Should photos of Bin Laden's corpse be released?

Newspapers There are fears how photos of Bin Laden dead would be received in the Middle East

President Barack Obama has announced he will not release photos that show Osama Bin Laden with a bullet hole in his head, but a heated debate in the US about whether they should be publicly shown goes on.

It seems a long time ago now, but only last week the president of the United States felt forced to produce his original birth certificate to quell doubts about his nationality.

Now the White House has again found itself under pressure to produce proof of an event which most people do not doubt happened - the death of Bin Laden, shot twice by US forces in north-west Pakistan.

There is no corpse. The US says it disposed of Bin Laden's body in the ocean because it would have been difficult to find a country willing to take it in time. There has also been speculation this also avoided a burial place becoming a shrine.

Officials say they have proof of his identity - DNA tests carried out on the remains are said to have shown a "virtually 100%" match with the DNA of his relatives.

But attention has turned to the existence of photographs taken after Bin Laden's death. The White House has a photo of Bin Laden with a large head wound across both eyes, plus other photos of his corpse and of the burial at sea.

On Wednesday afternoon, in comments to be broadcast later, President Obama announced he would not be releasing the photos, saying the "very graphic images" could incite violence and become propaganda tools.

Initially, those calling for release of photographs were people, mostly in the Middle East, who accused the US of deception.

Start Quote

Leon Panetta

I don't think there was any question that ultimately a photograph would be presented to the public”

End Quote Leon Panetta CIA director

"This news is only coming from one side, from Obama's office, and American has not shown any evidence or proof to support this claim," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement.

Blogs, message boards and web pages - including a Facebook group entitled "Osama Bin Laden not dead" - have been filled with suggestions that the US government faked the raid.

Many people in Pakistan have also expressed doubt that he has been killed, and in a debate run by the BBC's Asian Network on Monday, some British Muslims were sceptical too.

But on Wednesday, a growing number of voices in the US political scene joined the fray, saying there was an inevitability about the pictures emerging at some point.

"The government, obviously, has been talking about how best to do this, but I don't think there was any question that ultimately a photograph would be presented to the public," said CIA director Leon Panetta.

He was speaking before Mr Obama's announcement, but after it, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican in South Carolina, said the decision not to release the photos was an error that would "unnecessarily prolong this debate".

"I respectfully disagree with President Obama's decision not to release the photos. It's a mistake," said Mr Graham.

"The whole purpose of sending our soldiers into the compound, rather than an aerial bombardment, was to obtain indisputable proof of Bin Laden's death.

"I know Bin Laden is dead. But the best way to protect and defend our interests overseas is to prove that fact to the rest of the world."

The ethical argument

Dilemmas like this show how the distinction between principles and pragmatism is a false one. To not take into account likely practical consequences is morally irresponsible.

To think there is a simple principle that would tell you whether to release images like this, regardless of circumstances, is naive. That means actions sometimes seem inconsistent. For example, a nuclear-armed tyrant is treated less aggressively than one who looks like he could be toppled without unleashing Armageddon.

Good ethical decision-making requires both a sound grasp of principles and acute sensitivity to the particulars of context. No moral philosopher who lacks the latter can in this case simply decree what is right.

The possibility of a legal challenge to the White House's decision was also raised when at least two senior lawyers said a request made under the Freedom of Information Act would have a strong case.

The US has been in this position before. In July 2003, it was criticised for releasing graphic photos of the corpses of Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay to prove that US forces had killed them. But the move was arguably a success in silencing most conspiracy theorists.

Three years later, a photo of al-Qaeda's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was released after his safehouse in Iraq was bombed by US forces.

Before the president's announcement, it was reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates were advising him not to.

They fear that the photos might make the US look like it is revelling in Bin Laden's death, and spark reprisals in the Arab world.

That's a view expressed by one of the people who has seen the photos, Republican Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He's worried their release could endanger US troops.

"I don't want to make the job of our troops serving in places like Iraq and Afghanistan any harder than it already is.

"The risks of release outweigh the benefits. Conspiracy theorists around the world will just claim the photos are doctored anyway, and there is a real risk that releasing the photos will only serve to inflame public opinion in the Middle East.

"Imagine how the American people would react if al-Qaeda killed one of our troops or military leaders, and put photos of the body on the internet.

"Osama Bin Laden is not a trophy - he is dead and let's now focus on continuing the fight until al-Qaeda has been eliminated."

'Self-portrait'

There are also those who say there is a principle at stake, that showing Bin Laden's corpse would compromise the way the US has so far conducted itself and the photo could become a rather soiled, defining image of the story.

Writing in The New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch, says: "Did we learn nothing from the past decade about the overwhelming power of crude images of violence to define and polarise our historical moment?

"The Abu Ghraib photographs were unofficial documents of an official policy that was supposed to be kept secret, but if nothing else, they should have taught us that a photograph of the violence you inflict is always, in very large measure, a self-portrait.

"In getting rid of Bin Laden, Obama has made the greatest step yet toward being able to put that era behind us. Do we want a photo of Bin Laden's bullet-punctured skull to eclipse this moment?"

The raid projected fearless professionalism and was without swagger and gloating, he believes, and marked a move away from the "smoke 'em out" rhetoric of the Bush administration.

"The assassination of Bin Laden allows us to begin turning the page - but surely not if that page is printed with an official trophy photograph of his blasted head."

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