The case for releasing the Bin Laden photo

[Post updated below through May 10.]

In my view there’s a clear and compelling reason why the United States should release an image of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. It has little to do with nutty conspiracy theories, which were a consideration in the White House decision not to “spike the football.” For most of the world already, the fact of bin Laden’s killing is indeed unimpeachable. (One reason why President Obama deserves huge credit for what many view as his very “gutsy” call on the Navy Seals operation.) Even if bin Laden’s body had been displayed for a month in Mecca prior to disposal, there would still be crazies in the Arab world and beyond convinced of some grand, evil scheme. (“A fraudulent corpse delivered by the Mossad, CIA and George Soros!” Etc.)

More importantly the White House is wary of inflaming Muslim opinion against the U.S. But from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo to the Koran-burning pastor in Florida to U.S. military atrocities in Afghanistan, the case of inflammation is already chronic. It’s a problem not easily controlled, let alone alleviated. I’m not sure I see how visual evidence of bin Laden’s death, even if pretty gruesome, adds significantly to it.

Proof isn’t the key point. (Nor is jingoism.) The reason to release the photo is the tremendous value of destroying, with vivid finality, bin Laden’s potent mythological image. Yes, the devotees of his jihad will promote the whole martyr thing. But they’re already doing that anyway.

Those who’ve studied bin Laden’s journey know how incredibly important his carefully tended cult of personality has been to his cause. Lawrence Wright documented this exhaustively in his masterful tome, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. In the decade since 9/11, bin Laden’s successful evasion of the mightiest military in the world fed his symbolic power and the inspiration of his followers. It gave him a kind of metaphysical strength and credibility far greater than any cries of martyrdom now can. If his killing at the hands of the U.S. military was indeed a “decapitation” of Al Qaeda, then once that killing is in clear view bin Laden’s death cult also loses its heart.

No doubt a gruesome image would stir strong emotions around the world. But anger at the U.S. would be affected minimally and ephemerally, I think, discounting those already stewing in the radical margins. The narrative benefits of the publicity would be greater. Especially, as Steve Clemons suggests, if the White House were to release images simultaneously of bin Laden’s “respectful” burial at sea.

UPDATED: Other arguments in favor of putting out the photos from Steve Clemons and Jack Shafer.

UPDATED 5/5/11: An opinion piece today from the International Herald Tribune, “The Death of an Icon,” goes to the heart of my thinking on this issue. “Osama bin Laden, the visual icon of terrorism in our fear-driven age, is gone,” writes Columbia history professor Richard Bulliet. “No one can replace him.”

He explains in detail why bin Laden “was unquestionably the master recruiter” for Al Qaeda:

Compared with the two-dozen jihadist videotapes I analyzed in connection with police investigations in 2002-2003, Bin Laden’s propaganda stands out. Not only does it present a plausible argument for jihad against the West, but his visual presence and calm voiceovers convey an aura of authority and leadership even though his name is never mentioned.

His screen presence also far outshadows that of other jihadist leaders. Where they are strident, or ranting, or dull, he is calm and articulate. Where they come across as one-note preachers or pedantic classroom teachers, he appears as a fully formed individual. Comfortable in the mosque, on the battlefield, at the training camp, or in a poetry recital.

One cannot mourn the death of a man who planned or inspired so many atrocities. But we should recognize that his bigger-than-life iconic presence was the heart and soul of jihadist Islam.

Read the whole piece — essential analysis on the meaning and impact of bin Laden’s end.

Also see Deborah Copaken Cogan, who suggests that “to sanitize photos is to distort history.”

UPDATED 5/10/11: The Associated Press is pursuing the bin Laden images with a Freedom of Information Act request. The AP cites Obama’s campaign vow to make his administration “the most transparent government in U.S. history” and points to the muddled narrative surrounding bin Laden’s killing, which has been revised multiple times by the White House. Says AP senior editor Michael Oreskes about the visual evidence of bin Laden’s death: “This information is important for the historical record.”

4 comments so far

  1. […] of terrorist suspects. Yoo further argued that Obama wanted bin Laden not dead or alive, but just dead — because taking him prisoner would have required Obama “to hold and interrogate bin […]

  2. […] fraught US-Pakistan relations to conspiracy theories and partisan politics, it’s an understatement to say that there is keen interest in knowing […]

  3. […] never give viewers a direct look at bin Laden’s dead visage. (The Obama White House also refused to provide one to the public.) As the credits rolled at the screening I attended in San Francisco, an audience […]

  4. […] never give viewers a direct look at bin Laden’s dead visage. (The Obama White House also refused to provide one to the public.) As the credits rolled at the screening I attended in San Francisco, an audience […]


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