Should the President Release the Photo of Osama?

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

The story is now should the President have released the photo officially. Jon Stewart and Sarah Palin both agree that he should, but for entirely different reasons. Palin wants it out to use as a warning to terrorists “When you attack us, this is what happens to you.” Stewart wants it released as a warning to citizens: “If you vote for a war, then this is what you are voting for.”

I disagree with both. The photo should stay secret.

Consider all the uncertainty around the legal status of terrorists. Are they soldiers? “Enemy combatants?” Criminals? These questions haven’t been effectively resolved. Releasing the photo of Osama would bring these questions to a disastrous head.

Osama was killed in his home. Was he shooting back and was simply killed in the melee? Or was it more akin to an assassination? Or was it more like a murder, or a hit? If it’s legal and acceptable for us to kill him in his home in the absence of a firefight, is it likewise legal for terrorists or enemy soldiers to attack our soldier’s homes in the U.S. and abroad?

Assume for a moment that there was an extradition agreement between Pakistan and the US. Does Pakistan have the right to demand the extradition of the solider who “committed murder” on Pakistani soil? On what grounds could we refuse? Did the existence of an extradition agreement, or lack thereof, enter into the strategic calculus that organized this operation?

What if Osama was unarmed? Would killing as opposed to capturing him under those circumstances be legal? Did the administration consider capturing him, and did concern over the potential fallout that would attend a trial in the US or a military tribunal in Gitmo dissuade them from caputuring him?

These questions about the legality of his killing are thorny and quite possibly unanswerable. But the answers would define who we are. Would we be the country of laws even when laws are inconvenient? Are we the country that defends itself at all costs using any tactics, legal and illegal, moral and immoral?

The only thing preventing these questions from becoming the central issue here and elsewhere is that the circumstances of Osama’s killing are unknown. Without some body of undisputed facts about his death, Osama’s killing is in something of an ethical/legal Schroedinger’s box for the government: as long as we don’t look inside and see what actually transpired, his killing is neither legal nor illegal. As long as the box is closed, we are neither a nation of blind justice or of brutal retribution.

But the moment you know (or can deduce from the photo) what happened, then all of these questions come to the fore, and the administration, and the country generally have to take a position on them. And that forces us to decide who we are. Our identity would coalesce around the facts of Osama’s death. If this is what we did, then this who we are.

Once that we know with certainty how we killed Osama bin Laden, there is no retreating back to ideological mythology. There would simply be facts: when tested, this is how we acted, because this is who we were all along. That’s the reality we aren’t ready to face.

Related posts:

  1. Osama bin Laden is dead. Now what?
  2. No Law For The Wicked
  3. “I blame the press”
  4. If you count psychological trauma, all war vets are casualties.
  5. This Is Where We’re Headed

13 Responses to Should the President Release the Photo of Osama?

  1. JohnJ says:

    “As long as the box is closed, we are neither a nation of blind justice or of brutal retribution.”

    Using your reasoning would make us into a nation of cowards. Thank goodness there are better reasons to not release the photos. For example, the photos could become a focus for antiAmerican sentiment and inspire antiAmericanism throughout the world, much as the Abu Ghraib photos did.

    • Pastabagel says:

      I dont really understand how you get to cowardice from what i wrote, but I guess the criticism is that we don’t want to be called cowards by others? Or we don’t want to think of ourselves as cowards?

      • JohnJ says:

        You’re saying that we won’t release the photos because we are afraid of confronting the reality that we are either a nation of blind justice or brutal retribution. If the reason we don’t release the photos is because we’re afraid of that, then that’s cowardice. However, there are other perfectly valid reasons for not releasing the photos. So where you choose to see this as proof that we are either a nation of blind justice or brutal retribution, I don’t think it means that.

        • TTFIO says:

          The best argument, or at least the one most often articulated (which immediately makes me think it’s probably wrong), is just the one you made: releasing the photos would inspire anti-Americanism and endanger the lives of citizens abroad.

          But why? Why would the photos inspire that? Will the people who plotted to kill Americans on Friday work harder to kill Americans after the photo? Or are you talking about people who didn’t hate America on Friday? If so, what about the photo would inspire that?

          I don’t think PB is suggesting that we’re afraid of seeing what the photos might say about America, but maybe that we simply don’t want to be defined by this particular act (which, as usual, would get us into a discussion of how else we CAN be defined, but I’ll leave that to TLP).

          I dunno, man. Personally, I just think seeing the photos would be bad for our soul.

    • rocketfingers says:

      Wrong. The photos didn’t create the resentment and anger; the actions they captured did.

  2. larrykoubiak says:

    Forget the picture, the only fact that people celebrated Osama’s death in the streets shows how globally US feels about it : who needs justice when you have a gun, and yay one down, more to go.
    Just like the footage you saw of arabs dancing around after 9/11, the US displayed an unabashed joy at the news , and while i can perfectly understand the reason, i still can’t find that right, even if it’s Osama we’re talking about.
    It shows that this mess is nowhere near the end, and that whoever strikes next, either in retaliation or in “preemptive strike”, will only escalate in violence, which i think we can agree is no good news.

  3. Leucrotta says:

    Yes every WW2 dictator deaths has some photo evidence….next

  4. Leucrotta says:

    larrykouiak..are you insane with a mustache? Would you celebrate if Hitler was killed/died? Of course how is this different? When the Allies fire bombed Germany till nothing was left..should the 8th Airforce have stopped? No..this is war and this war had one face and it was UBL….ask Northern Ireland or England how is it like living with terrorists you need faces and image to rally around.

  5. larrykoubiak says:

    Well, it didn’t take long to reach the Godwin point it seems…
    But to answer your question i wouldn’t celebrate, i might feel some kind of relief if he had died but i wouldn’t pop up the champagne over it.
    I was merely pointing out the fact that maybe it isn’t wise to celebrate the death of someone, whoever it is. I’m ready to believe it could have happened legally, that he did shoot etc… fine.
    But celebrating just shows that it was the outcome you wished for, and that doesn’t sit well with a country defending democracy, fair trial and whatnot.
    You just elevated Osama to the martyr status, and he will be regarded as a hero back in Al-Qaeda.
    I’m just not sure that will prevent them to take further action, it might just encourage them.
    So party on if you want, but don’t act surprised if they are even more pissed off at the US than before.
    You would be pissed at them too if they had assassinated Bush instead (ok maybe not a great example).

    • boeotarch says:

      I wasn’t exactly at the point of partying over it, but I found the news pretty satisfying. He was our enemy and we killed him in a firefight. Regardless of what legal status we decide to give him retroactively, I’m sure he saw himself as a combatant, and I really can’t see any reason to feel there was anything unjust about how he was killed. We even went and gave the guy a decent burial. Now we can celebrate the end of an era and the death of a sworn enemy, even if in strategic terms little has changed.

      Regarding the martyr issue: I really could not care less whether he’s a martyr to them or not.

      Regarding the “violence only begets more violence” trope: this is only true up to the point where one side wins.

      Also, @Pastabagel’s reply to JohnJ:
      Avoiding tough questions because the answers might not be pretty definitely smacks of cowardice at worst and a general lack of principle at best. I’m against showing the pictures because it’s distasteful to show an enemy’s bullet-riddled corpse -we don’t let our soldiers do it and our administration shouldn’t do it either- but not doing it solely to put off answering legitimate and serious questions about what our country does? Cowardly.

  6. Nik says:

    Not everyone celebrated, I think most evaluated the event somberly in their homes. But there are no news cameras there.
    To address your post, if the pictures are released and they some how prove that the SEALs acted “legally” it doesn’t open up the debate. It would actually help us ignore the questions, “Would we be the country of laws even when laws are inconvenient? Are we the country that defends itself at all costs using any tactics, legal and illegal, moral and immoral?” because we could say, “Look, we did everything by the book, case closed”. Now if it was a brutal assassination with the blood of innocents and a reprimand from Pakistan for breaking its laws, then we have a conversation. Right now, we’re some where in between.

  7. operator says:

    That’s the reality we aren’t ready to face.

    Be careful, talk like that will get you tazered and shipped off to a secret prison for stress positions and waterboarding.

  8. BluegrassJack says:

    So, we’re sure that Osama is dead?