To Display the Dead

Probably this is the thousandth article about what happened last sunday. But for once I decided to join in on the play of thoughts and write some myself. Would love to hear yours about this in the comments below.
By now, we’ve already heard extensive reports about how exactly the operation was carried out, what intelligence efforts led Obama and his military there and what might be possible consequences. I won’t waste a lot of words about all this, just check out the links if you want to get deeper.
It’s clear that Bin Laden’s killing marked an important point for the US respectively for Obama – if not in the real struggle against terrorism, at least in the domestic opinion war before next year’s elections.
As an US administration official said in a press briefing the day after, it was „America’s most vexing intelligence problem, where to find bin Laden.“ And it’s undoubtedly true when he proudly continues „Since 9/11, this is what the American people have expected of us, and today, in this critical operation, we were able to finally deliver.
Of course one can – and has to – ask if this really was what in the same news conference was called „a surgical raid“ to „decapitat[e] the head of the snake known as al Qaeda.“ respectively what that’s supposed to mean in a less biased evaluation of the detached political reality and ‚on the ground‘.
But it’s unquestionable that this means some kind of victory for the USA. And Obama certainly did this with good timing, as an op-ed on Al-Jazeera wittingly remarks: „the killing of Osama was a secret the Obama administration did well to hide from the world till after Will and Kate’s wedding in Britain.
Also, I don’t want to go into the legality issue of the killing that is discussed by legal experts and moral amateurs everywhere and which untimately leads to all the broader questions of the geo-political uni-lateral policies of the USA’s Global War on Terror (a typical Bush-phrase which Obama is prudent enough not to use anymore; his understated label is the technical ‚Overseas Contingency Operation‚).
Compared to these issues, the thing that struck my attantion and interests me in this posting, may seem to be (or is) a rather small detail: It’s the allegedly existing post-mortem photo of Osama Bin Laden*)
* in the following shortened & mystified to OBL, also to avoid [the notorious confusion between Osama & Obama^^]

Obama's Situation Room
Live Stream in Obama's Situation Room - Quelle: dpa

Show the World that he is dead

It seems the reporters just assumed that there have to be photos when they asked if the administration will realease any: „I’m wondering where you are at this point on the idea of releasing photos of bin Laden to show the world that he is dead.“ and then trying again: „Is there some thought, though, that releasing a photo or two might avoid conspiracy theories throughout the Muslim world?
Maybe it was already mentioned in some initial official statement, but there surely is the assumption that there can’t be an event like this without images.
Supposedly the practical need to take photos was the identification: The photos were probably sent to some analysis center in Langley to compare them with the Osama family photos from when he was still „walking on this earth“ as Obama put it.
To cut the long story about the probing questions by journalists concerning the release of the photo(s) short, in the meantime President Obama himself has announced his decision not to make the photos available to the public in an interview with CBS, cunningly playing it both as a security and a dignity issue.
Question:  Did you see the pictures?
The President:  Yes.
Question:  What was your reaction when you saw them?
The President:  It was him.
Question:  Why didn’t you release them?
The President:  We discussed this internally.  Keep in mind that we are absolutely certain that this was him.  We’ve done DNA sampling and testing and so there is no doubt that we killed Osama bin Laden.  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.
The truth is that we were monitoring worldwide reaction.  There is no doubt that bin Laden is dead.  Certainly there is no doubt among al Qaeda members that he is dead.  And so we don’t think that a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference.  There are going to be some folks who deny it.  The fact of the matter is you will not see bin Laden walking on this Earth again.“
Obama’s press secretary then said „his decision is categorical„. Of course we should probably doubt the categorical nature of government secrets in the age of WikiLeaks. According to Julien Assange’s political philosophy, everything a government wants to keep secret, should be publicised. But then again, we can ask ourselves if the photo – or the photos – are really a secret, or just a confidential document whose content is already known. Maybe some time in the near or distant future, we will actually see the image. If this happens, I’m sure it’s only half as interesting as we now think it is. Of course, given the current uproar about it, it will be presented by the media with much hoopla.

♦ 1) Scepticism ♦

So one initial reason the journalists respectively the public wanted – and want – to see the photo is the scepticism about OBL’s death. They demand the photo as a proof and as long as they don’t see it, they don’t (fully) believe. The public says: ‚We know that there is a photo (they said so right?), so we want to see it. (After all it’s impossible that there is no photo.) Otherwise we don’t accept it as real‚ So it seems some people don’t believe the story, but they believe the story about the photo, and want to see it to be able to believe the whole story… tricky.

But as Obama already said, some people would deny the validity of any proof (just as they’re still debating their president’s birth certificate.) The appearance of faked photos (reappearance of old ones) shows that we have long passed the time when a photo was considered „not an argument [but] simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye„, as Virginia Woolf once claimed. We slowly beginn to accept the photoshopped reality as a basis for our handling of visual media.
Meanwhile, you should fight your urges to get your eyes on the pic: According to Al-Jazeera Englishthe FBI has warned computer users against clicking on links in unsolicited emails purporting to show photographs or video of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The Bureau says the links may contain viruses that can steal personal identification information or infect a computer.
Of course one can dismiss all these manifestations of scepticism as obsolete, since Al-Qaidah already confirmed OBL’s death in an online posting. So when ‚the opposite side‘ acknowledges the fact / the story, the photographic ‚proof‘ has become unnecessary.
But in fact, after all the discussions about its publication, we already know what we would see:
„Why would you not release a photograph of bin Laden?“
„MR. CARNEY:  Well, to be candid, there are sensitivities here in terms of the appropriateness of releasing photographs of Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of this firefight, and we’re making an evaluation about the need to do that because of the sensitivities involved.  And we review this information and make this decision with the same calculation as we do so many things, which is what we’re trying to accomplish and does it serve or in any way harm our interests.  And that is not just domestic, but globally.“
Q    Can you explain sensitivities?  Because it’s a gruesome photograph, that that —
MR. CARNEY:  It’s fair to say that it’s a gruesome photograph.
Q    That it could be inflammatory?  That’s the sensitivity you’re —
MR. CARNEY:  It is certainly possible that — and this is an issue that we are taking into consideration, is that it could be inflammatory.
Q    Jay, have you seen it?
MR. CARNEY:  I’m not going to get into who and where — who’s seen the photographs or where they are.
We can imagine what that photo looks like quite well taking all the gruesome pictures we have in our storehouse of images of violence and war and combining them.
But we want ‚the real one‘. Why?

2) Our Visual Hunger & Thirst

Why is our hunger for images – „soif d’images“ as the French photographer Willy Ronis called it – so insatiable?
In the meantime, the US administration made some moving images available, both from the operation and from OBL’s homevideo shelf, to satisfy the media and keep the story going. Upon the first look, I would say they help demystify him without using the gruesome photo(s) of his death but through his own video recordings – with one difference: OBL has been silenced / deprived of his voice.
Apparently there are already mods for egoshooter games out there, simulating the Navy SEALs mission on the basis of the official narrative and video the US government has provided. In these adaptations the mission target is of course clearer than in the official reality: ‚Kill Osama‚.
The narrative of the operation we were presented is the perfect example for what Susan Sontag calls teleintimacy: Supposedly Obama and his team were following the mission live from the White House Situation Room as can be seen on a much published photo. (The US government could also have sold the rights for a live TV broadcast last sunday to the highest bider in order to get some money and reduce its deficit).
The whole story about the photo is in fact nothing new:
  • There’s a photo of the dead Bismarck for which the photographers went as far as bribing their way into the dead’s bedroom and for which they were sentenced to jail. The photo was only published after World War 2.
  • In 1945 the strong demand for a photo showing the defeated Hitler was met by the Sowjets who presented a visual proof of his dead body, allegedly taken by a German officer before the corpse was burned. It’s considered to be a fake shot of a Hitler look-alike though.

3) ‚Equality in Dignity and Rights‘ ♦

In most (critical) comments about the issue the key term is DIGNITY. The debate about the theoretically universal concept of dignity also applies to ‚well-known and long-condemned ‚mass murderers‘, as Bin Laden is mostly called.
Those who argue on a moral basis find that (even?) OBL has still dignity as a dead human being, or that at least he regained his dignity now he is dead. Ethically, I have to agree here. Even though the OBL we & the world knew never really was a human being – until last sunday when he retired as a ‚person of public interest‘. He was more than that or something else: We saw him as the mysthical video celebrity he stylised himself as. He was an artificial figure, an actor playing his part: our dear personalisation of evil. Or as Robert Misik puts it in his obituary: „the first iconographic figure of the new millenium.“ [read the very interesting text in German here]

♦ Thanatography ♦

In a way, a photo always shows death. „Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death.“ Sontag Sontag says in her last book from 2003. The memento mori is at the core of what photography is. Photography is Thantography.
But when this is taken litterally, when we really see death in a close-up, it’s too much. It breaks the chain of reference, for once the photo is what it shows: The absence of life (time). It seems that is almost a pictural sacrilege.
Photos of ‚the dead and the dying‘ – to „seize the death in making(Sontag 2003:21) – have always been the most shocking pictures: be it the photos the Khmer Rouge took of prisoners moments before their exection or the famous „shot“ of the South-Vietnamese general executing a Vietkong suspect in a street of Saigon, specially staged for the photo-journalists, showing us the exact moment of death when the bullet hits the head, just as Capa’s much disputed falling „Republican soldier„. Or ‚just‘ some nameless African famine victim we could see in the newspaper so often if we cared (Susan Sontag calls it the „succession of unforgettable photographs of large-eyed victims„). Photographic death has been used and reused in various conflicts as a moral incitement, sometimes with the same photo by both sides (e.g. in the Spanish Civil War or the most recent European war in the Balkans)
The Real Post-Mortem Photo of Osama
The Real Post-Mortem Photo of Osama
With OBL it’s of course a bit different. Contrary to other photos of ‚the dead and dying‘, one can’t argue they are necessary or at least helpful to convince people of the existance of suffering and to do something about it (an argument that is anything but convincing as Sontag debates through 117 pages). There’s nobody to be convinced about OBL’s moral status, no attention to be created and surely no empathy. The only theme this photo has, is defeat, taken by the victorious just like a trophy. Here Susan Sontag’s analogie between shooting a photo and shooting with a gun becomes evident. In her essays ‚On Photography‚ from the 1970ies she even describes the hunt for pictures as a substitute for the real one (instead of killing safaris there are now photo safaris where you shoot the wildlife with you tele). In war one shooting is constantly following the other, tracking his trail of blood. And it’s only secondary if there’s a critical intention involved, as most war photographers would claim since the Vietnam war.
In ‚Reagarding the Pain of Others‘ there’s the example of a headline photo triptych in the NY times from november 2001:
It „depicted the fate of a wounded Taliban soldier in uniform who had been found in a ditch by Northern Alliance soldiers advancing towards Kabul. First panel: being dragged on his back by two of his captors […] Second panel (the camera is very near): surrounded, gazing up in terror as he is being pulled to his feet. Third panel: at the moment of death, supine with arms outstreched and knees bent, naked and bloodied from the waist down, being finished off by the military mob that has gathered to butcher him.(Sontag 2003:12/65)
Everyone of us knows the morbid delight we (unwillingly?) take in ‚Regarding the pain of Others‘, as the title of Sontag’s great book goes. There she also says that in the end it’s not the moral issue of Dignity that decides about whether a picture is shown or not, it’s the distance between the spectatorship and the person on the photo, the potential for empathy.
She tells us about what one could call the ‚colonial gaze‘: as long the person portrayed, alive or dead, is far away somewhere in the periphery of ‚the world‘, we seem not to care much about the dignity and the rights of this ‚human being‘, at least concerning photos: „The more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and dying.“ (Sontag 2003:63)
But if the disaster happens somewhere close, we will have a hard time finding photos of dead people in many cases, and certaily not one identifying the person.
Susan Sontag remdinds us of the almost unanimous consensus not to show any victims in the photos of the 9/11 aftermath. Can you remember any? Even an anonymous body without the face? No? That’s because there is none (at least not in my personal collective memory). The two notable exceptions are the ‚Falling Man‘ and the photo of a severed hand in the ruins (by Todd Maisel). Both were anonymous of course. And both were regarded as something extraordinary and in the second case denounced as inappropriate. „This novel insistence on good taste„, as Sontag calls it, „may be puzzling. But it makes sense if understood as obscuring a host of concerns and anxieties about public order and public morale.“ And she continues „With our dead, there has always been a powerful interdiction against showing the naked face. […] This is a dignity not thought necessary to accord to others.“ (Sontag 2003:63f)
And using Susan Sontag once more in relation to our discussion of the unknown photo of OBL, we can also draw a parallel with the notorious photos from the Bagdad Abu Ghraib prison which she discussed shorty before her death in 2004 in an NYtimes essay [Reagarding the Torture of Others LINK]. There she reminds us that photography played a key role in the torture and in fact was used as a method of humiliation. The pictures the soldiers took, posing together with their victims as a souvenir, some of which we know too well, were the reason the whole story became a story and a scandal at all.
If the photo of Osama was published, we couldn’t help but place it in the same category of humiliation. Because in the end the iconography usually overrides the abstract knowledge; „a photograph has the deeper bite“ it is „like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb.“ (Sontag 2003: 19)

4) ♦ Moral Issues Aside ♦

These moral issues aside, we can finally ask which interests are involved in showing / not showing this photo. Or as Obama’s press secretary put it: „And then you have to take a look at it from the standpoint of what are the upsides and downsides.
For Obama the upsides are not really big: what counts PR-wise, is the fact, i.e. the credible story, that he hunted down enemy no 1. This narrative doesn’t need the images, it stands for itself almost as good with words as with images, because it’s a heroic action story, concrete with lots of details in the style of any good one-man army movie from Hollywood. I would argue that in this case the lack of images combined with the unsatisfied demand for them worked even better.
On the negative side, there are not only the incitement amongst Muslims / in the Arab World – a fear that is not unfounded even if one has to acknowledge that OBL was anything but popular among the majority of Muslims. But with this image, the narrative of the justified (albeit not entirely legitimate) retaliation the US wants to put out there is likely to topple. Then it becomes the well-known and unfortunately well-founded story of the USA as self-proclaimed ‚globocop‘ exercising its power in the Rambo style, denounced as „neo-imperialism“ since the Cold War. I think it’s save to say that it is, for a variety of reasons, one of Obama’s global interests to challenge this narrative of the USA as the Chuck Norris of World Politics (unlike his predecessor). Although it’s no secret that the practical implementation of this policy had led to the rise the terrorist OBL in the first place [as very well explained here by American Professor Juan Cole], this is probably not the direction Obama wants to go (this is of course open for debate) and certainly not the spin he wants to present. His message here is „to display the dead, after all, is what the enemy does.“ (Sontag 2003:57).


Obviously there are some hardliners who think and twitter differently:
@SarahPalinUSA: „Show photo as warning to others seeking America’s destruction. No pussy-footing around, no politicking, no drama;it’s part of the mission“.
But even Republican House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers went as far as applying empathy sayingImagine 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.
Obama clearly stated that „We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies […] this is not who we are.
At least the message is right. That’s already something, isn’t it?
Al-Qaida on the other hand probably would have a little bit of a problem handling the ambivalent message of defeat and victimisation such a photo would inevitably convey. They will declare OBL a martyr using a long tradition of religious narratives about suffering and death. And to a handful of people (including OBL himself maybe) this death is probably worth more than a silent passing away [see the Al-Jazeera op-ed „Osama’s death ‚a good career move‘?„] – but the image doesn’t change anything about that and given the supposedly bloody look it’s probably not a very good icon to worship. So I guess they’re fine if Obama keeps it hidden.
Remains to debate the public’s interest, whoever ‚the public‘ is and which: Some journalists tried to invoke the hypothetical question if the families of the 9/11 victims – who apparently enjoy a rather sacred position in the US – have a right to see the image. In plain words that means if they should be allowed to savour the bittersweet taste of vengeance projected onto and simplified by the gruesome image of a man shot in the head. I doubt this is what helps the memory and dignity of their lost relatives. And I also doubt that the majority of them is that blood-thirsty (after all they don’t come from the Bible belt but from New York, one could argue).
Justice has been done‚ and proclaimed by Obama – in New York he saidour commitment to making sure that justice is done is something that transcended politics„. I’m not sure it’s such a godd thing to transcend politics, but that’s what narratives, photographic or not do: they „dismiss politics“ as Sontag puts it.
For the Amicans this is a matter of hurt national collective feelings and we can just hope that the indignation America’s Pride received on 9/11 can be repaired and satisfied by such a symbolic act of revenge and that as a collective, voting a president next year, they can now refrain from a We-against-Islam policy.
Globally, the story of OBL’s death comes at a time when the more or less peaceful alternative to his strategy and his goals became all of a sudden not only possible, but successful. This, again, has and is been discussed elsewhere in extenso and by far more professional people and it has nothing to do with this posting’s topic. So I’ll just stop here and switch back to the spectator’s role, leaning back in the media’s armchair. Let’s see what the next decade brings – for OBL’s death together with the Arab Spring really is a nice world-historical bracket: from 9/11 to May the 1st, from New York to Abbottabad and probably from Black&White to Color.
And concerning the photo:
Maybe it’s better OBL’s end stays in the non-visual dark.
Maybe it’s better we don’t see everything.
Maybe this gives us the chance to think and understand instead of watching.
Michael Appleton for the NY times - for more about the photo click it
Michael Appleton for the NY times - for more about the photo click it


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