Release the Osama Bin Laden Footage

May 03, 11 Release the Osama Bin Laden Footage

Philip Gourevitch, over at the New Yorker website, argues that the photographs and video footage of Osama Bin Laden’s killing shouldn’t be released to the public. Not just delayed, but not released. Ever.

I have a feeling that if for no other reason than a tsunami of public pressure to release them, they will likely be circulating on front pages by the time you wake up to read this piece. Or if not, soon afterwards. (Ed: As it turns out, the administration favours Gourevitch’s photographic reticence)

That said, even if the pictures are inevitably released, that would do little to make Gourevitch’s argument any less chilling and worthy of thorough rebuke. Even in principle, the idea of not ever publishing the evidence of what the war on terror actually comes down to in the fine print should never be allowed to be accepted.

In the original article, Gourevitch’s argument includes the position that:

The Abu Ghraib photographs were unofficial documents of an official policy that was supposed to be kept secret, but if nothing else, they should have taught us that a photograph of the violence you inflict is always, in very large measure, a self-portrait. In getting rid of bin Laden, Obama has made the greatest step yet toward being able to put that era behind us. Do we want a photo of bin Laden’s bullet-punctured skull to eclipse this moment?

He is dead right in calling the photographs of killings, whether in Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan or Pakistan, ‘in very large measure, a self portrait’. They convey in stark terms the truth that in the course of American foreign policy pursuits people frequently have to die. And often in very horrible ways.

When America – or any nation – for that matter, decides to wage war by whatever euphemism and for whatever motivation, there will always be a tendency of governments to construct a sanitized myth of what is actually involved. The Gulf war used ‘smart bombs’, with ‘minimal’ casualties. Russia ‘quells unrest’ in places like Chechnya. Any government that wants to continue killing finds value in hiding the images of the dead they create. Keeping your voting, lobbying, finicky public in the dark about the brutal nature of the undertakings both helps to ensure support for offensives, and allows citizens to retain a degree of innocence about what their governments are doing. Both outcomes are dishonest.

If America set its mind to destroying Osama bin Laden – and I think there can be little debate on the sensibleness of that approach – then it is incumbent upon them to reflect the full honesty of what that entails to their citizens. What the cheering crowds must find it in themselves to support is not only the euphemistic, abstract removal of a distant enemy, via a Hollywood-inspired story of elite strike teams. They should face and come to terms with the blood and horror of what their desire for revenge required.

To withold the pictures allows the nation to construct a cheering, self-indulgent fantasy of smug victory. To release them would replace that fantasy, delicious to Washington, with a sober appraisal of what they, as a country, are engaged in. If America’s operations in America’s wars are fashioned into stories of sanitised heroism, it becomes easier to see might as the solution to problems. A simple mathematical logic of the application of force. To release these pictures forces citizens to lose their innocence about what it is that their troops do on their behalf, and confront the emotional, human reality of what it is that they do in these places they fight in.

Osama’s killing will have been no less an important strategic imperative, but it will be one whose full detail America was honest about. A story that cannot be bent into abstract triumphalism.

Image by Aman Desmukh