Why Not Charge People to See Bin Laden's Death Photo?

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The proceeds could help fund America's wars abroad and other efforts in the war on terror or even a scholarship for 9/11 victims

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People want to see photos of the shot-out face and body of Osama bin Laden? People want to see a wrapped body dumped into the ocean? People think it will give them satisfaction or closure (whatever that means) or proof or justice? Media organizations clamor that they have the right to see this particular government record as a matter of First Amendment principle? I have no objection to any of this even though I have no interest at all in seeing bin Laden's (so we are told) brain tissue. Chacun a son gout, as they say

I just don't think the Obama administration ought to give them up cheaply. And by that I don't only refer to the government's legal defense against the blizzard of Freedom of Information Act requests for the photographs already filed or on the way on behalf of individuals and media organizations alike. I refer also to simple market principles of supply and demand. The government is desperate for money. And it has a wholly unique "good" that many people in and out of Washington seem eager to view.

Even if you factor in the costs of security, it's a cash cow, isn't it? Say, 60 people per hour. 12 hours a day. Seven days a week. That's near $500,000 each week, I reckon. Pretty soon, you're talking real money.

Never mind giving a "select" group of federal legislators a free private viewing of the photos at Langley sometime soon. I think the government should should charge everyone who wants to see the photo a set price -- say, $100 --  and then use the proceeds to help fund the ongoing war in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq or wherever else American troops are in harm's way fighting the war on terror. Or maybe fund scholarships for the child survivors and victims of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on America. Or maybe do better by our brave military families struggling to get by. Better yet, each person could select from one of those options when forking over their Benjamin.

No checks, please, and a service charge for all credit card orders. And if you want to contribute to paying off the national debt, that is cool, too. No one under 18 admitted. Can I see your identification papers please? The feds could make, say, five copies of each of the photos and then send them on guarded tour around the United States. It would be like the King Tut exhibit we've all endured, only instead of mummies and gold you get a quick view at a few 8 x 10 glossies. Each person would get one minute per photograph. No cameras, of course, and no cellphones or other way to disseminate the contents of the photographs.  

And then maybe when that national photo tour is over, the feds could take it overseas, to Afghanistan, Pakistan, England, or France, to see whether the good folks over there would be willing to pay up to see the show. You know, like the way America used to do it in the good old days. If you can't get the actual scalp because what's left of it is at the bottom of the sea, well then how about a photograph of it? We don't want to spike the ball, and it's too late to put bin Laden's actual head on a spike but, hey, Pakistani government officials, what a great way to pay off the debt you owe us for all that anti-terror money we've sent you over the years!

The curious and the stoic, the prurient and the prudent, the faithful and the cynic, the angry and the bemused, they could all come, wait their turn in line, go through security, put their electronic devices in the tray, have their junk touched, pay for their ticket, and gaze upon the photographs. What's that you say? The photographs already belong to the American people and thus should be available to them for free viewing? Have you ever tried getting into a Washington museum? The feds should simply turn the photos into an "exhibit" and disseminate it to the public one paying customer at a time.

Even if you factor in the costs of security, it's a cash cow, isn't it? Say, 60 people per hour. 12 hours a day. Seven days a week. That's near $500,000 each week, I reckon. Pretty soon, you're talking real money. And a way to bring people together united in the belief that: 1) You just don't get to see photographs of a famous person's dead body anymore and; 2) You can never really trust what the government says, especially if Al Qaeda happens to agree. Geez, I am sure a network executive or two would even consider a prime-time game show to see who gets the free golden ticket. Just don't forget a book and a snack in case the lines to see the Osamagraph turn out to be long.

Mostly, I kid. I kid because polls suggest that a clear majority of Americans (two-thirds in a recent NBC poll) say that they do not want the federal government to post the photographs. And because so many of my respected friends within the journalism community think they should already have been published as a sign of respect to America's core values of transparency in government. (It's the same sort of disconnect that exists with regard to Wikileaks and Julian Assange, by the way, but that's a whole other column.) 

I know there are important First Amendment issues at stake. I know the FOIA requests won't be easily tossed out. I applaud the earnest debate over the seemliness of the public displays of celebration that accompanied the news of bin Laden's debt -- and what they would portend for the release of the photos. But I feel that there are some "secrets" -- like what bin Laden's half-face looks like -- that are better left secret for a while. I haven't figured out yet how to bridge that gulf, or if I even need to, which is why I'll just wait for the movie.

Image credit: Reuters/Athar Hussain

Drop-down image credit: Reuters

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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