Remember the Bin Laden photos? When the al-Qaeda leader was killed two years ago, people immediately began asking whether the world would ever get to see an image of his body. At first, then-CIA director Leon Panetta said photos would be released, but President Obama overruled him. Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in a lawsuit brought by the conservative group Judicial Watch that the government may continue to keep the photos hidden from public view.
At the time, I argued that a photo should be released—not every photo that everyone took of the body, but perhaps one shot of it being lowered into the ocean in a respectful ceremony. I went on NPR's On the Media and debated the question with The New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch, who treated me like I was some kind of contemptible ghoul for suggesting such a thing, but I made what I thought was a perfectly reasonable argument. Here's an excerpt of the column I wrote:
Might the image be disturbing? Yes, it might. But the world is full of disturbing images, and the administration could opt to show a shot of bin Laden's wrapped body being dropped into the ocean. Might its release cause an increase in anti-American sentiment? Perhaps, but I doubt it. First, we should be careful not to assume, as was assumed with the photographs of coffins at Dover, that images have the immediate power to change minds, turning people away from what they would otherwise believe. Second, the images that have done so much damage to America in recent years -- those of the torture at Abu Ghraib or of Ali Ismail Abbas, a 12-year-old boy who lost his parents and both his arms when an American missile hit Baghdad in 2003 -- enraged people either because the U.S.' behavior was abominable or because the victims were innocents. In this case, neither is true: Even bin Laden's supporters consider him a combatant in a war with the United States, and no one contends that he is innocent. Just as we want to see American dead as they were when they were alive, the lasting image of bin Laden should be not of him speaking into a microphone or smiling as he trudges through the mountains of Afghanistan but of him dead and defeated.
If released, the picture of bin Laden's body might, within a day or two, become the most reproduced photograph in history. And with it, at last, would be a different image of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, one that demonstrates American power and perseverance. It would also signify an ending. We will be leaving Iraq soon and Afghanistan, we hope, not too long after. Bin Laden's vile and murderous ideology is waning, particularly in contrast to the courage and hope spreading across the Middle East. The photo of his body should be a bookend to the images of September 11, offering a visual closure that will help us put this period of war behind us. Osama bin Laden's belief that he could shape the world through the murder of innocents turned out to be partly true. Now he is gone, and there are photos that show it. We should be willing to look.
To be sure, my argument was about symbolism, history, and memory, which are not particularly practical or immediate concerns. Unless Judicial Watch appeals its case to the Supreme Court and gets a different ruling there, we won't be seeing those photos. Which isn't that big a deal; like most of things we argue about passionately for a brief time, the question of whether we should see any of these images has been largely forgotten. Nevertheless, it's a reminder that despite what Barack Obama said when he first took office about transparency and openness, like many before it, this administration has set the defaults to secrecy.
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