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.”