After the assault on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, photographs of Osama bin Laden’s corpse were taken – graphic images of the al Qaeda leader with a bullet hole in his eye.
In the first week after bin Laden’s death, amongst the flurry of dialogues that overtook the media and the public, the argument of whether or not the White House should release the photos ran on the sidelines.
But the White House has stated definitively that the photos will not be released.
“We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies,” Obama stated in an interview on Wednesday with the CBS program ‘60 Minutes. “That’s not who we are.”
Obama went on to say that to reveal the photos of the body would not only be a low action, but would also incite anger against the United States amongst Muslim extremists. The photos, Obama said, could be used as propaganda.
While that argument of national security is a sound one, revealing the death photos would not be a crude or crass act – no more so than revealing the faces of any person killed in war on either side.
It’s more a matter of confronting the truth of combat.
Obama should reveal the photos, not to satisfy the ‘deathers’ who are unconvinced by reports of Osama bin Laden’s death, but as a further acknowledgment that this man, who has orchestrated the mass murder of thousands of people, is dead, and we killed him.
Perhaps the White House’s conviction against revealing the photos lies not just with the perceived threat to national security, but with the pervasive aversion towards death that Americans feel.
We live in a culture that does everything it can to minimize the truth of death in our daily lives: we wear makeup and dye our hair to appear younger, Photoshop our icons into immortal perfection… In the case of warfare, the subject of photographing death, the great toll of war, always becomes a subject of moral debate.
Death and killing is the reality of conflict, and we should confront those realities as a nation; not only the costs on our end, the photos of troops’ caskets returning home, but of the deaths of our enemies.
It’s not a moral issue in the obvious sense, but of principle, particularly honesty, in whether or not to release the photos of a corpse.
I’ll add to that point:
If the White House were ever to reveal the photos of bin Laden’s corpse, they’d have to also reveal photos of his burial – which was, according to the White House, a respectful burial at sea in accordance with the Islamic faith.
It would send a message, even to the people who hate us:
Osama bin Laden killed our people, desecrated their bodies, and boasted.
In turn, the United States sought to capture him, and bin Laden was killed comparatively humanely (a bullet to the brain doesn’t compare to a thousand-foot drop from a burning tower), and his body was treated respectfully according to his faith.
We are better than Osama bin Laden; releasing the death photos would not contradict that.
Indeed, they would serve as confirmation.
Transcript of Obama 60 Minutes interview: