The Case for Releasing the Photo of a Dead Osama

Are we sure that American policies should be dictated by the emotional state of jihadists?

Although a slew of pictures have been released of the scene of Osama bin Laden’s assassination, including graphic pictures of the deceased’s unidentified dead cohorts, President Obama has decided not to release the photos of the al-Qaeda chief’s body. The president has seemingly allowed the fear of retribution from our enemies to dictate this decision. This is unfortunate, as the American victims of al-Qaeda, their grieving families, and the American people as a whole, deserve much better.

One of the primary reasons cited by the Obama administration for not releasing the photos is “national security.” The reasoning is that non-release will prevent further incitement of radicals in Muslim countries and the recruitment of Islamic terrorists. In turn, it is assumed, we will avoid placing Americans overseas -- our soldiers, diplomats, workers and tourists -- at needless greater risk of harm.

As understandable as this worry is, there are other concerns on the president’s mind. He emphasized, for instance, that releasing the photos "is not who we are," in the sense that publicizing the “gruesome” images is contrary to our national values. He explained in an interview conducted with 60 Minutes (set for broadcast this coming Sunday):

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 we don't need to spike the football. And I think that given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk. And I've discussed this with Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton and my intelligence teams and they all agree.

The president's stated concerns here appear to be muddled. For example: Is the president afraid the photo itself will directly lead to violence? Or is he afraid America will be seen as arrogantly “spiking the football" and that this will then lead to violence?

The reason for this muddling may be attributable to uncertainty and irresoluteness with regard to the photo's conceivable effect. Indeed, there has clearly been a struggle within the administration on whether to release the photos, as evidenced by early statements from officials following the assassination. CIA Director Leon Panetta said on Tuesday that he thought the photos would be released, and at one point, it appeared as if the release was imminent. In announcing the decision, Press Secretary Jay Carney referred to the "majority” -- that is, not unanimous -- opinion among the president's national security advisers to not release the photos.

The reasoning given by Carney was the same fear articulated by the president, namely, that the photos’ release wold lead to the incitement of "additional violence." The administration did not feel that it was necessary to give any more specificity as to how formidable the threat would be, whether it is marginal or deathly serious. The administration's contention is, of course, perhaps true. But the real important truth is that the American public does not know this with any certainty, and with the confusion and obvious rifts in the administration -- involving the director of the CIA, no less -- there is abundant reason to doubt. More importantly, there are profound and legitimate arguments to be made for the release of the photo of a dead bin Laden.

First of all, if the Obama administration does believe that releasing the photos poses a grave and serious risk, then it is, in fact, incumbent upon officials to make this case. A CNN poll released on Tuesday showed that 56% of Americans wanted the photos released with 39% opposed. This is to say nothing of the opinion among bin Laden’s actual victims -- most of whom cannot speak for themselves. And all Americans are entitled to the information surrounding the death of the terrorist chief who declared war on their country and killed thousands of its citizens. Absent a convincing account of repercussions, the Obama administration is wrong in depriving Americans of the photos.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had it right, meanwhile, when he affirmed, "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." He added that he had no doubt that bin Laden was dead but that the best way to protect Americans overseas would be to prove it.

Meanwhile, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) was concerned about conspiracies sprouting in the wake of bin Laden's death; he noted that "to put down the conspiracy theories, it probably would have been better to release it." On that subject, the president said in his 60 Minutes interview that nothing would ultimately satisfy the conspiracy theorists and he doubted "that a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference."

In the wake of bin Laden’s death, a bellicose reaction from the Muslim world has been surprisingly unspectacular. Major terrorist leaders have been predictably preoccupied with honoring the terrorist’s deadly legacy rather than instigating immediate overt acts of violence. Hamas mourned the death of a "Holy Warrior," and criticized the "shedding of Muslim blood." Radical imams in Pakistan denounced the US for "an act of terrorism," calling bin Laden a hero.

This is not to say, of course, that Islamic retribution for the photos' release is not a genuine concern; it most definitely is. But the question of importance is this: would releasing the photos of a dead Osama bin Laden really make the situation we are in with radical Islam any worse than it already is? Is it really possible to make jihadists angrier, more radical and more determined to kill us? Is there a species of jihadists who don’t participate in jihad and will only do so once they see a picture of dead jihadists? And, most importantly, are we in the business of appeasing jihadists?

What we can assume are reasonable answers to these questions suggests that the Obama administration is not so much concerned about “inflaming” the Muslim World in terms of the violence it would be willing to commit, but “aggravating” it -- that is to say, “angering” it. But have we now arrived at a state where American foreign policy is dictated by the emotional state of Islamists? Our governments must now decide what they should and should not do for their citizens based on the perceived temperaments of jihadists? We do not live in a police state. We are entitled to certain information so long as it does not constitute a grave and serious threat to ourselves -- not so long as it does not offend radical Islamists.

The president's own statements indicate that his real worry -- one that he echoed twice in his interview with ABC -- is that American arrogance (in his vision) will provoke the Muslim world to violence. This view is, of course, in continuity with his overall philosophy that it is America’s “arrogant” position in the world that has brought Islamic terrorism upon America. Thus, Obama believes that the promulgation of the bin Laden picture would constitute displaying a trophy or “spiking the football.”

In making these remarks, the president has shown himself to be completely out of touch with the pulse of the American populace. The American people want (and deserve) to see the pictures, not because they are sitting around hoping to revel in their "trophy." Yes, naturally, to some extent, within certain milieu, this may be true. But the American people as a whole clearly are driven by the rational and justified desire to possess all of the information possible regarding how their most vile enemy was brought to justice. It is not an interest that the nation should be ashamed of and suppress -- as President Obama shows himself to believe.

The president stated that he saw "no purpose" in allowing Americans to see bin Laden's dead body. Such a statement reveals a tragically naïve and ignorant understanding of the psychological and strategic chess game in war and politics. Showing the dead picture of Osama would deliver a devastating blow to our enemies – and a vital message to the world. It is crucial for America to say: here is a picture of an enemy of the United States who declared war on us and who killed thousands of our citizens. This is what happens to people who engage in this behavior. Showing the photos would be a demonstration of American determination and strength in the War on Terror, while withholding them would produce an appearance of appeasement and weakness before the very people and ideology bin Laden represented. For a leader not to understand the vital importance of this reality is ineptness at its worst.

As a leader in the War on Terror, an American president should recognize that releasing the photos would boost our allies’ morale in countries like Tanzania and Kenya, which have also suffered numerous dead in al-Qaeda attacks. Besides giving our foreign friends a comforting demonstration of American power, victims and their families in allied countries would also like closure and would be grateful to America for doing so. In addition, photos of the dead al-Qaeda leader would increase the incentive of these states and their peoples to continue to follow American leadership in combating worldwide jihad. This is especially valid for countries like the East African states that have a strong al-Qaeda presence nearby in Somalia and Yemen.

Releasing photos showing a dead bin Laden would validate who we are as a people and illustrate our determination to carry on the fight no matter how long it takes or how many blows we receive. It would say in unequivocal terms that we are not afraid and that we will boldly bring those who hurt us to justice. Not releasing the photos denies the American people a confirming moment that would not only be cathartic for many, but, at a minimum, must be done out of respect to the victims of 9/11 and their families, who deserve closure.

The image of a dead bin Laden might trouble some people. But the images of our innocent citizens jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11 were troubling as well -- and it is with them in mind that we must frame our decisions as a nation.