Society overwhelmingly is the beneficiary when information is readily available and freely shared. But that benefit is not absolute. President Obama is acting responsibly in refusing to release graphic photographs of Osama bin Laden’s body. Some of the president’s arguments are more persuasive than others, but those who would have him publicize the photos have almost no compelling argument.
After a debate among his advisors, Obama decided not to make the photos public because, as he put it in a television interview, “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.” He added: “That’s not who we are. You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”
The release of the photos might not be any more a spur to anti-American violence than the simple fact of Bin Laden’s death, though we would defer to the intelligence community on that question. We’re likewise skeptical of the notion that publication of the photos would lead to an extreme surge in anti-American propaganda, though that too is possible.
Obama’s best argument is that it would be unseemly for the United States to flaunt photos of Bin Laden as “trophies.” Whether such triumphalism would incite unrest is not the point. Like the decision to give Bin Laden a dignified burial at sea, the refusal to disseminate graphic photographs bespeaks this country’s conviction — admittedly sometimes honored in the breach — that war is not an excuse to degrade the enemy. Bin Laden was a vicious terrorist, but that is no cause for desecration of his remains — or the exposition of his wounds.
The principal argument for releasing the photos is that their publication would rebut theories that Bin Laden is alive. The credible counterargument is that skeptics about Bin Laden’s death — not all of them, but a significant majority — will be unpersuaded by release of the photos and will claim that they were doctored. Regardless of the evidence, they will persist in their denial — just as some “birthers” have been unpersuaded by Obama’s release of his long-form birth certificate.
The time may come when these photographs will be made available to the public. In the current environment, in which Bin Laden’s heirs continue to threaten the United States, the president is right to keep these “trophies” under wraps.