Forgetting Bin Laden
Two new books about the May 2, 2011, raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden are scribbling in the margins of the first draft of history. No Easy Day, written by Matt Bissonnette (under the pen name Mark Owen), a Navy SEAL who participated in the operation, offers a fresh accounting of what will likely be remembered as one of the biggest moments of the decade. No Easy Day has roiled Washington. It has also sparked the publication of a competing e-book, No Easy Op, which was quickly assembled by a group of special operations veterans who question Bissonnette’s motivations and criticize his incomplete recounting of what actually happened on that moonless night in South Asia.
Those involved seem to assume that the truths they uncover today will be chiseled into the historical record tomorrow. What survives in historical memory, however, depends as much on patterns of human understanding and memory as on reports, details, and arguments churning through the news cycle. Rather than the truth freeing itself through revelation and sharing, what is actually remembered about the killing of the world’s most wanted man will likely be shaped by larger, more commandeering forces. Political pundits recognize this, which is why they talk about “controlling the narrative.”
A century of research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology offers insights into how processes of historical memory work. Human beings are quite adept at remembering the gist of events, yet they often fail to hold firmly onto details. The human mind likes a good story, so remembering means holding on to the most important plot twists — i.e. SEAL Team 6 killed bin Laden — but not everything that led up to them.
Is it possible for powerful spin masters to control a story, especially one as closely watched and important as the raid in Abbottabad? If it were, then the memory of the raid would be largely in their hands. But every society has only a few tropes that jibe with their collective identities. A narrative at odds with those core stories will have a harder time gaining traction, a constraint on those who would control what is remembered and what is forgotten.