This afternoon, news outlets reported that President Barack Obama has decided against releasing any photos of Osama bin Laden's body, even though CIA Director Leon Panetta indicated just hours before that the pictures would be made public. It may seem ghoulish or too triumphant. "The fact of the matter is this was somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received," Obama said on CBS's 60 Minutes, which will air this Sunday. "And I think Americans and people around the world are glad that he's gone. But we don't need to spike the football."
Many people in the administration, not to mention members of Congress from both parties, also fear that the photos could spark an anti-American backlash. A strong case, however, can be made that the American public and the world at large ought to see this image.
In recent years, we've debated the publication of photos of flag-draped coffins, civilian and military war casualties, and scenes of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But the discussion over whether Obama should show the world an image of bin Laden's body is different. This photo's release could be good for the administration -- not an embarrassment or an occasion for defensiveness, denials, and accusations that political opponents are trying to undermine the war effort but something that could actually serve our national-security interests.
Unlike in those previous debates, we aren't worried about showing American dead, and there is little question that the photos could reveal misconduct by the troops carrying out the raid. But the stakes are still high. Images can lodge themselves in our memories and color our view of events. And in a case such as bin Laden's death, pictures cross barriers of language and culture. Their meaning may be open to interpretation, but they can be quickly transmitted and shared throughout the world.
At the same time, we often fear that such images are more powerful than they actually turn out to be. Our discomfort with showing pictures of the war dead began after the Civil War. Matthew Brady all but invented photojournalism when he took photos of corpses at battles such as Antietam. Ever since, we have been both repelled and fascinated by images of the dead, particularly when they meet violent ends on the battlefield. In 1991, George H.W. Bush banned photographers from taking pictures of coffins of fallen troops returning to Dover Air Force Base during the first Gulf War. His son fought even harder during the Iraq War to prohibit similar photos. The assumption was that seeing scenes from the somber, dignified ceremonies would turn Americans against the administration, as though the photographs might finally convince citizens that war has a cost.
The image of the flag-draped coffin, part of a quasi-religious ritual, with the dead soldier enveloped in the nation's spirit, is one of two ways we usually see American war dead. Mostly, we see pictures of them alive, taken months or years before. When an American solider is killed, we are shown his or her official portrait or a wedding picture or a snapshot taken with friends and family. This is partly because of the way we grieve in America -- not publicly and loudly in the street, as some cultures do, but quietly and behind closed doors. The primary reason for these types of photos, though, is that we regard the bodies of American dead as too sacred to be seen by anyone's eyes.
These unspoken rules become clear when they are transgressed. In the opening days of the Iraq War, Iraqi state television aired photos of a group of American soldiers that had been killed in a firefight. The photos were not particularly grisly -- they displayed no severed limbs or bloodied bodies. But the American media's outrage was fierce ("They are horrifying pictures, and we are not showing them on MSNBC," said anchor John Siegenthaler). In 2005, the Los Angeles Times reviewed coverage of the war in newspapers and magazines and found "almost no pictures from the war zone of Americans killed in action."
If the bodies of Americans are sacred, however, then the bodies of foreigners are profane, in the sense that they lack the holy aura that keeps American bodies from our sight. Communication researchers have documented that foreigners are more likely to be shown photographically as both the perpetrators and victims of violence than are Americans, whose portrayal is more sanitized (see here). When we view pictures of the bodies of foreigners, furthermore, the debate is less about whether we have violated a taboo than about the practical effects of the presentation.
We'll have to wait to hear the complete explanation of why President Obama decided not to release a photo of bin Laden's body. But we should still understand why this is the wrong decision. The administration shouldn't release a picture in order to prove that bin Laden is dead (the people who doubt it won't be persuaded) but to place that image in front of the entire world and brand it into history's pages. The smartest thing might be to release one -- and only one -- photo representing the closing of this chapter.
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.