Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bin Laden: Should We See the Photo?

That seems to be the question of the day. Should President Obama release a photograph of Osama bin Laden's body? The president himself says he won't, likening such as act to spiking a football after scoring a touchdown.

"It is important to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool," the president said.

Thus, according to the president, the risk of being penalized for excessive celebration outweighs the need for visual documentation of Bin Laden's death. Do you agree, or disagree? Either choice requires you to assume that a photograph would provide satisfying evidence of Bin Laden's death, and frankly I don't think that's an assumption that can be made in this day and age.

As this blogger notes, photographs were state-of-the-art proof that outlaws in the old west had received their just rewards. They were often documented in their coffins, or propped up against boards beside a building. This represented a great advance over the much older practice of displaying a fallen enemy's head on a spike--in a technological sense, at least, since photographs can be reproduced and seen by a much wider audience than severed heads. They also last longer.

The Late Jesse James
Modern technology has drastically reduced the photograph's prestige as a trustworthy document. Pictures stopped being so at roughly the same time that photoshopping became a verb. Today when we look for documentation of death we can pin our hopes for truth on genetic science, rather than optical science. We have been assured that DNA matches prove the body killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan is that of Osama Bin Laden.

"The DNA has been dispositive,” said California Senator Diane Feinstein.

Of course the government could be lying about that too—such is the path of reasoning down in the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory. The solution, according to Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut? “My own instinct is it’s necessary to release those pictures,” he said.

Lieberman as long been a firm believer in the power of the photographic document. In 2009 he strongly urged President Obama not to release images of American mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison because he feared reprisal against our military in the Middle East. Today, apparently, not so much.

There may be something to be gained from the release of an image of Osama bin Laden's corpse, but it's not proof of his death. Our minds, conditioned to a vast world of imagery, thirst for visual detail—mine certainly did so as I sat listening to the president speaking on Sunday night. Here was news of the death of the planet's evil mystery man, and all I had to look at was a press conference and shots of college students frolicking in front of the White House.
By the following day, the media was filling in the gaps--providing video clips showing the bloody bed where he fell. Then the Internet filled with the picture one assumed one would see, sooner or later—the death head. Not suprisingly, tt turned out to be a composite. Nonetheless, satisfying in its own way.

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