The Osama Death Pictures: Why Not to Release Them

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I write this after the news that the White House is considering release of photos of Osama bin Laden's dead body, but before any such photos have appeared. Two notes from readers on whether releasing them makes sense.

From a reader in Florida:

>>Put simply, I think the WH is ill-advised (read: "nuts") to release any images of bin Laden's demise.

Rational people (even skeptics) who weigh the evidence already believe that Osama is dead. Abbottabad residents described foreign helicopters; the raid itself is a fact; the Pakistani institutions suffer an awkward silence; an al Qaeda spokesman has referred to his martyrdom; the President's national security team watched/heard it unfold; al Qaeda successional struggles will be come evident; there will be no new date-referenced audiotapes from bin Laden.

Irrational conspiracy theorists will not be dissuaded by photos or even videos in the age of Photoshop and Hollywood-style video editing techniques. And in the futile attempt to inhibit a viral spread of conspiracy theories, the WH would provide a powerful symbol of Western "crimes" against Islam and jihadis. I admit that I'm baffled as to why this is a difficult decision.

A little time and a few unfolding events (e.g., al Qaeda's internal power struggles) will leave no doubt about OBL's passing. There's no need for gory imagery.<<

And from a reader in Massachusetts:

>>Here's my 'brilliant' idea. Yes, I'm being cynical and sarcastic at the same time:

The President should state that the pictures, both for their gruesomeness and as potential inflammatory icons, are NOT to be put into general circulation until the passage of time allows them to be released as historical documents...

 ... however, he can invite all the elected members of Congress (and perhaps the Supreme Court) to view the photos and other evidence so that they can offer informed opinions to their fellow citizens. Who would refuse? Scott Brown? Michele Bachmann?? Dr. Ron Paul??? He could also invite delegates from foreign countries to see the evidence, too. The understanding, of course, would be that no photos would be taken.

Frankly, I hope they don't release the photos into general circulation.<<

I agree. I have already heard from a number of people, including one friend, who warn me against believing the "official" story that bin Laden was killed three days ago. (In some of their versions, he died long ago; in others, he's still alive.) I cannot imagine any "official" photo changing their minds, but I can imagine a general coarsening because of the photos, and  specific blowback among those prone to considering bin Laden a "martyr." Pictures of his disfigured head would become the lasting historic image of this episode.

The burial at sea was brilliant precisely because it was so conclusive, and undocumented.  That seemed in character with Obama's whole approach to this exercise. Releasing the photos would seem the opposite. Whose mind, exactly, would it change? And how is it not just a kind of violence-porn?

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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