Monday, May 9, 2011

Historical Fact: Did Bin Laden Have a Gun?

The story of how elite United States military forces carried out the assassination of Osama Bin Laden has captured the attention of people the world over. I've been fascinated by the accounts and the commentary. Historians may have difficulty, however, piecing together some of the details, as numerous reports from government officials have contained contradictory data about the weapon(s) which Bin Laden may (or may not) have been holding (firing?) when US troops killed him. On a recent post on his blog, David Weigel chronicles some of these contradictory accounts.

As they attempt to write about the assassination, professional historians will have to grapple with the contradictions. They may settle on an agreement of historical fact, consensus gentium, or they may use the conflicting accounts to suggest something about the fog of war, the failure of the White House to coordinate its message, or the deficiencies of memory. In an attempt to gain clarity, they will likely seek out interviews with the men who stormed Bin Laden's compound.

Students who investigate the event online may also encounter conflicting accounts, which will likely persist even as new and perhaps more accurate accounts emerge. Sadly, some students may stop searching after finding only one account because they assume that the one they have found is historical fact. Writing an account of the past is challenging, and so is helping students develop a healthy skepticism about the sources they rely upon to understand it.

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