Osama Bin Laden's death photos: the case for releasing them.

Media criticism.
May 4 2011 5:36 PM

Release the Dead Laden Photos

Suppressing them infantilizes the nation and gives the White House unwarranted news control.

Elsewhere in Slate, William Saletan explains why the  human-shield myth was a bad idea, Dave Weigel talks about how Osama's death  proved everyone right, John Dickerson looks at  Obama's secret meetings, Dahlia Lithwick says it's time to  end the war on terror, Chris Beam explains the  mood in Pakistan, Heather Murphy compiles a slideshow  of the elite Navy SEALS, and Maura O'Connor looks at how  the war still continues  in Afghanistan. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit the Slatest. Slate's complete coverage is rounded up  here. 

Osama Bin Laden. Click image to expand.
Osama Bin Laden

In a world where every form of splatter, dismemberment, and slaughter has found a home on the Web—a place in which tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions have watched blood bubble out of Neda Salehi Agha Soltan's face and pool on the asphalt beneath her head—it seems nuts that President Barack Obama has decided not to release the photos of Osama Bin Laden's bullet-dented cranium. *

In a 60 Minutesinterview to be aired Sunday, Obama said he thought it important that "very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool."


White House Press Secretary Jay Carney spoke yesterday about the "sensitivities involved" in releasing the "gruesome" and potentially "inflammatory" photos, and mused about whether allowing their publication would "serve or in any way harm our interests" at home and abroad. Today, he said the administration didn't want the photos to become "icons" that would help rally support against the United States.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence panel, opposes making the photos public for similar reasons, saying he doesn't want the images to "make the job of our troops serving in places like Iraq and Afghanistan any harder than it already is. The risks of release outweigh the benefits."

Obama and Rogers' idea that news should be calibrated by the government to ease the job of the U.S. military makes for a First Amendment loophole you could drive a motorized regiment through. If al-Qaida and its supporters are more irate with the United States this week than they were last week, it's because U.S. commandos killed Bin Laden. Obama should never have marked him for death if tending the "sensitivities" of al-Qaida and its allies was U.S. policy.

It's hard to imagine that a death photo of Bin Laden would elevate al-Qaida and its supporters to some fury that his killing didn't. Or, as @knifework tweeted this afternoon, "Who hasn't shot someone in the face, fed their corpse to the sharks, and then fretted over how their followers would feel about the photo?"

I don't advocate the photos' release because I think it will convince the unconvincible that Bin Laden is dead or because I desire a "trophy" or a football "spiked," as Obama puts it in his 60 Minutes interview. I'm for the publication of the pictures because they're an essential part of the war on al-Qaida. Withholding the photos and couching their suppression in the name of national security misjudges what makes al-Qaida tick and infantilizes the nation. It also sets a precedent for "news that's too gruesome to reveal."

Here's how CBS News reporter David Martin describes the photos, based on a description provided to him:

It does sound very gruesome. Remember, bin Laden was shot twice at close range, once in the chest and once in the head, right above his left eye, and that bullet opened his skull, exposing the brain, and it also blew out his eye. So these are not going to be pictures for the squeamish.

Barbie Zelizer, author of the recent book About To Die: How News Images Move the Public, finds it paradoxical that the administration would recoil from releasing the photos but gladly provides verbal descriptions of the spectacular raid and Bin Laden's killing.

"You can't have it both ways," Zelizer told me in an interview.

The Bin Laden photos, Zelizer says, are "part of the record, part of the news event" and locking them away ascribes "magical powers" to the photos that wouldn't otherwise exist. If we conceal them from public view, we board a slippery slope that flows toward ignorance, timidity, doubt, and conspiracy-mongering.

Part of the ambivalence about releasing the photos, Zelizer says, is that a universally accepted narrative for Bin Laden's killing has yet to emerge. As I wrote the day after the raid, the press and the government had huge trouble agreeing exactly how the operation unfolded. Did Bin Laden make a human shield of his wife? Was she killed? Did he shoot at the SEALs? Or did the SEALs summarily execute an unarmed man?

If such an accepted narrative existed, it might be easier for the administration to predict how the photos would be received at home and overseas. But it's not the White House's business to control and manage news for the good of the nation based on some imagined worst-case reaction to events. That's Soviet thinking.

If a nation can be trusted to view the horrors of 9/11 in real time, flip through the Abu Ghraib picture book, witness the made-for-video murder of Daniel Pearl, see images of dead Uday and Qusay on the evening news, and gaze upon pictures of dead soldiers coming home as air freight (photos that President Bush, incidentally, tried to ban in the name of managing the news), then it can be trusted to stomach the last photos of Osama Bin Laden—and whatever turmoil those photos might cause. Why? Because that's what sort of country the United States is.


What about the helmet-cam video of the operation? Yeah, I'm for its release, too, although I can see the case for why it should be edited to withhold secret operational details that led to the mission's success. Make the case for the release of the unexpurgated video in email to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Expurgate my Twitter feed. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For email notification of errors in this specific column, type Dead Laden in the subject head of an email message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Correction, May 5, 2011: This article originally misspelled the last name of Neda Salehi Agha Soltan.  (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.



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