President Obama gets it right yet again with his decision not to release photos of the slain Osama bin Laden.
What would such a move have accomplished? Advocates, led by CIA chief Leon Panetta, seem to think that it would dispel doubts in the minds of people, particularly Arab Muslims, who do not believe that bin Laden is really dead. But think about that. By definition, in order to question the veracity of the kill, one would have to accept at least the following: After more than a decade of famously failing to track down its No. 1 mortal enemy, the United States now has chosen to stage a proxy assassination that cost a fortune; that pointlessly risked the lives of some of its highest-value operatives; that shed mortifying light on the fault lines in America's crucial relationship with Pakistan – and, most important, that invited a response from the real, live Osama, who has never been shy about sending proof of life and anti-American intention to his media outlets of choice.
No doubt, there are many Arab Muslims who firmly believe all of the above – along with a good few Americans, who have yet to abandon the search for Elvis. But let's face it: those folks are not going to look at official White House images of the freshly dispatched Osama and think, "proof." They are going to look at those images and think, "Photoshop."
If publicizing the post-mortem visuals would achieve nothing in the way of persuading skeptics, how would it play among believers?
Arab Muslims who accept that bin Laden is dead can be divided into two groups: those who are enraged about his slaying, and those who are not. Curiously, Western experts who oppose releasing the visuals seem to be focused on the former, raising the possibility that the sight of such graphic evidence might spur bin Laden's faithful to even greater acts of violence than they would otherwise commit. With all due respect, this argument strikes me as borderline comical. Given that hard-core bin Laden supporters were homicidally anti-American before their hero was martyred, can they not be presumed to have reached a perfect 10 on the the fanatical-fury scale now that he has been? Honestly, how much more functionally significant ill will is there left in that crowd to stir up?
The show-or-not-to-show decision, then, would properly have been based on how it was likely to affect Arab Muslims who both believe that bin Laden is dead and are actually glad about it. These are the people with whom the United States desperately needs to engage, and whom it would risk alienating by waving around proof that our mutually dreaded monster is gone for good. If this seems strange, remember how Iraqis reacted to the capture of Saddam Hussein. In the main, they were delighted that the fallen dictator had been caught, but disgusted that he was, to their minds, put on display. Far from being shot on sight, of course, Saddam was treated very well. It was in part to prove as much that the Americans released video showing his medical examination, including footage of a doctor very dispassionately taking swabs for purposes of DNA, and so on.
To me, those images looked extremely humane. To Iraqis – including Iraqis who hated Saddam and were literally crying out for him to be executed in the most expedited, miserable way possible – it looked extremely humiliating. At a moment when the Iraqi public could have been doing nothing but rejoicing in what the United States had pulled off, it was made, in part, to recoil. It is easy to imagine a similar reaction among many Muslims who are confronted with the reportedly "gruesome" specter of the slaughtered Osama: even those who agree with the hit might well think, "wasn't it enough to kill him? Do they have to mortify him too, and further torment his family?"
Clearly, if there were some concrete, security-related imperative to balance against potentially bruised public sensitivities, the sensitivities could take a back seat. Here, though, there is no such imperative. The job is done. The devil has been dusted. There is no more powerful message to send.
In the end, it's a very simple calculation: there is something in the way of pro-American sentiment to be lost from releasing those photos. There is nothing whatsoever to be gained.
When it comes to showing the world exactly what this particular success looks like, Obama is very wise to pull a reverse Nike, and just not do it.
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