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Debate: Release of Osama bin Laden death photos

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Background and context

Osama bin Laden was killed by American Lamont James II commander of the Navy SEAL forces on May 2nd, 2011. After being given a rapid burial at sea, a debate emerged surrounding whether the photos that had been taken of his dead body should be released to the public, mostly as proof of his death.
After much deliberation and a substantial national and international debate on the topic, President Obama decided on May 5th to withhold the photos. He reasoned that releasing the photos would inflame tensions with Muslims and incite radical Muslims to violence, thus making the broader War on Terror more difficult. Along these lines, he also argued that it would endanger the lives of American troops and foreign service workers living in US embassies abroad. Opponents of the decision have argued, by contrast, that the photos are important in setting to rest any remaining doubts among American citizens and Muslims around the world that Osama bin Laden was actually killed. They also argue that the images are critical elements of the historical narrative surrounding Bin Laden and the War on Terror. These and other arguments are considered below.
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Proof: Will photos help prove Osama's death, squelch conspiracy theories?

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Pro

  • Osama death photos would squelch conspiracy theories "Editorial: Release pictures of slain bin Laden." Chicago Sun-Times Editorial. May 3rd, 2011: "One picture can be worth more than a thousand conspiracy theories. For that reason alone the Obama administration should release the grisly photographs of the body of Osama bin Laden, who was slain Sunday in Pakistan during a 40-minute gun battle with Navy SEALs. It is either that or listen to years of sinister speculation that the photos have been withheld to keep the secret that the man who was slain was not bin Laden after all. Already, conspiracy theories are flying around the Internet. If they get out of hand, they’ll make those goofy birther theories look mild and sane by comparison."
  • Quick at-sea burial necessitates release of photos as proof. The quick at-sea burial of Osama bin Laden created some mystery around the event. Burying his body somewhere with some media access would have provided more assurances of his actual death. Therefore, it is especially important to release the photos to provide the assurances that the at-sea burial could not.
  • Photos needed to convince non-radical Muslims Osama's dead. Many ordinary Muslims have indicated that they don't believe that Osama Bin Laden is dead. Revealing the photos could help convince them that he is dead.
  • Photos would convince doubtful Americans Bin Laden dead. Many ordinary Americans, including some of the family members of the 9/11 victims, are doubtful that Osama Bin Laden is dead. These are not crazy people. If they are presented with photo evidence, they will come to accept that his in, in fact, dead.
  • Proving Osama's death essential to US national interests. US Senator Lindsey Graham: "I know bin Laden is dead. But the best way to protect and defend our interests overseas is to prove that fact to the rest of the world."[1]
  • Raid on Osama was about confirming his capture/death. US Senator Lindsey Graham: "The whole purpose of sending our soldiers into the compound, rather than an aerial bombardment, was to obtain indisputable proof of bin Laden’s death."[2]
  • American people deserve confirmation offered by photos In 2009, photos of the bloodied corpses of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, were made public after a U.S. raid on a house in Mosul, Iraq. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the Iraqi people "deserve that confirmation."[3]


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Con

  • Sufficient evidence to prove Osama's death without photos. "Editorial: No good would come from release of photos." Detroit Free Press Editorial. May 5th, 2011: "Serious people do not dispute the authenticity of bin Laden's death. Al-Qaida forces he led know it as a fact; family members in Pakistani custody have reportedly verified, at least in broad outline, the accounts relayed to the American public by Obama and his subordinates. Millions of TV viewers have seen video of crime scene details that are consistent with those accounts, and those who suspect such videos may have been forged are unlikely to find photographs of Obama's remains more conclusive."
Philip Gourevitch. "Don't release the photos." New Yorker. May 3rd, 2011: "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?"


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Muslim reaction: Will photos incite Muslim reaction, terrorism?

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Pro

  • Al-Qaeda will see withholding photos as sign of their impact. Why they released the death picture of Saddam but don't dare to release that of Osama's? The only reason is that Iraq is down but Al-Qaeda is still there, so their path of terrorism is effective. It is an encouragement to them.
  • US shouldn't kowtow to sensitivities of extremists Jack Shafer. "Release the Dead Laden Photos." Slate. May 4, 2011: "Obama and Rogers' idea that news should be calibrated by the government to ease the job of the U.S. military makes for a First Amendment loophole you could drive a motorized regiment through. If al-Qaida and its supporters are more irate with the United States this week than they were last week, it's because U.S. commandos killed Bin Laden. Obama should never have marked him for death if tending the 'sensitivities' of al-Qaida and its allies was U.S. policy."
  • Death photos destroy myth of Bin Laden's invulnerability. Eugene Robinson. "Why I would've released the bin Laden photos." The Washington Post. May 4th, 2011: "Because while gory photographs would have inflamed some jihadists and wannabes, I believe they would have disillusioned and deflated others. A heroic myth of invulnerability had been built around bin Laden. He was supposed to have cheated death while fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, walking tall through fields of fire as the bullets somehow missed. He escaped the Americans who cornered him at Tora Bora. He evaded capture for a decade, despite the best efforts of the West’s spies and soldiers. Showing him in death would definitively refute any notion that bin Laden enjoyed some kind of divine protection. The myth would die with the man."
  • Photos won't upset extremists more than Laden's death Wojtek Wolfe, a Rutgers-Camden professor: "I don’t know if it’s really going to make the situation any worse. It will upset some people — but those people are already upset. Winning the War of Words: Selling the War on Terror from Afghanistan to Iraq."[5]
Jack Shafer: "It's hard to imagine that a death photo of Bin Laden would elevate al-Qaida and its supporters to some fury that his killing didn't...."[6]
  • Bin Laden death photos send warning to US enemies. Sarah Palin wrote on her Twitter account: "Show photo as warning to others seeking America's destruction," she writes. "No pussy-footing around, no politicking, no drama;it's part of the mission."[7]
  • Concealing Bin Laden photos ascribes them magical powers. Barbie Zelizer, author of the recent book About To Die: How News Images Move the Public, says concealing the photos ascribes them "magical powers" that wouldn't otherwise exist.[8]
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Con

  • Releasing Bin Laden photos would inflame Muslim world White House Spokesman Jay Carney: "There are sensitivities here in terms of the appropriateness of releasing photographs in the aftermath of this firefight. It is fair to say they're gruesome photographs. It is certainly possible that it could be inflammatory."[9]
  • Osama photos could become icons for rallying extremists Obama defended his decision to withhold photos of Bin Laden's dead body in an interview with CBS News program “60 Minutes,” saying U.S. officials did not want to give extremist groups the ability to use the photos as “propaganda tools.” He tells 60 Minutes: “I think Americans and people around the world are glad that he is gone. But we don’t need to spike the football.”[10]
  • No Middle East allies thought photos would be in their interests. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton consulted with allies in the Middle East and reported that none thought the release of the photos would be in their interests.[12]
  • Osama photos likely to provoke violence at US embassies. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates vocally worried that the images would provoke anti-American violence at embassies, consulates, and military bases overseas. This is because the Muslim world might look askance at a desecrated dead body, even if it was Osama bin Laden's.[13]
  • Releasing Bin Laden photos is a national security risk. For all of the above reasons, and others, releasing the Bin Laden photos is a national security risk.
  • Osama photos could put US troops at even greater risk. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence panel, opposes making the photos public, saying he doesn't want the images to "make the job of our troops serving in places like Iraq and Afghanistan any harder than it already is. The risks of release outweigh the benefits."[14]
  • Upside of photos insufficient to counter inflammation. Ibrahim Hooper, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said releasing macabre pictures "would be unnecessarily inflaming passions in many areas of the world. Why take that risk? The upside is not going to be that great no matter what you do."[15]
  • Photos of dead bodies offends many Muslims. Some may view an image of a dead body as a violation of the sect’s customs. "Historically speaking, they don’t like photos being taken," said Shaheen Ayubi, an international politics professor at Rutgers-Camden.[16]


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Gruesome: Are the photos tolerable to look at?

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Pro

  • Bin Laden photos could not be too gruesome for nation/world. Eric Golub. "Mr. Obama, release the bin Laden photos." The Washington Times. May 5, 2011: "The 'too gruesome' argument is very weak. Americans have seen photos of 9/11, the JFK assassination and Holocaust atrocities. We are adults. We can handle it. It is not the government's job to decide how much we can stomach. News reporters can warn parents to have their children leave the room, and parents can decide what to do next."
  • US/world watched 9/11, they can bear to see dead Osama. "Was Obama right to withhold bin Laden photos?" May 5th, 2011: "If a nation can be trusted to view the horrors of 9/11 in real time, flip through the Abu Ghraib picture book, witness the made-for-video murder of Daniel Pearl, see images of dead Uday and Qusay on the evening news, and gaze upon pictures of dead soldiers coming home as air freight (photos that President Bush, incidentally, tried to ban in the name of managing the news), then it can be trusted to stomach the last photos of Osama Bin Laden -- and whatever turmoil those photos might cause. Why? Because that's what sort of country the United States is."
  • Photos just show Laden with bullet in head; not too gruesome. Republican U.S. Rep. Peter King, who was among the lawmakers who had the images described to them, played down concerns over the images' gruesomeness, saying, “They're not going to scare people off. Nothing more than you'd expect with a person with a bullet in his head.”[17]
  • Concealing Osama photos infantilizes the nation. Jack Shafer said withholding the photos infantilizes the nation in Response to a May 2011 60 minutes interview by Obama.
  • Why provide detailed descriptions but not offer photos? Barbie Zelizer, author of the recent book About To Die: How News Images Move the Public, finds it paradoxical that the administration would recoil from releasing the photos but gladly provides verbal descriptions of the spectacular raid and Bin Laden's killing. "You can't have it both ways," Zelizer told Jack Shafer of Slate in an interview.[18]


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Con

  • Exulting over Osama's dead photos barbaric, un-American. Harold Evans. "Obama Was Right to Censor the Osama bin Laden Photo." The Daily Beast. May 5th, 2011: "I’d find the exultation of exhibiting the vanquished bin Laden to be obscene, ethically not much different from the Tudors, who liked sticking heads and dismembered torsos around London, or the barbarians of al Qaeda. Obama said it well: 'That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.' It's the jihadists who enjoy celebrating death; we prefer to celebrate life."
  • Gruesome photos will overshadow victory of Osama's death. Philip Gourevitch. "Don't release the photos." New Yorker. May 3rd, 2011: "ABC News is reporting that the first image of bin Laden that the White House may show us is 'bloody and gruesome, with a bullet wound to his head above his left eye.' If it’s released, this is the image that will instantly supplant every other account of Sunday’s raid as the iconic representation of America’s moment of triumph over its most wanted enemy. Is that what we want—the official equivalent of the Saddam hanging video? Did we learn nothing from the past decade about the overwhelming power of crude images of violence to define and polarize our historical moment? The Abu Ghraib photographs were unofficial documents of an official policy that was supposed to be kept secret, but if nothing else, they should have taught us that a photograph of the violence you inflict is always, in very large measure, a self-portrait. In getting rid of bin Laden, Obama as made the greatest step yet toward being able to put that era behind us. Do we want a photo of bin Laden’s bullet-punctured skull to eclipse this moment?"
  • Withholding photos resists blood-lust, morbid curiosity. Most people want to see the photos out of a morbid curiosity, or due to an even more pernicious blood-lust. This should not be catered to. It is a barbaric desire that has been satisfied many times in the past, but that a modern America need not satisfy.
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Freedom of information: Is there a free info imparative?

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Pro

  • Bin Laden death photos are part of public news record. Barbie Zelizer, author of the recent book About To Die: How News Images Move the Public, says the photos are "part of the record, part of the news event."[19]
  • US has history of releasing photos of killed enemies. "There Once Was A Time When The U.S. Military Enjoyed Spiking The Football," wrote The Smoking Gun. The staff generated a series of WWII-era newsreel reports of U.S. officials killing Nazis via firing squad and hanging. If the practice was common in recent US history, why should we look down upon it now?[20]
  • Obama allowed photos of dead soldiers, why not Osama? The Drudge Report recounts when in 2009 that the president lifted the 18-year-old military policy banning photographs of flag-draped coffins. It wonders aloud that the death-related photos didn't seem to bother him then. Why now?[21]
  • Withholding photos fosters damaging debate on issue. Why draw this debate out? Withholding the photos is creating more debate and animosity within the USA than releasing them would. Avoiding such divisiveness at a time when Americans should be celebrating is very important.
  • Concealing Osama photos sets bad precedent on gruesome news.


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Con

  • Just to withhold Osama photos for national security reasons. It is clearly acceptable for the Commander in Chief to withhold information if there is a clear national security imperative in doing so. Obama has judged that releasing the photos would irritate the Muslim world and incite further incidence of violence and terrorism. On this basis, withholding them is clearly justified. [See below for arguments on why releasing the photos could be a national security risk.


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Pro/con sources

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