Obama, Bin Laden and the politics of pictures

Pictures of Osama Bin Laden (L) and Barack Obama (R) projected at a meeting of an Islamist group in Jakarta, Indonesia - 4 May 2011

Related Stories

The plan is that President Barack Obama will remain silent on Thursday.

He is here in New York to visit Ground Zero and meet relatives of victims of the attacks on America 10 years ago. Vice-President Joe Biden is doing a similar thing at the Pentagon in Washington.

When I first heard about the event, I expected it to be accompanied by a fairly meaty speech. Failing that, I thought there would be some dignified remarks about unity. But it has been decided otherwise.

The president's spokesman, Jay Carney, has said that it is fitting and appropriate for the president to visit Ground Zero and honour the victims in the wake of Bin Laden's death, which he called a significant and cathartic moment for the American people.

After laying a wreath, the president will meet relatives of victims of the 9/11 attacks and some of the emergency services who were first on the scene.

Mr Carney explained the president's planned silence by saying he would honour the spirit of unity that was felt after that attack 10 years ago. The power of that requires no words.


Some are more worried about the absence of pictures than words. Sarah Palin has said the photographs of Bin Laden's corpse should have been released as a warning to America's enemies, and called Mr Obama's decision "pussy-footing around". Several Republicans in Congress agree with her.

Ground Zero in New York - 2 May 2011 New York's Ground Zero is still a building site nearly 10 years after 9/11

The president told CBS, in an interview to be broadcast at the weekend:

"It is 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. That's not who we are. We don't trot out this stuff as trophies.

"The fact of the matter is this was somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received, and I think Americans and people around the world are glad that he is gone. But we don't need to spike the football*. And I think that given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk - and I've discussed this with Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton and my intelligence teams, and they all agree."

So do some Republicans. The idea that not releasing is unwise may play, and I strongly expect the world will one day see these pictures.

The idea that it is weak to worry about the response it may create will only play with a certain crowd, and not one the president has any chance of winning over. But his silent wreath-laying will be seen by millions and that image may too be a tool, in the president's campaign to be seen as above partisan politics. Politics is never so political as when it is claiming not to be.

*Spiking the football means to rub one's nose in something - from the taunting habit of celebrating a touchdown in American football by throwing the ball to the ground.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

Could Blue Labour capture party's soul?

The Blue Labour movement could yet play a key role in determining the party's future, says the BBC's Mark Mardell.

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    It's a difficult situation. Photographic evidence is only as realiable as the photographer. Do photographs really contribute anything to the situation? Or is it that we're conditioned to seeing these images? Have we learnt that pictures are what accompany such events? It all reminds me of the 'Death of Marat' by David which became part of French Revolutionary iconography.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    What about the wife who was shot in the leg? Is she alive in Pakistan? She's the only survivor - if she is still alive. How come journalists are not asking more questions about her?
    Was she left behind or was she removed from the scene together with Bin Laden's body and the Seals in the one operational helicopter? Where was she taken? And how about the bodies of the dead? Who has them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Its amazing how much conspiracy theories are running around about this, this simple answer is that he is infact dead, thats very much obvious, if he was alive then he would have made that clear and disgraced the US.

    Maybe they could have taken him alive but who are we to comment on the situation that the soldiers were in, i will believe the elite soldiers present over speculators any day

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Mr Obama has been very wise in refusing to allow any photo's of Bin Laden's body to be shown. If Bin Laden is still alive he will surely make it known to the world and if he is dead, photo's will not convince either side one way or the other.

    The only people who will be happy if photo's are released are ghouls like Palin and her ilk and those who want to make political capital and more conflict.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Pictures of a corpse? Why not catch him alive in the first place? In a civilized country the rule of law must prevail and be applied to everyone without exception. Nationals, foreigners, friends or enemies: All people must go through an impartial trial. The US has now shown the world that it is acceptable to execute an enemy without trial - How can now we denounce others when they do it?



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.