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.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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