I think this is the right call, actually, but not for the usual reasons.
Besides, O surely realizes that they’ll leak sooner rather than later.
In an interview with Steve Kroft for this Sunday’s “60 Minutes,” President Obama says he won’t release post-mortem images of Osama bin Laden taken to prove his death…
Republican House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said Wednesday that the Obama administration should not release the gruesome post-mortem images, saying it could complicate the job for American troops overseas. Rogers told CBS News he has seen a post-mortem photo…
“Imagine how the American people would react if Al Qaeda killed one of our troops or military leaders, and put photos of the body on the internet,” Rogers continued. “Osama bin Laden is not a trophy – he is dead and let’s now focus on continuing the fight until Al Qaida has been eliminated.”
I can think of four arguments for releasing the photos. One: It’ll prove that he’s dead. Except, of course, that it won’t. Conspiracy cranks will screech about the pic being doctored or the victim being an impostor (“those aren’t his eyebrows!”) within five minutes of it being posted. There’s no such thing as “proof” anymore; the Internet age is proof-proof. If anything, the more evidence you provide, the more pretexts you create for kooks to pose moronic challenges to it. If the White House wants to reassure people that the photos exist, they can show them to Republican leaders, to members of the press, and maybe to 9/11 families for their satisfaction. (Scott Brown apparently has already seen them.)
Two: It’ll warn the jihadis of the world of what awaits if they mess with America. Didn’t the Zarqawi death photos already warn them of that, though? How about killing scores of Al Qaeda commanders with drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere? The fact that Bin Laden and Zawahiri were in hiding for 10 years is pretty solid evidence that they know what happens when you mess with Uncle Sam.
Three: Turnabout is fair play. If we had to endure photos of U.S. troops doing wrong at Abu Ghraib, let’s celebrate the photos of U.S. troops doing right by taking down a monster. I think that’s a better argument for why the Abu Ghraib photos shouldn’t have been released, though, than for why the Bin Laden photos should be. And in fact, Obama agrees: Remember when he broke his promise to the left to release photos of detainee abuse and filed suit to keep them suppressed in the name of national security? Also, Abu Ghraib was a case of exposing government malfeasance, which the public has a right to know about. They may not have a right to the photos, given the propaganda value of those photos to the enemy, but it’s not an apples and apples comparison with a national high-five like killing Bin Laden.
Four: It’s a trophy. People want to see dead Osama’s face because they want to revel in it. They’d put it on t-shirts and coffee mugs even though, according to one of CBS’s sources, it’s beyond gruesome (the “bullet opened his skull, exposing the brain, and it also blew out his eye”). After watching Americans forced to choose between burning alive or jumping to their deaths on 9/11, the thinking goes, we deserve to plaster images of Bin Laden’s cortex on billboards. Fair enough, but I have to say, just knowing how the raid went down and that his skull ended up being popped like a balloon is already … deeply satisfying. I keep thinking of him in his bedroom, listening to the SEALs banging around downstairs and hyperventilating at the thought of what would happen when they opened the door. I don’t need an extra scoop of sugar on that hot fudge sundae. It’s already tastier than I could have hoped for.
So those are the arguments in favor. The obvious argument against releasing the photo, per Bob Gates and Hillary, is that it’ll “inflame anti-American sentiment” and put troops in the field at greater risk. Didn’t we already cross that bridge, though, by … killing Osama Bin Laden? And haven’t we heard that same argument used before by our political leaders to pressure people like Terry Jones on free speech? The argument the administration could/should have made is that sometimes we have to accept a greater operational risk in the interest of protecting core values like the First Amendment — and that this isn’t one of those times, since there’s really no core value that would be served by releasing a “suck it, jihadis” Bin Laden death photo. It would feel great, but as I said above, it already feels great. And the “suck it” message has, I take it, already been received by all the important people via the fact that Osama now literally sleeps with the fishes.
The reason I think this is a good call is that I like the idea of Bin Laden being reduced to an afterthought, even in death. He had already reduced himself to that status after 10 years of hiding like a rat and churning out the occasional audio message that no one paid much attention to. Then, on Sunday, in the span of 12 hours, he went from quietly doing whatever he was still doing for Al Qaeda to quietly having a chunk of his head blown off to quietly being kicked off the deck of a U.S. carrier into the sea. Just like that, gone from the face of the Earth; I’ll bet the carrier crew didn’t even hear the splash. That’s a sweet ending for a messianic fanatic. Release the photo and you undo some of that, though, by treating him like a big enough deal that the world should gawk at his fate. Why give his followers that satisfaction? He wasn’t a big deal. He was to us because we had unfinished business with him, but nearly everyone else — possibly even Al Qaeda — had moved on. And now we get to move on too. Next.
Update: Ah, looks like Scott Brown only saw one of the fake photos circulating online. I’m sure the GOP leadership can view the real thing if it asks Obama to make them available. Although Boehner says he doesn’t need to:
“That’s a decision for the administration to make,” Boehner said when asked if it was necessary to release any of the bin Laden photos, which U.S. officials have described as carrying the gory imprint of a gunshot wound to the head. “They have to decide what to do. I’m convinced. I have no doubts.”
Update: A Pakistani security official showed up at the compound shortly after the raid ended and snapped a few pics, which he then sold to Reuters. If you want to see what happens to jihadis when they come face to face with SEALs, brace yourself and click here.