Thursday, May 05, 2011

Proof of Death

The Philippine government provided as his proof of death, Abu Sabaya's fashion statement!
The Obama White House doesn't want to release photos showing Osama bin Laden dead. Bin Laden was did in by a team of US Navy SEALS in a northern Pakistani city in a daring and well executed covert raid.

The refusal has fueled a lot of conspiracy theories about bin Laden escaping and  that he is still alive. It also fueled a zillion gags. It also infected unsuspecting computer users of the "bin Laden" virus.


In a bid to convince the public, the Obama administration has told the public that they identified bin Laden's body via "facial recognition software" and DNA matching. The administration also said that they used tissue from bin Laden's sister to make the DNA match.


This gives an interesting insight on how people judge evidence. People still want to see the body. At least for forensic investigations (that is the staple for a lot of cable TV shows), we know that the subject is indeed DEAD, for the shows always parade the skull on the screen. The fun is finding out who the person behind the skull is.  Of course the early part of the show would have these forensic molecular biologists trying to determine ethnicity etc from  DNA extracted from bones and bits of tissue. But that is not the crescendo of the whole show.  It is always the face!  And this is why these shows always have these forensic artists who put clay on the skull and voila, the face is reconstructed! And then the end credits roll in. Time for another show!

In the case of bin Laden, the opposite is true. We know from a zillion "wanted" posters and images how bin Laden looks, but we want to see how his bullet ridden body looks! There is indeed a morbid fascination for death in all of us and this is why these forensic TV shows are a hit!

This is exactly what the Obama administration doesn't get. It is part of human nature for one to know if someone is truly dead! And for a personality like bin Laden, that is essential. President Obama says that the photos will incite more violence. I think it incites more violence from like minded jihadists to see an American gloat over the news of bin Laden's death. But if many people who never were thrilled at bin Laden's antics are willing to concede bin Laden was indeed dead, his jihadist fans are not convinced.

DNA as any scientist knows cannot be conclusive as a proof-of-death evidence alone. The body needs to be produced Recall that for 80 years there was no clear evidence that Anastasia Romanov survived the Bolshevik murder of the Russian imperial family. Thus many "pretenders" came along the stage , including the most convincing of them all, Anastasia Manahan. When Ms Manahan died, a pathological sample of her tissue remained. Later on the remains of the Imperial family were discovered in Ekaterinburg, Russia. From the DNA match from the Imperial remains (whose identities were confirmed by DNA and photo imposition facial reconstruction methods) and Ms Manahan's tissues, scientists concluded that Ms Manahan couldn't be a member of the family. Until Anastasia's remains were found in 2008 and DNA analysis were made once more, only then were people convinced  that she was killed with the rest of her family.

For Filipinos there was a similar case to bin Laden's.  Terrorist Abu Sabaya was did in by US trained Philippine forces in a shootout at sea. The body like Bin Laden's sank into the seal. And so the body wasn't produced but the government provided as proof-of-death, his trademark fashionable shades. The US confirmed his death from DNA evidence, but Pinoys did not put much weight on that!

In a quintessentially Pinoy way, the sunglasses can be convincing proof-of-death for Filipinos since on Manila's streets, vain men have been killed for not parting with their shades when held up at gunpoint!

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