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May 4, 2011

The Deeper Price of Censorship: White House Nixes Photo of bin Laden’s Body

Bin Laden compound 3

It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head– are not floating around– as– an incitement to additional violence. As a propaganda tool. You know, that’s not who we are. You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies. You know, the fact of the matter is this was somebody who was– deserving of the justice that he received. And I think– Americans and people around the world are glad that he’s gone. But– but we don’t need to spike the football.

Barack Obama

We at BagNews are profoundly disappointed in the Administration’s decision to censor the photo of bin Laden’s body, just as we were disappointed when the Obama Administration censored the extended set of Abu Ghraib images it has in its possession.We  believe simply and unequivocally that the core of a healthy democracy involves not just speaking the truth and hearing the truth, but also seeing the truth — – as contentious and tenuous as that might be. Moreover, we feel the action by the Administration only reinforces a false assumption, taken for granted by the President and leaders in both parties, that the snuffing out of a critical photo is somehow a zero-sum game.

What is particularly sad is the superficial explanation the Administration so cursorily provided. As related by Obama and his Press Secretary, the photo was withheld because its release would equate to “a football spike” or the brandishing of a trophy.  The Administration, however, has not been triumphant in any way regarding any aspect of this operation, and whatever other weaknesses they possess, flaunting hasn’t been one.  No, the reasons lie elsewhere.

In this case, I understand the Administration’s more circumstantial concern about the photograph. Because bin Laden was unarmed and the Administration initially fudged that detail, then had to backtrack on it, I know they worried a photo of bin Laden with a bullet hole in his face would reinforce an uncomplicated impression he was shot in cold blood. Even still, or maybe more so because of the procedural and ethical issues surrounding what happened between OBL and the Navy Seals, I believe the Administration and Lady Justice owe the country and the world the most accurate description of what played out. And Exhibit #1 for getting there and achieving that has to be the photograph. The image, given it’s existence; it potentially profound resonance as a historical artifact; its centrality as confirmatory evidence of bin Laden’s identity; as well as its function as corroboration of America’s longstanding conviction and operational intent to terminate OBL, should be allowed to speak to all of these things — as opposed to stand, as it will now, as a capitulation to doubt by the Muslim street as to what went down in that room.

Bin Laden compound 2

The second rationale for quashing the image is that the Administration feared and the Muslim Street would use the image for instigation.  Well, I don’t think you can have it both ways. If you kill bin Laden, then let the image stand for the commitment of justice in all its dimensions. Otherwise, it’s like telling America’s kids that George Washington, after stepping up to his actions, then burned the cherry tree and ditched the ashes in the river.

What the powers-that-be never get is that an erasure is not without it’s own moral baggage and trace. Disappearing the photo, given the reality that an image represents (especially these days, when in Egypt, in Libya and in Syria, we see citizens dying by the day just for the cause of pushing pictures to twitpics), the willful act of suppressing the photo, in our every more visually-mediated and documented society, equates to the intention of keeping the killing in the dark. It’s this signal, by way, this act of omission reinforced by the President’s dismissive and defensive tone, that not just insults the intelligence of the American people but actually reinforces the suspicions of the Muslim street.

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Given these thoughts, I approach these photos taken outside the bin Laden compound on Wednesday with shame and regret.

Rather than putting the bin Laden death photo where America’s mouth is, Western media instead offers Pakistanis groveling and craning to catch a glimpse of what ultimately went down inside the compound. Most clever is the NYT photo showcasing the compound’s intercom.  The message: we can’t show you what ultimately happened, but we’ll tell you what we think you should know.

(photos: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters. caption 1: Local residents try to look past the gates into the compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad May 4, 2011. Bin Laden was unarmed when U.S. special forces shot and killed him, the White House said, as it tried to establish whether its ally Pakistan had helped the al Qaeda leader elude a worldwide manhunt.)

  • Jay

    The suspicions of the Muslim street are probably about the same as those of the American street. Photographic evidence of the condition of the body might not be consistent with the story of our heroes putting down bin Laden with one shot. Maybe not bin Laden at all. Maybe a picture of a feeble sick man who was no threat to a team of assassins.

  • Tardigrades

    I must say that I do not want bin Laden’s body plastered all over everywhere. What came to my mind when I heard Osama was killed was the photo I saw here, on this site, of the mother holding her son who was shot and had half a head. Actually, I think about that photo a lot – it haunts me – especially when I think of what we are spending (hand over fist) of our hard earned money on war craft.

    Our job right now is to get out of those wars.

    • Pal3rid3r

      The muslim world has been at war with the west for over a thousand years. Putting your head in the sand won’t change that, it only makes you an easier target.

  • omen

    the cynic in me thought oh sure, they’re going to wait until the summer next year to get someone to “leak” it. but then i thought, no, he would wait until he won a second term before releasing it to make a show of how principled he is.

    there is no way they can get away with never releasing it. it’s going to come out eventually.

    this could also be a signal we’re not pulling out of afghanistan any time soon.

  • Hashim Home

    why the people want to see the photo of osama’s photo.his already dead.

  • black dog barking

    From John McPhee’s Rising from the Plains, about Wyoming:

    Fugitive criminals stopped at the ranch fairly often. They had to―in much the way that fugitive criminals in lonely country today will sooner or later have to stop at a filling station. A lone rider arrived at the ranch one day with a big cloud of dust on the horizon behind him. The dust might as well have formed in the air the letters of the word “posse”. John Love knew the rider, knew that he was wanted for murder, and knew that throughout the country the consensus was that the victim had “needed killing”.

    Society is rules, “thou shalt not kill” is a rule. I’d rather have seen a trial and as much justice as could be extracted without violating the rules. I also think OBL needed killing.

    Bury the body at sea, don’t release close up photos of the kill shot — no potential bloody shirts to fuel fires best left to smolder and die. Is it time to start addressing *real* problems? Yet?

  • Bugboy

    President Bush doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone, except the American People. He has done that. The gruesome thirst for images of blood and brains will never cease, in particular I suspect the Taliban for pressing the Obama Administration as a way to feel like they have leverage. In particular so they can point to how savage Westerners are by doing exactly what they pressed the President to do.

    I would debate whether disappearing images is the same thing as censorship. Who’s images are they? They are the government’s, which would technically make them ours (public property). This is not the intent of free speech protections nor its protection under the law. No private citizen took these photos and then had the government censor them.

    Why should President Obama capitulate to the Taliban or even acknowledge they have doubts? They are nobody in this game, just like Osama bin Laden is now. The Arab Spring has begun. The street is not asking for more blood, only the old guard is.

    • ZK

      Please tell us how exactly he has proven anything about his assertion to the American people.

      Shifting stories by the people who were in the war room but could not see the action because of a communications failure, the assertion that there is DNA evidence (who knows where the DNA came from, or who has actually seen the gels), and a statement by a wounded woman under ISI’s watch who is purported to be one of OBL’s wives are the only evidence I have read or seen. At least the number of bodies that remained in the compound matched the story, though from those photos it was unclear how many in total were killed or wounded.

      It is very interesting to imagine what each of the commenters on here would have said if this had occurred on May 1, 2004. I think we would hear the exact same comments, but from opposite sides.

      It is dangerous to accept proclamations of the powerful with no evidence.
      Remember when GWB and his cabinet proclaimed that there was clear and compelling evidence of WMD and al Queda links in Iraq. There was more evidence presented to the public for those assertions, and we know how that turned out…..

  • Glen

    Another person I know put it best: “We don’t withhold the photo of the corpse to preserve his dignity, we withhold it to preserve ours.”

    Showing the photo would be no different than dragging bullet-ridden corpses through the dusty streets of Mogadishu.

    • IrishDave3

      We certainly are not like those savages in Mogadishu…it’s not like we have Death Squads operating anywhere in the World…no, wait, maybe bombing, invading, torturing and killing is just another example of Who WE Are in a Christian loving sort of way.

  • Bugboy

    Jon Stewart has a point, though when he says: “Maybe we should always show pictures. Bin Laden, pictures of our wounded service people, pictures of maimed innocent civilians… We can only make decisions about war if we see what war actually is.”

    This is a question that goes beyond censorship and to who we want to be as Americans. Jon says that is already answered.

  • Bugboy

    Jon Stewart has a point, though when he says: “Maybe we should always show pictures. Bin Laden, pictures of our wounded service people, pictures of maimed innocent civilians… We can only make decisions about war if we see what war actually is.”

    This is a question that goes beyond censorship and to who we want to be as Americans. Jon says that is already answered.

  • Molly Whipple Douthett

    Considering that Obama has to prove himself over and over and over and over, what will releasing these photos prove?

    A friend had a brilliant idea; put them in a museum or special gallery where the public would be free to gaze as long as their hearts desire. Keep recording devices out. You need to see? Go see. For those of us who have had enough of the blood and gore, it is up to us as to whether we subject ourselves to further horror. Choice! What a great option.

  • ABaze

    This conversation about releasing the OBL death photo speaks more about the degradation of any sense of visual restraint in our all access society. We have been desensitized after a decade of war and the brutal images of Abu Grahib, etc to the point where we all are waiting for the next fix of snuff photos to get our kicks from. This fetishization of violence is not new to this country (I mean what’s the going rate on a lynching postcard from the 30s and 40s, amongst the type of people that collect those things), but for the generations that have had to encounter torture photos and beheadings as part of their visual landscape, the OBL death photos are just one more opportunity to get our fix. Good for Obama for forcing us to go cold turkey….

  • Anonymous

    I want to point you to
    Juan Cole who knows what he is talking about He feels that it would have a bad effect in the Muslim world.

  • Dianabol

    odd they didn’t just bomb the compound rather than going in.

  • Anonymous

    The video of Obama at the Correspondents’ Dinner shows the president completely at ease, making jokes about Donald Trump’s hair, joshing with the press. Meanwhile, he’d already given the order to kill bin Laden. It shows a side of the president that we only suspected – this guy has ice water in his veins.

    I don’t like that in a president, especially one who purports to be folksy. Obama orders people killed, then goes on TV like nothing bothers him. I’ll bet this will cost him some trust among ordinary people who like to know if the president has something on his mind that’s worrying him.

    The disconnect between Nixon’s public persona and the person who ordered the Watergate break-in is what got him impeached, or just about to be impeached. It’s not a good idea for a president to let it show what a cold fish he really is.

  • Stan B.

    Christianity has started more wars than any other goddamn religion on earth.

    LOVE YOUR ENEMY (it’s what Jesus Christ said and demanded of his followers).

  • Michael

    Referring to Christianity as a “goddamn” religion tells me one of two things or perhaps both, that you find it entertaining when hostages are barbarically beheaded for the world to see on camera by radical Muslims almost with regularity seemingly with sadistic enjoyment. Secondly you insult God whose only crime is to love people like you. Perhaps one day you may, just may understand the difference between good and evil, unless you also find it amusing that over three thousand people died in the Twin Towers disaster!

  • Stan B.

    The people who insult God are those who use his name in vain- particularly when they use it to start wars and kill people. Most religions are expert doing it- Christianity one of the shining examples.

    I lived within walking distance of the WTC for way too long to be lectured by you or anyone else. And Christian that you believe yourself to be, you make no mention of the hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children we’ve killed and continue to kill. And how would you not describe the torture we committed in Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere, as anything but- sadistic enjoyment? You conveniently see only the barbarity of others, and purposely deny the atrocities committed worldwide in your name. It makes you feel good- it makes you feel “Christian.”

  • Michael

    Once again you overflow with hatred for Christians! Would it pertinent to ask what your religion would be, or would you prefer to remain evasive? You refer to “we” when mentioning Abu Ghraib and “elsewhere”, where ever elsewhere may be, which appears that you are claiming to ge Christian?
    Finding fault with the Christian religion and turning a blind eye as to who the perpetrators are shows you really don’t the difference between good and evil! You certainly have no idea what Christianity stands for! As for the lecture, it was you who stared the lecture. If you should need any further assistance with your confused mind I will be glad to help you.

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