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The Immortal Terrorist

For conspiracy theorists, Osama bin Laden will always live on.

Many Sri Lankans understand the sense of relief and elation that Americans are experiencing following the death of Osama bin Laden. On May 18, 2009, Sri Lankan troops cornered and killed the country's own bin Laden: Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. As in the case of bin Laden, there was no mistaking the body. Pictures were taken, DNA samples collected.

But, in the days following Prabhakaran's death, many militant Tamils simply could not digest the news. Rumors spread on the Internet that the Tiger leader had escaped by boat. Tamil correspondents e-mailed me a (bogus) photo of a smiling Prabhakaran sitting on a chair in a modern rec room, watching a flat-screen television broadcasting a photo of his dead body. Some Tamils still believe their guerilla leader will re-emerge.

In my research into radical ideological movements, I’ve found that this sort of reaction is common. The psychological trigger is the death of a leader who is cast as the embodiment of some larger-than-life cause. It doesn’t matter whether the cause is good or evil—the psychological phenomenon is amoral. “There's [an] instinctive notion that a king cannot be struck down by a peasant,” Vincent Bugliosi wrote in his massive 2007 study of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Reclaiming History. “Many Americans found it hard to accept that President Kennedy, the most powerful man in the free world—someone they perceived to occupy a position akin to a king—could be eliminated in a matter of seconds by someone they considered a nobody.”

The same psychological reflex applies to a wide range of public figures—even self-destructive celebrities whose manner of death is perfectly obvious. For decades, millions of Elvis fans have clung to the belief that the King is still alive and occasionally popping up at convenience stores. A subcult of Lady Di conspiracy theorists believe that she faked her own death so that she and Dodi could resume a private life outside of the public eye. (Popular novelist Dan Brown's Christian mythology—based on the notion that Christ's bloodline did not perish on the Cross, but took root in France, where it survives to the present day—also owes something to this thinking pattern.)

In another variation of this line of conspiratorial thinking, the death is acknowledged, but it is recast in romantic terms—to make the sacrifice seem more poignant or symbolic. Surely, the death of Princess Diana could not be blamed on the drunk chauffeur who slammed Dodi Fayed's Mercedes into a concrete pillar; the act must have been orchestrated by MI6 in order to prevent the People's Princess from marrying a Muslim. Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, pill-popping grunge hero to a generation of music fans, could not have died from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to his head; he must have been murdered by a jealous, Brutus-like Courtney Love. Michael Jackson's death in June 2009 elicited similar theories: His sister La Toya told reporters, “I believe Michael was murdered, I felt that from the start. Not just one person was involved, rather it was a conspiracy of people.”

Osama bin Laden was a murderer on an epic scale and his survival for nearly a decade after September 11 made him the purest and most enduring villain figure in modern American life. As a result, the mythology surrounding him has permeated beyond Islamists and into the ranks of “9/11 Truth” conspiracy theorists, who see him as a creation of the CIA. “I wonder if the people that created Obama's Birth Certificate will be the same ones that create Osama's Death Certificate," wrote one Truther on this morning. Another September 11 conspiracy theorist, Kevin Barrett (who got his conspiracist essay up on the web within just twelve hours of bin Laden’s reported death), claims that the Al Qaeda leaderhas almost certainly been dead since December 2001, when far more reliable reports of his death were published. That means the guy they killed and threw in the ocean must have either been a ghost, or one of Bin Laden's many reported doubles.” And Cindy Sheehan, the American anti-war activist who famously camped outside George W. Bush’s ranch in Texas, took to facebook to say, “I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you're stupid. … just put your flags away and THINK!”

There will be much more of this to come. In the minds of conspiracy theorists, even corpses get second acts.

Jonathan Kay is a managing editor of Canada’s National Post and a Fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the author of Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, to be published by HarperCollins on May 17.

Articles on the death of Osama bin Laden: Dalton Fury on the near miss at Tora Bora; Lawrence F. Kaplan asks if we'll overestimate the importance of bin Laden's death; Heather Hurlburt on the reasons the U.S. was able to kill bin Laden; James Downie on the legal justifications; Leon Wieseltier on the celebration in Lafayette Park; Paul Berman on the symbolism of bin Laden's death in the history of American democracy; Sean Wilentz asks if bin Laden's demise will loosen the grip paranoid politics has on America; David Greenberg on the only satisfying resolution possible to the story of 9/11; Louis Klarevas asks if the loss of bin Laden will hasten Al Qaeda's demise; Jonathan Chait on what bin Laden's death means; a photo essay on how America responded to the news of bin Laden's death.

TNR Classics on bin Laden and Al Qaeda: Peter Bergen on the Bush administration's failed attempt to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora, on the troubling merger of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, on Al Qaeda's revolt against bin Laden (co-authored with Paul Cruickshank), how bin Laden beat George W. Bush, and on bin Laden's activities before 9/11; Nicholas Schmidle on what the murder of a bin Laden confidant says about Pakistan; Michael Crowley on Robert Gates; David Cole on Obama's war on terror.