It has been written that a picture is worth a thousand words. That may be the ultimate testament to the expected reaction if the Obama administration releases photographs of the body of slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The terrorist leader’s body had barely sunk to the bottom of the North Arabian Sea before skeptics and conspiracy theorists demanded proof that the government was telling the truth regarding bin Laden’s death. Though President Obama revealed that the U.S. had DNA evidence to confirm that its intended target was indeed the 9/11 mastermind, and bin Laden’s supporters overseas reacted angrily to news of his death, the conspiracies quickly emerged that cast doubt on the President’s proclamation that U.S. special forces had killed the man deemed the number one enemy of the United States.
Now, it appears the Obama administration has decided to release a photo of the dead body of bin Laden to quiet skeptics. We see little benefit in the public release of the gruesome photograph; knowing that it will do little to quiet critics of the President who will simply find another reason to cast doubt on the Obama administration’s success at bringing down the al Qaeda leader. Much like the controversy over the President’s birth certificate, evidence of bin Laden’s death is not evidence so long as there is another opportunity to spew anti-Obama rhetoric. No sooner than the photograph is released will the Fox News Channel and talk radio provide a platform for the theater of the absurd, with a steady stream of supposed experts challenging the evidence of bin Laden’s death. We can envision the President’s critics suggesting that the person in the photograph is not Osama bin Laden, or the photograph is a dated image that confirms the terrorist has been dead for some time. There is no strand of evidence that will please Mr. Obama’s political enemies.
Perhaps more important than the reaction of extremists is the impact the release of the photo will have on the already strained relations of the United States with the international Islamic community. By parading the picture of a bloodied bin Laden with a hole in his head, the government runs the risk of defiling his memory in the eyes of Muslims and inflaming passions. It also betrays common decency - though Osama bin Laden was the sworn enemy of our country, we can only assert our humanity and demonstrate that we adhere to greater values than those who wish to bring us down by not being consumed by their barbarity. We will send the wrong message to children by parading images of a dead bin Laden and risk causing them further anguish.
If the intent is to provide the American public additional confirmation of the death of Osama bin Laden there is another alternative to the widespread distribution of photographs of his corpse. The White House could simply convene bipartisan congressional leadership and a select pool of the media, including journalists who are considered conservative or Republican leading, and exhibit all of the photographs and video from the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Such a meeting with a diverse group of interests should be enough to provide independent confirmation that Osama bin Laden has met his ultimate fate. The idea that the American public must see every shred of evidence is a dangerous precedent even in a country where we ferociously guard our First Amendment rights. Can we imagine the reaction in our country if images of the corpse of President John F. Kennedy had been obtained by the Soviet Union and displayed on the front pages of the Russian press and on television in 1963?
At some point we must start behaving in a manner that reconciles with our impassioned rhetoric that supposes an American exceptionalism that grants us special status in the world community. We failed that test miserably during the Bush administration when we subscribed to a Wild West mentality and bravado that resulted in a deck of playing cards of wanted Baath party members in Iraq and sheer glee in the gruesome hanging of Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants, and photographs of Hussein’s dead sons. While the rejoicing over the death of Osama bin Laden is understandable given the terror he inflicted upon our nation, how we act in the aftermath of his killing is the thousand words that a picture of his corpse can’t convey.