The world has the story of the mission that delivered death to Osama bin Laden. It has the details of his burial at sea. It has clunky animated video reenactments of the raid at his Abbottabad compound. It has the realtime twitterized witness account and the New York Times narrative of events. It has the cable news punditry and it has President Obama’s speech after the fact. It does not have the photos of bin Laden’s corpse because it does not need the photos and because releasing the photos is not at all the kind of thing the Obama administration would do. If we didn’t know that before the death of bin Laden, we know better now.
The raid that killed bin Laden was the product of steely focus in the moment and over years that came from the top down. Obama took the lead and the mission planning and execution were pulled off with chilling secrecy and efficiency. In announcing the thing was done, Obama emphasized the future. He announced Wednesday that he would not authorize the release of any photos of the slain bin Laden.
Obama has taken heat in the past for not releasing photos of U.S. military violence. Two years ago, he blocked a court order requiring the government bring out images of U.S. troops abusing prisoners during the Bush years. Obama said he was concerned the pictures would “further inflame anti-American opinion” in the world and compromise military effectiveness.
Critics then said he was shielding the abusers and their commanders. They argued that only images of the kind of abuse our War on Terror policies had promulgated could bring home the unacceptable and unAmerican nature of those policies.
Obama surely agreed, which is part of why he now won’t release the graphic images of blood-spattered bin Laden sprawled with bullet holes in his head in the banal domestic Abbottabad setting. Obama knows the pictures will say more about us than they will about bin Laden. For now, Obama controls the story of the killing, and Obama’s story is a much better story for the U.S. than the stories the photos from a squalid murder scene will tell.
Critics are saying they want to see the photos as evidence that bin Laden is dead.
Obama knows that in this case, given the preponderance of other kinds of evidence and the fungibility of today’s digital visual culture, photos as evidence count for almost nothing.
Philip Gourevitch, author of the “Ballad of Abu Ghraib,” makes a very strong case against releasing the photos. He talked about it on public radio today and he wrote about it this week for the New Yorker.
Under Obama’s command, the raid on bin Laden—on par, as a feat of heroic military derring-do, with Israel’s 1976 raid on Entebbe airfield in Uganda—projected a cool and fearless capability. The perfect secrecy of the operation was part of its inspiring style—the total control, even the pitch-perfect relentlessness of Obama’s speech announcing the kill. Publishing trophy photographs is antithetical to that; it’s what our enemies do.
The main argument for releasing a photograph of the punctured scalp of our enemy is that it will provide proof that bin Laden really is dead. In other words, seeing is believing. But does anyone really believe that any more? Believing is believing. People who want, or need, to believe that bin Laden wasn’t shot dead will have no difficulty believing that a picture of his cadaver is a fake, a simple propaganda trick. The release of Obama’s long-form birth certificate didn’t put an end to birtherism, so why would the release of bin Laden’s autopsy video put an end to deatherism? And why does the White House care to appease the holders of such delusions?