One of the surprising details of the death of Osama Bin Laden since President Obama’s announcement near midnight Sunday night has been the absence of what Shakespeare’s Othello called “the ocular proof.” For all the claims of DNA proof of identity, nothing seems to satisfy as much as that missing photo, however gruesome it may be. For some, that photo would satisfy a bloodlust borne of revenge. For me, however, I see the release of that photo as the true closure our society needs—not as the end of revenge, but as the beginning of a new world view.
Public displays of killed enemies began in ancient times. The Romans knew how to put on a good show. The Tower of London featured “Traitor’s Gate,” where the heads of traitors to the crown rested on pikes as an example to the world. Photos of dead Nazis such as Goering and Himmler only increased the desire for a similar photo of Hitler. Anyone who has seen a horror movie sequel knows that the best monster is a dead monster, and that the best proof of that is seeing it with your own eyes. DNA just doesn’t cut it. In the case of Bin Laden, the FBI updating Osama’s “Most Wanted” list picture with a “Deceased” banner (shown above) seems anticlimactically small for the biggest baddie on Earth.
Just today, CIA Director Leon Panetta intimated that the photos of a dead Bin Laden would be released, only to have the White House quickly respond that no decision has yet been made. I fully appreciate the White House’s position, which is in accord with the decision to bury the body at sea and nullify any chance that a memorial spot could be erected. The White House assured the world that all the proper Islamic rituals were observed in the disposal of the remains. As with all funerals, those rituals are more for the living than the dead. America needs to assure the Islamic world that the War on Terror focused on Bin Laden was not and will never be a War on Islam. Making sure that Bin Laden’s faith—their faith, albeit in extreme form—was honored was for the living Muslims, not the dead terrorist.
How we treat the dead not only is for us the living, but also says much of who we are as the survivors. Frankly, America has a poor track record recently in dealing with the dead of our enemies. Even seven years later, the Abu Ghraib photos of torture and desecration rankle. The photographic evidence of the “Kill Team” actions in Afghanistan revealed just this year prove that not much has changed in some circles. The visuals make us look bad. How we treat this ultimate visual is a final exam that we must pass, or risk total failure. I’ve quoted before Walter Benjamin’s comment that “[t]here are no documents of civilization that are not equally documents of barbarism.” Handling the photographic proof of the death of Osama Bin Laden is America’s chance to prove Benjamin wrong.
The photos have been described as extremely graphic. The Navy Seals reportedly shot Bin Laden through the left eye and blew away part of his skull. It won’t be pretty. But 9/11 wasn’t pretty. Nobody has fondly kept a scrapbook of the graphic death and destruction of the last decade in Afghanistan and Iraq. When and if the Bin Laden photos go public, I won’t be allowing my children to see them, and neither should you. However, all adults participating in the democratic process and, therefore, this War on Terror should look long and hard. The face of Bin Laden will be the face of death disposed in the name of democracy. Freedom isn’t free, and it is sometimes messy. But if we can look at that face and recommit ourselves to peace, then we can finally make a step forward toward harmony rather than a step back into a barbaric past. Obama set the tone with his simple, confident, justice-oriented announcement, which erased in a single stroke the Spaghetti Western “Dead or Alive” and “Bring ‘em on” nonproductive posturing of the past administration. Now it’s up to us to grow up as a country and prove we can be mature adults and not vindictive children when faced with the consequences of the war we wage on those who wage war on us. I only hope that we get a chance to pass that test.