What Connects the Iconic Bin Laden and Situation Room Photos

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The government released a series of homemade videos of Osama bin Laden today. Already, Reuters and many other news outlets have picked out the image that will circulate around the world. It shows bin Laden watching himself on a small, old television inside his ratty compound. The video capture will take its place beside the other iconic image from the killing of Osama bin Laden: the White House staff in the situation room watching a screen that updated them on the raid.

The two images we may remember most from this episode do not show blood or battle. They don't show action at all. Instead, leaders are seen staring at screens that display their own actions playing out in the world. In a war waged via drones and video tapes and recorded by helmet cams, this seems unintentionally fitting.

Update, 6:35 p.m.: My Twitter colleagues, Steve Silberman and Tim Carmody, made two other smart comments on the images. Steve observed that the people in the Situation Room photo would have gotten a look into the selfsame space in which we see bin Laden looking at himself. "In a very different parallel universe, it's a Skype connection," he wrote. Tim pointed out that there is a "key difference" between the photos: "One screen is off-screen. One screen cannot be seen." We only get to know what bin Laden is watching.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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