Saturday, June 11, 2011

On the Matter of the Bin Laden Photograph

by Mariana Ashley


In the past couple weeks we have seen quite a controversey stir regardng the matter of the Bin Laden photograph. Generally, as you know, the controversy arises from the basic question: should the United States government release the 'death photo'?

On every news show and political radio channel, you can see and hear plenty of opinionated people giving their strident opinions on the issue. And, as is common with Americans 24/7 news cycle, these talking heads have managed to fill all hours of the day and night with arguments that are, essentially, unfortunate reductions of the issue at hand.

Because, really, what we're talking about isn't one little photograph, but instead a portfolio of fifteen photographs, some from the scene of the house in Abbottabad and others from aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson. Additionally, we're talking about this issue within the greater context of how images can suddenly define a moment in history and create effects for years afterward. Why would President Obama have put such emphasis on the release of the photograph from the situation room that was taking during the raid? Next, think especially how an image can be twisted both for political ends, as was the case of President Bush's now infamous Mission Accomplish photograph, or for humorous ends, as was suddenly the case when the situation room photograph received its own hilarious treatment. And of course, there's the matter of how such a photograph would be treated by the rest of the world upon its release.

So to argue as to whether or not the photograph should be released in order to prove that bin Laden is dead is a severe reduction of the issue at hand.


Perhaps the best argument that I have read concerning the idea that the government should not release of the bin Laden photographs was written by Philip Gourevitch and posted on the website of The New Yorker. In the article, Gourevitch says:

ABC News is reporting that the first image of bin Laden that the White House may show us is “bloody and gruesome, with a bullet wound to his head above his left eye.” If it’s released, this is the image that will instantly supplant every other account of Sunday’s raid as the iconic representation of America’s moment of triumph over its most wanted enemy. Is that what we want—the official equivalent of the Saddam hanging video? Did we learn nothing from the past decade about the overwhelming power of crude images of violence to define and polarize our historical moment?

And the photographs truly are gruesome, according to U.S. Senator James Inhofe. He spoke at length about the photographs to The Atlantic Wire, saying that they depicted massive head wounds and "the brains were coming out of his [eye] socket."

Gourevitch understands here that what is most important is how images are incredibly powerful in this day and age to define significant moments in history, and it is this signification that leads to all other consequences. So, discussions about how these images could put troops in danger or how these images could prove that bin Laden is dead both stem from the same seed: humankind's fascination with imagery, and how that fascination can take root in our minds to certain effects. In a sense, they are already compromised: American troops are always in a certain degree of danger and those who want to believe that bin Laden remains alive are not going to be swayed by a photograph. Unfortunately, many discussion overlook this factor, and instead seek to create a reductive dichotomy of 'us vs. them,' either political or cultural, that creates division when unification is more desirable.


Of course, all of the above is extremely idealistic in nature. It would be wonderful if every argument and discussion took place within an easily understandable context that all parties respected. However, one of our faults as intelligent creatues is that we struggle to take into account universals as we simultaenously examine specifics. The contexts we try to understand drastically differ from the reality out there.

The debate will rage on, though eventually many of us will forget about it, and then one day, the photos will be leaked. Until that day comes, I, for one, am more than happy to avoid seeing them.

Mariana Ashley is a freelance writer who particularly enjoys writing about online colleges. She loves receiving reader feedback, which can be directed to


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