Update: President Obama said Wednesday that he would not release images of Obama’s killing. “Mr. Obama apparently concluded that images of Bin Laden bloodied by gunshots would do little to reassure skeptics but could inflame tensions in the Muslim world. He disclosed his decision in an interview for the CBS program “60 Minutes,” part of which will be broadcast on the network’s evening news programs Wednesday,” The Times is reporting. “… officials at the Pentagon and State Department expressed qualms about releasing gruesome photos of Bin Laden’s bloodied corpse, with some arguing that the photos would not silence those who doubt that he was killed. Some lawmakers also opposed releasing the photos, arguing that doing so would serve little purpose and could endanger American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
They’re out there: photos and videos of Osama bin Laden shot, dead. Just as certain: the existence of video of the assault, plenty of it, since helmet-cams are standard operating procedure, and of bin Laden’s last moments, when he was shot, unarmed and without human shields, as the White House has now confirmed. The president and his national security staff watched the whole assault live by way of those helmet cams. There are also images and video of bin Laden’s odd NASCAR-lap burial in the Arabian Sea. The question is: should those images be released?
The question may soon be moot, at least regarding one or two still images. The White House is verging toward releasing a picture, particularly in light of the hysteria that attended Obama’s birth certificate: if he could be compelled to release his long-form document, he can certainly be compelled to release visual proof of the death of the man most wanted for ten years, in an age when, no matter how factual the evidence, absolute proof is conspiracy theories’ only silencer.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan tells ABC: “We are looking at releasing additional information, details about the raid as well as any other types of material, possibly including photos. We want to understand exactly what the possible reaction might be to the release of this information.”
CIA Chief Leon Panetta went further Tuesday night: “”We got Bin Laden, and I think we have to reveal to the rest of the world the fact that we were able to get him and kill him,” Panetta said.
But why just a photo or two? why not the whole trove, video included?
The predominant objection to releasing images is not a matter of “national security” but of propriety on at least a couple of counts: Watching an execution-style killing of an unarmed bin Laden, which appears to be what took place–in other words, a flawless assassination–would have all sorts of unseemly ramifications.
Second: “While the images may be newsworthy,” Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute writes, “there are always questions of the public’s tolerance for such images and of whether the photos and videos are authentic.” But occasional objections aside, public tolerance has rarely been an issue no matter what gruesome images are shown, though a double standard has applied: dead Afghans, Iraqis and other foreigners routinely appear in pictures from war fronts. Dead American soldiers far less so, if at all in some newspapers or other media. Images of a dead Saddam Hussein, his two dead sons, of a dead Abu Musab al-Zarkawi were all shown without qualms at the time of these men’s killings.
When images of tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib were released, the Bush administration–and, subsequently, the Obama administration–argued that national security required the images to be kept secret, and most of those images have been kept so, though the nationals security argument is usually the default argument for those who’d rather hide embarrassing truths rather than be faced with accounting for their consequences: there never was a full accounting over the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and in so-called black sites, the secret prisons the CIA ran for several years over the past decade until the Washington Post revealed their existence.
Another valid question: why should government officials, no matter how high or how robed, be the judges of what the public ought to see and ought not to see? Sanitizing the news is a problem on its face. Putting government officials in charge of the sanitizing amplifies the problem. Then again, we get what we elect: large swaths of voters are perfectly comfortable with the CIA, the Pentagon or the White House deciding what is and isn’t “appropriate” for the public’s eyes, which is as disturbing a level of comfort as some of these disturbing images may be. Room for debate.