President Barack Obama’s decision not to release photographs of Osama bin Laden’s corpse has been justified in practical terms, as well as in terms of military honor. “It is very important for us 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 stated. “That’s not who we are. You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.” According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the decision was made in consultation with allies in the Middle East.
Arguments raised in favor of release have covered a broad political spectrum. Sarah Palin, apparently nostalgic for the days when the heads of fallen adversaries were put up on pikes, tweeted: “Show photo as warning to others seeking America’s destruction.” Others have argued that in a democracy the presumption should be in favor of public access to records, even those involving blood and gore. Comedian Jon Stewart argued that images that show the horrors of war should not be censored, because that leads to a sanitization of warfare–an argument widely made by pacifists like Erich Maria Remarque at the end of World War I.
While the discussion has focused on the morgue-style photographs of bin Laden’s body, probably taken in conjunction with the pathological examination in Bagram, there is a considerably larger quantity of materials pertaining to the raid. The White House in fact released an amazing still of the president’s national security team watching a projection screen as the raid went down. Some tabloids quickly claimed that the president was watching bin Laden’s death in real time. CIA Director Leon Panetta discouraged this take, telling PBS that “Once those teams went into the compound, I can tell you that there was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes that we really didn’t know just exactly what was going on.” Whatever images were captured and transmitted, it’s clear that the raid team was outfitted with equipment that allowed what Counter-Terrorism Advisor John Brennan called “real-time visibility into the progress of the operation.”
This is not a unique occurrence. Recordings from special forces missions are apparently used for training purposes after the fact, allowing trainers to review and critique performances against established protocols. But military commanders are anxious that such recordings can be used to second-guess the performance of the SEALs on the mission and potentially to argue that lethal force was improperly used (an argument now made most aggressively by Berkeley law professor and torture memo writer John Yoo). This has led to a strong desire not to acknowledge the existence of such recordings, or not to give them up. These concerns are reasonable, but the audio and video of the Abbottabad raid are unique and extremely important historical records. They should be treated as such.
Obama’s statement that release of the photos might be viewed as “trophies” focuses concerns properly. From ancient times, rules against the humiliating or degrading treatment of the body of a fallen adversary have belonged to the core of the warrior code. This reflects the values of those who fight as well as the concern that mistreatment would inspire acts of retaliation, propelling warfare into steadily more brutal and inhumane spirals. Obama’s decision to withhold the photographs of bin Laden’s corpse on these grounds is not required by the laws of war, but it is reasonable.
This debate should not be a question of yes or no, but rather when and how. It is simply incorrect to say that the only interest in release of the photographs and film of the bin Laden raid is lurid. In a democracy we should work from a presumption that records should be faithfully preserved and that the people should at some point have a right to see them. There may be reasonable safety or security concerns, but it is unlikely that those concerns would run longer than a generation. If U.S. government personnel have reasonable concerns about anonymity, these can be addressed by digitizing faces or other identifying features. The Abbottabad raid was a significant historical event, and it is important that it be objectively and properly chronicled. Accounts furnished in the heat of the original events are often riddled with inaccuracies–as the numerous misstatements of John Brennan, embarrassingly withdrawn within hours of the events, well demonstrate. A more objective, detached portrait can come with time, and those who prepare it will find in these materials an indispensable record, in most respects more reliable than the memories of the participants.
This points to the logical middle ground in the debate about the photographs and tapes. There is no reason why they need to be made public today, this month, or even this year. But the materials should be preserved carefully and passed to an archive. In good time they should be available to those who chronicle these events, so they can do so with a keen and impartial eye. The death of bin Laden marks the end of an era. This should not be marked with lies and secrecy; it should be marked with a strengthened commitment to acknowledge the truth, unpleasant as it may be in certain details. The passage of some time may be necessary, but in the end a democracy is nourished, not demoralized, when it looks the truth unflinchingly in the face.