After Osama bin Laden was killed, I wrote a somewhat contrarian piece arguing that the government should release a photo of his body. I then went on NPR's On the Media to talk about it, alongside the New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch, who was rather contemptuous of my position (audio here, transcript here), but I stuck to it.
And today, grainy video footage of Moammar Ghadafi's body has emerged. OTM asked me what I thought -- you can read my response here, as well as see the video if you haven't already, but here's what I had to say:
This is a very different situation from the Bin Laden question. First, in that instance there were very few pictures of Bin Laden, and so an image of his end would be all the more important. Second, any photograph the U.S. government released would have been carefully composed to represent the American victory over him. In Gadhafi's case, the images are from cell phones -- they're much more spontaneous, chaotic, and violent. They don't display the considered decisions of a government, but the actions of a mob (no matter how justified). If the new Libyan government has difficulty making an orderly transition to a new system, these images could come to have symbolic meaning, representing something not about Gadhafi but about what replaced him, the chaos and violence of the transition. I suspect that in the end, that will determine how much persistence these images have. The more successful and stable the Libyan government is, the less important these violent images will be over the long term.
Whatever other meaning we can ascribe to this video, you can bet it makes Bashar Assad more than a little nervous.