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Why Obama Should Release the Bin Laden Photos

Withholding images like this impoverishes the public debate and hurts our ability to make informed judgments about the costs and benefits of war.

Judging from President Obama's appearance on 60 Minutes, it seems unlikely that the government will release photos of Osama Bin Laden's corpse. Ultimately, for Obama, releasing them would be tantamount to gloating. "We don't trot out this stuff as trophies," he said. "We don't need to spike the football."

But the government shouldn't be able to decide not to release an image like this just because such an action would make the government look undignified. As a rule, media that reflects the reality of what we're doing in war should be made public. That applies not only to pictures of Bin Laden's corpse, but to other images as well. Liberals were incensed when President Bush barred the release of photos of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and rightly so. Hiding them obscured the human cost of the war. Similarly, the images of abuse from Abu Ghraib brought those reprehensible practices to light, and made reforming them possible. Withholding images from war impoverishes the public debate and compromises our ability to make informed judgments about the costs and benefits of these conflicts.

Andrew Sullivan, who generally thinks that images from war should be made public, agrees with Obama in this case.

To put [Bin Laden's] head on a digital spike and display his mangled head is, indeed, not the Western way. We are better than that. [...] We don't torture and we respect the human dignity of even our worst enemies.


Releasing a photo of a man you shot in the face isn't the affront to human dignity. Shooting a man in the face is. Even if it's justified. Releasing the photo is simply being transparent about it.

It would have been better had Obama released the images of the corpse—along with any other material from the raid that doesn't compromise national security—and used the occasion as an opportunity to explain to the public why we should avoid triumphalism, talk about the importance of giving Bin Laden a burial that respects Islamic law, and deal squarely with the substantive legal and moral questions raised by the fact that this was clearly just a "kill mission."

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