Since Obama announced Osama Bin Laden's death last Sunday, reporters have besieged the White House for more information on the operation's details, including photos of the corpse. The administration mulled whether to release the photos, ultimately deciding not to. The New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch and The American Prospect's Paul Waldman debate the decision.
High DaysArtist: by Bert Jansch
GERALDO RIVERA: Osama bin Laden is dead! Happy days! Happy days, everybody! This is the greatest night of my career….
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Geraldo Rivera last Sunday night, breaking the story to FOX News viewers that Osama bin Laden had been killed. About an hour later, at 11:35 p.m., 56.5 million Americans watched President Obama deliver the news officially. As Obama finished his speech and walked away from the camera down a long hallway, reporters everywhere started digging for details. By midweek, the White House had released more information about the operation, much of which was corrected. Bin Laden was armed when he was killed. And then he wasn't. Bin Laden used his own wife as a human shield. No, he hadn't. CIA Director Leon Panetta said that a photo would be released of bin Laden’s corpse. And then the administration said that, actually, it hadn't yet decided. Then it did decide – not to. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney:
JAY CARNEY: The fact of the matter is, as the President described, these are graphic photographs of someone who was shot in the face, or the head, rather, and it is not in our national security interests to allow those images to become icons for – to, to rally opinion against the United States and, and further, because he believes, as he said so clearly, this is not who we are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or are we? Fifty-six percent of the people polled by CNN said the pictures should be released. Presumably if you polled pundits, that number would be even higher, or at least louder.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: They will be leaked at some point, by somebody, and it will be embarrassing to the United States.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Get the pictures out because look-it – there are elements of Al-Qaeda around the world, and they ought to be on alert that, you know, they got him, they could get me.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: By the way, I have no doubt that we got bin Laden. I just want our enemies to know that we did, too. The picture is the price tag.
BOB GARFIELD: Journalists are often total freaks for disclosure, except for New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch, who recently argued against the official release of the photographs. Meanwhile, Paul Waldman, senior correspondent for The American Prospect, believes we should get to see at least one photo of bin Laden’s corpse, as a visual bookend to the series of ghastly images the war on terror has brought us. We've invited them both. Philip, Paul, welcome to the show.
PAUL WALDMAN: Thank you.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Good to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Waldman, you think the moment does need to be documented by an image. Why?
PAUL WALDMAN: If you think about the images that get repeated of Osama bin Laden, there are really three that stand out. The first one is him kneeling down and shooting an AK-47. Everybody’s seen that. That displays him as a warrior, engaged in this large epic battle. The second image, that we've also all seen, is him charging through the mountains of Afghanistan. What that communicates is his cleverness and resilience, and America’s impotence. The final image, perhaps the one that we see the most often when bin Laden is shown, is him speaking into a microphone. And this shows him as a leader; there’s an implied audience on the other side of that microphone. I think it would be tremendously useful to replace those images with one that shows a kind of a finality to this whole episode in history. It doesn't have to be the gruesome one of his face with a bullet hole in it. It could be the image of his body being pushed into the sea. Think about what would happen if they released, especially just one photo. Immediately it would be on - in newspapers in every country in the world. It would be on thousands of websites. It would lead every news broadcast. It would probably be almost instantaneously the most reproduced photograph in history.
BOB GARFIELD: Philip Gourevitch, you think that is true and probably exactly the reason not to release it.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: I assume that the photograph will come out, at some point, in some way. It may very well come out from a Freedom of Information Act Request. What I thought would be totally unwise would be for the Obama White House to release the photograph as an official document at this particular moment, as a photo finish on the killing of bin Laden. And I think that the picture that we have of the President standing before the microphone in the White House in the drama of the moment, calling a special national television broadcast and speaking with cool intensity about what was done, that’s an incredibly powerful image of the killing of bin Laden. There is no particular need at this point for the President to hoist his head on a stick and parade it in the street, and that’s what anybody who wants these pictures released is essentially calling for, whether that’s what they believe they would like to see or not.
BOB GARFIELD: Fair enough, but there was bin Laden, the man, and bin Laden, the mythic figure, displayed on Jihadi websites, you know, in storefronts in Karachi. Why wouldn't a photograph of a middle-aged dead man serve to demolish that myth of Osama bin Laden?
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: This would be an image of us. We would be putting this out as an official image. And when you put out an image of the violence you commit, it’s part of the way that you’re projecting your power and your idea of yourself to the world. You say that they have been putting these images on their websites, and for far too much of the war on terror in the last decade America had sought to fight terror with terror, fight barbarism with barbarism. And what Obama said when he gave his interview explaining why he wasn't releasing the photographs at this point, what he said basically is, that’s not what we do, that’s not who we are. We don't do trophies.
BOB GARFIELD: What about transparency though? Paul, does it behoove the government to document this death in the most graphic terms?
PAUL WALDMAN: It doesn't have to be in the most graphic terms, but I think at the most basic level it’s true that we should always default to transparency. You know, when the Obama administration took office, they reversed a Bush policy on Freedom of Information Act Requests that in the Bush years essentially said that the default setting was that requests should be denied and delayed. And when Obama took office, they essentially said that unless there’s a really powerful, compelling reason, like privacy or national security, that we would release information that the press or researchers or anybody else wanted. Images from this period of our history are going to persist. And, as Philip said, there are a lot of very damaging images that have come out. We have the, the photographs from Abu Ghraib. There was a photograph in the early stages of the Iraq War of a young boy who had both of his arms blown off by a bombing, that was re-shown around the world and generated a lot of anger against the United States. It would be, especially if the image that we put out of bin Laden’s death was one that was respectful, like him shrouded in a burial shroud, being put into the ocean, it would communicate that this period of our history is over, and especially in the context of what’s happening in the Middle East now, that bin Laden and his ideology are done. Otherwise, those other images that have done so much damage to the United States, they're going to persist. And so, I think it’s important to put a kind of visual bookend on this period that they have the opportunity to do now.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: I don't believe that this period of our history is over. I think that this period of our history is very much with us. I think that it’s purely wishful thinking to imagine that an image showing a shrouded corpse being dropped into the ocean would put any kind of [LAUGHS] closure to this. It seems like that, of all images, with the rapid and slightly bizarre disposal of this body, I think that would stir things up. And I think that there’s a very important distinction to be made between the images from Abu Ghraib and the images, for instance, of civilian victims. Those had tremendous news value. They showed us something that we were not otherwise fully conscious of. There’s no news value in the photograph of bin Laden. In the name of transparency you speak of it, and I say, well, the White House has been actually changing its story almost unprompted at times.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about that very thing, especially considering how the government’s narrative about the events in Abbottabad and in Washington, for that matter, continue to change with every passing hour, it seems. Isn't there an argument, for that reason alone, to document the very event that this country has paid for so dearly over the past decade in blood and treasure?
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: But why with the man’s head on a stake, and why as an official release? And that what I was going to say. The photographs from Abu Ghraib were unofficial photographs, and when they were released they were declared a crime by the government at that time. The photographs themselves, the act of taking them and the act of leaking them and the act of having them and their existence, they were criminal acts. That’s very different from an official release of a piece of information that we essentially know, which, which offers no news information. It’s pure sensation. It may provide satisfaction for some and it may provide distress for others, but I'm not sure why in either case that’s a service that the White House should be in the business of providing.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul, you talked about bookends and closure. Tell me how this would achieve closure.
PAUL WALDMAN: Well, I think it would be a mistake to assume that it has to be done in a kind of triumphalist sort of way. And we've certainly seen that in the past. You know, you might remember when Saddam Hussein was caught, Paul Bremer came in front of a press conference and almost shouted, ladies and gentlemen, we got him. When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was caught, they did a press conference where they blew up the picture of his dead body to poster size. So far, the Obama administration has been extremely somber, and that was certainly true of the announcement when Obama made it. But there was nothing about that that communicates the actual event. If I showed you a picture of that, you wouldn't know what it was. It would just be President Obama at a microphone. As we move through time into the years and decades ahead, those images are going to be an important part of what lasts in our memory. We didn't need the photograph of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima to make us understand that we had won World War II, but it communicated a great deal about what we understood about that event, what it was supposed to represent, what it was supposed to tell us about us.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: The image of Iwo Jima is exactly the opposite. It happens also to be a staged reenactment, as we now know, but it’s an image of American soldiers triumphing over intense adversity at the end of a grueling battle, hoisting their flag in pride over their nation. What you’re talking about is a headshot of Hitler with his brains blown out and showing. We don't have that. And I don't think there’s been a failure to achieve closure on World War II in the absence of it. I don't see the need. I think it’s a very odd notion, and [LAUGHS] it’s not by any means yours alone, this notion that somehow the picture will crystallize this event in a way that no other form of narrative, no other form of news - – Photography, it’s an incredibly wonderful medium, but it’s one of the most limited frames through which you can look at the world in a split frozen second of time, and it’s also one of the most manipulable. So to reduce all that’s outside the frame – you asked earlier, Bob, about the changing story at the White House – none of that would be reflected in a headshot of Osama bin Laden’s corpse.
PAUL WALDMAN: Philip keeps characterizing this in sort of the most gruesome and triumphalist terms, as if that’s necessarily how they would have to do it. They've been very somber about this up until now. And if they released now one picture, let's say, of the body being put into the ocean, that would become the iconic picture that represents this event, even if all the other photos get released later on. So I think they have an opportunity now to do it on the best possible terms, instead of on the worst possible terms.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Waldman, thank you very much.
PAUL WALDMAN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Philip Gourevitch, thank you.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Waldman is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. Philip Gourevitch is a staff writer for The New Yorker.