Sunday, May 8, 2011

Don't release the pictures

I'm knee-deep in exams and oughtn't be blogging at all, but I felt compelled to say something about the ongoing controversy over whether to release pictures of Osama's body.

I'm sympathetic to both sides here. The "Release The Photo" crowd believes that Americans shouldn't be shielded from the true costs of war, that too often our military endeavors exist as an abstraction in the heads of the public, and that this picture, however gruesome, will force the public to reckon with America's bloody handiwork. Besides, they say, it is a government record, and the government shouldn't be in the business of shielding us from the things it does in our name.

The other side argues that the photo is a trophy of war, and parading it across television screens would be akin to parading the actual body through the streets.

I'm of the latter view. I might think otherwise if I believed that releasing the photo really would force Americans to confront the realities of the War on Terror and the war in Afghanistan. But I don't believe it could have any such effect. The reaction to the photo would not be self-reflection, but rubbernecking. It always happens. There is, after all, a reason that in the pre-Youtube, Wild West days of web video, gruesome videos of deaths and accidents were the third pillar of internet clip culture, after "cute animals" and "pornography." To be clear, this is manifestly not a criticism of Americans, because I don't think fascination with the morbid is anything less than a common human trait. But people who google "osama bin laden death picture" aren't looking for sober insight into war, they're looking for a cheap thrill, something to gawk at. Publishing the photo would simply create an object of public curiosity. Knowing this, we have to take it into account in our decisions. Our enemies deserve some measure of respect as human beings, a principle not worth sacrificing in a futile attempt to educate the body politic.

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