To quote Mark Twain, "The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated." Is anyone expecting Osama bin Laden to send a tape with this message? Will Donald Trump demand a long-form original copy of the death certificate? Comedians aside, will people around the world really believe Osama is gone?
Conspiracy theorists quickly voiced concerns about the terror leader's burial at sea, suggesting that the U.S. faked the raid for political purposes and that bin Laden might have already died years ago or might still be alive. Today, President Barack Obama announced he wouldn't release postmortem photos of bin Laden's body. This news will surely fan conspiracy theory flames.
We've certainly heard many rumors about famous people's deaths over the years. In the fall of 1969, fans were scrupulously reviewing Beatles album covers searching for hidden and interpretable clues that Paul McCartney had died in a car accident. He was, after all, the only Beatle crossing Abbey Road barefoot on the iconic cover of the album of the same name. The band's "Strawberry Fields Forever" song supposedly had the phrase "I buried Paul" hidden in the background. Clear and unquestionable proof Paul was dead!
Attempting to debunk rumors often only reinforces the story. When McCartney appeared on the Nov. 7, 1969, Life magazine cover to verify his alive status, clue-hunters responded that if you held the cover up to the light, you could see a photo of a car superimposed on McCartney's face, thanks to a car ad on the reverse side. What could be clearer affirmation of his fate?
Of course, the Paul-is-dead rumor was a playful game, but in this era of immediate social networking, death rumors can spread even more rapidly. By definition, a rumor is a piece of information that has yet to be proved true or false. Rumors tend to proliferate in times of ambiguity when information about an issue is lacking. People often speculate about possible explanations to fill in the blanks and thus contribute to the spread of unsubstantiated information. Fueled by anxiety, these rumors take on a life of their own.
Many rumors float about celebrities like George Clooney, Natalie Portman, Tom Hanks and Jeff Goldblum, who each supposedly died in some horrible accident, or like the one about Jerry "The Beaver" Mathers, getting killed in the Vietnam War. None of these, of course, were true. On the flip side, rabid fans of certain dead celebrities continue to believe their hero is still here and in hiding. An Elvis-is-alive website offers "proof" of his continuing existence; some believe comedian Andy Kaufman's death is one of his biggest performance-art hoaxes; and — it goes without saying — Michael Jackson faked his own death to avoid the financial and personal pressures he was facing.
And when it comes to problematic political leaders, demand for solid proof of their deaths becomes a much more serious issue with ramifications for the stability of governments and international peace. Consider the capture and death of Saddam Hussein: Video proof of his hanging circulated on the Internet to end rumors he was still alive. Calls for proof that his sons Uday and Qusay were killed also circulated after their reported deaths.
Did Hitler really commit suicide in his bunker? What did happen to his body? Does it really take a photo like Mussolini hanging upside down to prevent people from believing a dictator's death has not been faked?
Just be warned: Already scammers have created phony photos and videos of bin Laden's death circulating on Facebook and Google. Please don't click on these links — they'll likely put you at risk for computer viruses, and you may be shunted to websites requesting personal information.
But like the photo of Paul McCartney in Life magazine, will these visual and verbal "proofs" of well-known people become new sources of ambiguity, leading anxious people already prone to conspiracies to spread rumors that their deaths have indeed been greatly exaggerated?