Obama right not to Release Usama Photo

President Obama’s decision not to release photographs of Usama Bin Laden’s disfigured corpse is wise and decent.

Obama is right that the photo would be used by radicals to whip up emotions.

But it should also be remembered that a Mahdi Army member surreptitiously filmed the execution of Saddam Hussein on his cell phone, and that it was then spread around the internet and to other cell phones, and produced a very negative reaction in the Muslim world. I remember on a bulletin board one Saudi young man saying that he never liked Saddam, but that seeing him taunted to his grave had disgusted him. The video robbed the Bush administration of a propaganda coup, the demise of Saddam, and instead created a fiasco for the US image.

Then, while Americans have forgotten all the horrible photos that came out of Abu Ghraib, of Iraqis being tortured and abused, the Muslim world has not.

Indeed, there was just recently a huge controversy in Afghanistan, which the US public largely ignored. Members of an allegedly psychopathic US Stryker tank unit in southern Afghanistan are accused of having murdered civilians and of having then posed with the dead bodies.

So, way too many photographs of gruesomely disfigured or abused Muslims, whether they met their fates justly or whether they were victims of crimes committed by a high Pentagon officials or a few rogue US military personnel, have already been released on the internet in the past 8 years.

The classy thing to do is to shield fallen enemies, even the most evil, from posthumous humiliation of this sort. The US can only overcome its unfortunate record of a kind of war pornography victimizing Muslims by setting a new standard for itself.

I don’t think Bin Laden is popular enough that his death and even the release of the photos would inflame passions in the general population. But there are some unbalanced people out there with access to C4 plastic explosives who lionize Bin Laden, and there is no point in stirring them up.

Posted in al-Qaeda | 42 Responses | Print |

42 Responses

  1. professor, you are right, pictures of a massacred Ben Ladin would be provocative and bad taste. the only minor for not showing them would be the argument against paternalistic tutelage of the public, as in ‘we the elite decide what you the public person can see, you cannot thus’

    what about the possibility missed to arrest him, either the operation was not perfectly executed (forgivable), or the order to kill was hard wired in the training sessions, or the ongoing real time communication feed was not acted upon at best by the off-site commanders. an array of photos and video of Ben Ladin would then have been acceptable to viewing by the public. on top, an arrest would have been justice minded and given a boost to both US credibility and technical prowess.

    the perfect op. seems to have been a less then perfect one, that is the essential point the media layers are trying to hide and Washington wants to paste over. patriotism before transparency i fear.

  2. Totally agree with the President on this one. As Richard Clarke said on PBS News Hour last night, nothing positive would really come from it. There would be much negative that could come frome it though. We’re taking the high road on this one and it’s the right thing to do.

  3. “The video robbed the Bush administration of a propaganda coup, the demise of Saddam, and instead created a fiasco for the US image.”

    “Then, while Americans have forgotten all the horrible photos that came out of Abu Ghraib, of Iraqis being tortured and abused, the Muslim world has not.”


    Yes, if only we could somehow prevent people from recording these events. There must be a way. Otherwise, people are liable to see what happened and our image might be tarnished.

  4. Juan,
    They couldn’t wait to show Saddam’s sons laid out for all to see and no one flinched.
    MWD’s were presented without proof and yet the mainstream media acts as though everything the goverment reports is absolute truth.
    Sorry, I love America but we have been lied into killing thousands of Iraqis.
    Have we abandoned all sence of USA and begun to embrace something more radical. Remember Iran-Contra, Americans have selective memories. Nixon and Watergate. Wake-up
    or invasion and murder will become our new birthright.

  5. We never hear a thing about Afgan construction projects. Is anything being built? Are the locals getting involved?
    If progress is being made and we are actually doing some good then we can justify staying there.
    If we are just wandering around chasing shadows then leave now and avoid the traffic jam next year.

  6. IMO since there have been cases where U.S. Senators have been duped by a fake bin Laden death photo, not releasing the “true” photo won’t be missed. If somebody wants to inflame passions it doesn’t really matter if it’s “true” or not. The way he was killed/assassinated/removed/rubbed out/gone to meet his maker still stands.

    See link to google.com

  7. It is not – and has never been about the photographs/images of ‘war pornography’ as you put it – but rather the behavior those images depict. Change the behavior – photographs won’t be a problem.

    • That’s too glib. There are all sorts of “behaviors” that are not wrong, but which we don’t want flashed all over the media in lurid photographs.

      I wouldn’t want my kids to see the aftermath of the most justified, defensive killing ever performed.

      • “Then, while Americans have forgotten all the horrible photos that came out of Abu Ghraib, of Iraqis being tortured and abused, the Muslim world has not.”

        Nor would I want my children seeing them -fortunately it is not about our children though – it is about children/families who are getting to see the results of the US military adventure first hand. For them photographs are just another proof of what they already know from first hand experience.

  8. No point in stirring them up? That is an argument for paralysis and the worst possible argument against releasing the photos.

    My guess is someone in the administration has already been authorized to leak the photos to Wikileaks.

  9. I believe it’s also a matter of basic decency not to publish these photos. However, it also leaves a door open for speculation. Who cares if U.S. specialists declare that the DNA matched? One requires now a leap of faith to believe in U.S. intelligence agencies and their secret operations. They should have brought him to justice, and I mean at least a Nuremberg-style trial. Not that Nuremberg was without its flaws, but it at least gave an impression of civilized justice, that constrasted with the nazis’ utter barbarity. It’s scary that Obama calls “justice” what seems like a hollywood-tough-guy execution.

    Óscar Palacios
    Mexico City

  10. I guess my biggest qualm with this point is that it has been used to excuse shielding US misbehavior in the past. For example, the decision not to release torture photos, and the aggressive pushback by the administration against the Wikileaks releases, seems at least as focused on controlling what the American people see as what potential Al Qaida recruits see.

    Now, US media has been pretty compliant with the Bush and Obama administrations’ desire not to show the ugly side of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the US. So maybe it’s consistent not to put these pictures out. But it’s also part of a pattern of keeping disturbing images out of sight of Americans whose votes and support keep these wars going on.

  11. Professor Cole, lets not forget (like everyone else has)that Americans have not seen “all the horrible photos” of the Iraq prisoner abuse. They saw only a few lightweight ones. The nastier ones (rape, blood, anal penetration with a florescent tube etc.) were only seen by a few civilians (members of congress) and were described, but then quickly forgotten by us and our press. Thus, the “abuse pictures” became hoods, pyramids and underwear on the head. Oh, and a dog barking at a prisoner. Our TV training keeps us extremely sensitive to pictures, and the written word can never hope to affect the center of the bell curve of literacy here in America. I spent the war mostly in Europe, and I can tell you, the press there had no problems printing gruesome photos of what I and the rest of the taxpayers here in the states did to the Iraqis.

  12. Thank you for this post. I am disgusted by the folks who feel the need to have a trophy moment with this horribly necessary action. They out themselves as barbarians. This country has lost so much over these past ten years. It is time to reclaim some dignity, not further besmirch ourselves with base tactics and provocations.

  13. Professor Cole,

    A “new standard,” indeed — i.e., instead of the promised standard of openness and transparency promised by Obama but (like his other promises) not delivered, you now recommend that the USG set a new “new standard” which is the diametric opposite of the promised standard — which of course, was nothing but a big lie anyway, for the purpose of winning an election. The real standard, of course, is the same it’s always been: hypocrisy and lies, lies, lies. And how could it be otherwise? For, as Solzhenitsyn admonished, “Any man who has once proclaimed violence as his method is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle.”

    You, like Bush and now Obama, justify such secrecy on the grounds that twisted minds may exploit openness and accountability for “war pornography” and so do damage to America’s image — as if the main problem is a few crazy terrorists intent on slandering and destroying our noble country, and seemingly oblivious to the real causes of anti-American sentiment throughout the world (Muslim and otherwise), past and present, as well as to the pernicious consequences of such authoritarian control of information by the state The more state secrecy there is, the more concealment and suppression, the happier the enemies of freedom are. There’s nothing “classy” about gratifying them.

    Sir, I have admired and appreciated you and your work for some time now. But your failure to confront the lies (as well as international crimes) of this administration — as well as your censoring of my recent comments — are quite disappointing. I never dreamed that you would choose to censor my comments. I sincerely hope that you will seriously reconsider these things, perhaps in discussion with some of your students.

    Under the circumstances, I have no choice but to refrain from trying to post any comment on your site; I have said nothing that deserved to be censored, and if I have to sanitize my remarks, there’s obviously no point to it. I do not compromise when it comes to freedom.

    Good-bye, Professor, and best of luck.

    • i fully agree with your plea, see my comment to the same post.

      it indeed is neither the way the US went about the Osama assassination, neither the cover-up of a less then perfect attempt, that makes the US stand out in matters of efficiency and ethics to the rest of the world.

      my comments on the contrary have always been published though they often disagree or are critical of professor Cole.


  14. I agree. Releasing the photos will really accomplish nothing positive. Doubters of Bin Laden’s death will always be skeptical no matter what material you make public.

  15. I am in total agreement on why the publishing of those photos would be unwise (and lack class – good point).
    The basis for desiring the publishing of those photos is basically prurient and voyeuristic, myself included, but does not suffice as a good reason for publishing them, especially considering the downside risks.

    The thought occurred to me though – if someone really came up with a decision to publish them, why not just wait a year when the emotions surrounding the event will have died down.

    I still don’t think it’s a good idea though.
    Photos won’t really serve as evidence anyway – what with the use of Photoshop and all, doubters will doubt anyway.

  16. Comparing a photo of a dead UBL to footage of Saddam’s execution is a ridiculously false analogy. People aren’t demanding a photo of UBL to “spike the ball” as Obama fatuously put it. They would like to see evidence of how he died in the absence of a corpse, which the US pointlessly buried at sea.

    • When was the last time you demanded to see a corpse or a photograph of a corpse before believing the report of someone’s death?

    • The burial at sea was done for several reasons. In accordance with Islamic custom, burials are supposed to happen quickly. Burying him at sea allowed the U.S. to comply with that tradition. Although the burial at sea has apparently been controversial. From what I have read burial at sea is supposed to be an action of last resort for Muslims. Secondly, I believe the U.S. was interested in avoiding a specific burial site thereby denying his supporters a landmark. So the burial at sea was not pointless, it was done with fore thought.

  17. Thank you Juan. People may be very evil, and may be sentenced to death even in this country (USA), but because we consider ourselves to be decent as a society, we don’t all stand around and spit on that person or taunt them as they are walking to the gas chamber.

    • A very good example of setting the bar low . And if they were ‘spat upon’ then we could still say yes, ‘but they weren’t spat on twice’.

  18. It should be released in several years, in order to satisfy history, after plenty of time has elapsed to allow emotions to cool off.

    Obama should have made it clear that he is ordering it sealed for the remainder of his presidency, and let his successors decide when the time is right.

  19. Winston Churchill was right with the moral of his history of the Second World War: In War: Resolution – In Defeat: Defiance – In Victory: Magnanimity – In Peace: Goodwill.

  20. Dear Professor Cole

    The Pakistani Army will be justifiably nervous about a repeated raid to try and capture their store of Nuclear warheads.

    This is probably one of the US long term goals in that part of the world.

    Any unidentified helicopter will get dinged by a SAM form now on.

    It will be interesting to see which Generals get fired and if they catch the Air Force officer who turned a blind eye.

  21. I agree with everything you have written.

    I wish, though, I could say that it were a sense of decency and concern for the dignity of the dead that prevented the publication of the photos. We can safely rule that out. If decency & dignity were at play, the body wouldn’t have been dumped in the sea. Rather, pragmatic considerations of the type you have outlined explain the decision to not publish the photo (*and* the decision to dump the body in the sea). Fortunately, this is one case in which the pragmatic option is also the more humane option.


    • If decency & dignity were at play, the body wouldn’t have been dumped in the sea.

      I’m not sure where you’re writing from or what your cultural background is, but in the West, and particularly among naval personnel, a sea burial is not merely
      “dumping the body at sea,” but is a perfectly respectful funeral procedure. The United States Navy has similarly buried thousands of our own honored dead that way.

  22. The use of this sort of images for public consumption by a state who is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions is a violation of international law.

    That the Bush administration violated this when they provided the photos of Saddam Hussein’s killed sons, is simply another in a list of violations of international law his administration committed.

  23. The entire special forces saga is kept a total secret until something positive like this happens. What have they been doing all through the two wars? It seems we are expected to assume that they are very smart, brave, and cunning, in the absence of any evidence that it’s true.

    Politicians and the military are almost genetically incapable of saying anything that is not self serving. The blanket of military secrecy makes it much easier to get away with distortions and lies. We’ve seen countless pictures of innocent dead Iraqis and Afghans, killed in the name of “collateral damage”, so what’s the problem with showing a picture of this dead bad guy – they all look pretty much the same.

    I think that in the name of transparency and perspective, we should be told how many failed “kill/capture Osama missions” have been undertaken in the past, either by special forces, drone strikes, or whatever else a 500 billion a year military apparatus could throw at him. My guess is that they have been numerous. The only well publicized one was the 1997 cruise missile attack on his camp in Afghanistan – 70 missiles but the target lived on.

  24. I disagree with all of you– I think that this idea of “decency” and “classy behavior” is really just self-serving bullcrap in order to prevent nations from being indignant, and rightfully so.

    Why not show the world what it is that you do exactly? Why doesn’t Der Spiegel release the additional 4000 images of the Strkyer Unit in Afghanistan, instead of only three, in the alleged name of decency?

    The decent thing to do would be to release them so that people can become so horrified and inflamed worldwide that the acts themselves wouldn’t happen.

    It isn’t the pictures that are indecent– it is these acts of murder that are indecent.

    If the West doesn’t take responsibility for the heinous crimes it has committed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, then responsibility will come to it. One way or another– karma is coming.

    • Bin Laden already got his karma, hypocrite.

      You feign outrage that this butcher died violently, and then threaten millions of people with violent death, in a self-righteous tone?


  25. This may interest those of you who are not Google Earth addicts.

    I checked out Osama bin Laden’s property on Google Earth the moment his killing was reported. It included just the main house, a very small building in the back yard of that side of the compound, and the long garage-like building at the back of the property. The copyright on the Google Earth video was dated 2011.

    I was puzzled because all news reports that diagrammed his property showed more buildings – some more than others, but all showed more than appeared in this 2011 Google Earth photo.

    I’ve checked bin Laden’s property at least twice per day since then. It’s always appeared the same as the first time, until today.Today, Google Earth had brand-new photos of the property, with a copyright (also dated 2011, naturally) attributed to a different source. These photos showed all of the buildings that appeared in the most detailed of the diagrams accompanying news reports of bin Laden’s killing.

    Either Google Earth is posting photos that are a lot older than what they claim in their copyright notices, or there was quite a building spree on bin Laden’s property between the first of the year and now.

    I tend to think it’s the former. I noticed a similar phenomenon with Iran’s Fordow facility in late 2009, though that situation was a bit less clear. The photo was dated 2007, if I recall correctly, and showed very rudimentary surface features – no permanent building at all. The photo was updated shortly after the story broke, and voila: there was a bright white fully finished building of considerable size. Though two years had gone by, I remember being suspicious nonetheless that the construction had gone from nothing to fully complete in that short a time, especially since various analyses of the Fordow development had insisted that the project had been quite far along by 2007. Whether or not I ought to have been was and is unclear to me, but the recent bin Laden “update” makes me more suspicious in retrospect.

  26. I agree there’s no need to show Usama’s blown up head. But things like the wikileaked film of our troops shooting Afghani civilians we see far too little of. These wars would get less support if Americans were seeing the ugly realities on a daily basis.

  27. Thank you Professor Cole. I remember those terrible pictures of Saddam Hussain after he was hanged and I think such photos serve no positive purpose. I’m so glad that Obama is taking the moral high ground on this one.

    • The photos of the Saddam Hussein hanging did serve a useful purpose; albeit one that was unintended. It alerted people to the prospect that the new regime in Iraq was not likely to be an improvement over the old.

      As for President Obama taking the moral high ground. That is a stretch if the SEALS went in there to assassinate UBL in violation of international law, especially when he was unarmed.

  28. Here’s a way to get a better take on what people in Europe think of America and Americans, travel looking like you’re a Canadian.

    This happened to me after I did a ocean to ocean tour of Canada in 1976 by bicycle. The only souvenir I kept was a woolen hat as it ended in October was there was snow on the ground. That hat had a small Canadian flag knitted into to the front and from Canada I went to Europe via Icelandic Air which landed in Luxumbourg. I traveled to Paris, ran out of money, worked in Corsica, for the summer saving enough money to hitch through Europe and all over the U.K. and Ireland. That hat got me rides as people loved to complain about America’s actions to somebody who didn’t look like an American and I knew enough about Canada to pass my self off as one.

    The most repetitive saying was in England: “American’s are too over: Overpaid, oversexed, and over here.

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