn’t, for obvious and good reasons, stray far from their long boats, their connection back home. Unlike Magellan, they didn’t know how to build their own ships. Letting somebody destroy their abandoned ship would have marooned them.
My take on the implausibility of The Stone is simpler. Why would 24 Norse soldier-explorers, returning to the day’s base camp and finding their comrades all dead and bleeding, inscribe and leave a monument in hard stone that they could be extremely confident no rune-reader would ever come across? It’s a big job for men whose primary ambitions at the time must have been burying the dead and scramming before the natives returned.
The contrary evidence, however, is just as compelling. Why would a semi-literate Swedish-American farmer participate in such a hoax? And, if he did, how did he do such a masterful job of it? How would he (1) create The Stone, complete with futmarks that were, after about a century, found to be accurately of the era after all; (2) put it in the roots of a tree upturned by his sons in a land-clearing project; and — most impressively — (3) hand it over to the Scandinavian rune experts at The University of Minnesota for no money.
When The Stone, pronounced a fake, was returned to him, he showed no disappointment, but turned it face down and used it for an entrance block to the back of his house. Later, a young academic came along and evinced considerable enthusiasm for it. The farmer sold it to him for ten dollars. Neither he nor his sons ever revealed anything about some plot of deception. Nor, for that matter, did they ever take any interest in it.
So there’s a story of potential historic significance that is at once incredible and irrefutable. That’s my reaction to Seymour Hersh’s exposÃ© of the killing of Bin Laden.
On one hand, the official story has always been incredible. Who can actually believe that Bin Laden would be living in the Pakistani West Point, 20 minutes from a major USA-Pakistani dark site used to train the guardians of the local nuclear repository; and that nobody in the armed forces and/or ISI would know? And, further, who can believe that two Blackhawks could penetrate Pakistani air space, conduct a raid in such a location, and escape with no Pakistani interference;
…unless there were, as Hersh alleges, massive and effective collaboration with Pakistani military and/or ISI personnel?
So the official story is implausible; and, when you stop to think about it, so is the lack of a video — anywhere — of the purported burial at sea. (Why wasn’t that, at least, shown to calm Islamic anxieties about the propriety of his burial? Pretty simple thing to pull off; and it’s hard not to believe that the U.S. Navy doesn’t routinely record events of that nature.) Other inconsistencies and discrepancies are also plausible, lending an air of credence to Hersh’s story.
On the other hand: Let’s suppose his exposÃ© is true:
Why would senior Pakistani ISI officials possibly permit their obvious collaboration be exposed by having U.S. Navy Seals pull off such an improbable stunt that would render their purported lack of involvement implausible?
And, more: Why would they possibly concoct, as Hersh says they and the U.S. government did, a cover story that Bin Ladin was killed by an American drone strike somewhere in Waziristan? Why not simply take him to Waziristan, leave his dead body, let Americans know the coordinates, and have the real smash-and-grab take place there? It’s like The Kensington Stone: Neither the hoax nor the purported story adds up.
John Gardner is at work on a history of the North American Great Lakes. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .