Putting It All Out There

On May 4, 2011, after President Obama announced his decision not to release graphic post-mortem images taken of Osama bin Laden, Sarah Palin posted a Tweet provoking Obama to change his mind. She wrote: “Show photo as warning to others seeking America’s destruction.”

The Associated Press this past week submitted a FOIA request for the photos, stating that they are of historical value. The senior managing editor, Michael Oreskes, declared, “It’s our job as journalists to seek this material.”

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and House Representative Allen West of Florida also pushed for the release of the photos, arguing that undeniable proof was necessary to preserve America’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with. Graham stated, “The best way to protect and defend our interests overseas is to prove [bin Laden’s death] to the rest of the world.”

The president similarly is concerned with reputation. But rather than highlighting the “don’t mess with me” side of the United States, it seems that Obama, in declining to release the photos, wants the rest of the world to see a country that is as cool as he himself can be during moments of particular intensity. Without glee or gloating, he commented, “You know, that’s not who we are.”

But think about Abu Ghraib, the Kill Team and Nikki Catsouras — maybe this is who we are, at least to those in the global network who have their eyes on us.

So then maybe we should release the photos. We can do the bidding of, according to an NBC news poll, the 24 percent of Americans who strongly favor the release. Instead of viruses or spam, people all across the world will open their email accounts and see new mail from friends or Mom or the U.S. president, entitled, “Here it is” or “Warning: Graphic.” And there it will be, the undeniable proof that some demanded, though perhaps unrecognizable due to the shot to the head. And maybe many will lose their appetites, while some few will feel warm and fuzzy inside, satisfied that the deed has been done. But still, there will be others, Obama argues, who would feel enraged, perhaps even more than they did before about the United States.

You see, we must consider the other perspective. We have to understand that a considerable number did not see bin Laden in the same way that we saw him — he  was, in fact, an idol for many.

The problem will then be that these enraged individuals may act, and violently, against not only the citizens in the U.S., but also against those individuals and troops stationed abroad. It seems reasonable to imagine bin Laden had that kind of hold over many people. Many have so far given up their lives for bin Laden’s vision of a U.S.-free world. This is precisely a risk Obama wants to avoid. It seems he believes waving around proof is not only unnecessary, but also dangerous.

On the other hand, Graham and Palin argue that proof is more important than the risks. Without proof, the outside world will believe the United States to be all bluff and bluster, and this is important since many of our men and women are stationed in various places around the world. They argue that in fact, it is more risky not to release the photos because this will allow disbelievers to doubt, initially, U.S. assertions — then eventually, U.S. intentions. Perhaps this disbelief will allow enemies of the U.S. to grow bold. But a nagging question remains: does the United States still have to prove its might?

Other advocates of releasing the photos compare this situation to that of Saddam Hussein’s sons. They argue that since the release of Uday and Qusay Hussein’s photos did not incite violence, bin Laden’s would also likely not — at least, not more than before. Though both Hussein siblings and bin Laden are guilty of heinous crimes against humanity and other nations, the similarities stop abruptly there. Whereas the Hussein siblings were thoroughly reviled, many revere bin Laden. How else to explain how he escaped notice for over five years in an affluent suburb of Pakistan, near a military training facility? So it seems reasonable that in actuality, the release of bin Laden’s pictures will arouse a different reaction than did those of Hussein’s two sons.

If the photos are to be released in order to satisfy disbelievers, perhaps those who seek proof should be directed to the Al Qaeda statement released concerning bin Laden’s death. According to the SITE Intelligence Group, it states, “We warn the Americans of any injustice to be made to the corpse.” And, in light of such a statement, perhaps it does indeed seem unwise to release graphic images.

It is true that which paths leads to more dangerous territory is not yet entirely clear, but Obama’s decision not to release the photos does seem like the safer move It is doubtful images of bin Laden’s corpse will even alleviate concerns of the most ardent of disbelievers. Consequently, perhaps the world should leave them still wondering, while it moves ahead — as it already has.

Yvonne Bang is a fourth-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at bangy@uci.edu.