The decision to quickly bury Osama bin Laden at sea was made for two overriding reasons: to avoid a burial site on land becoming a shrine while demonstrating respect for Muslim burial customs.
But now the inability of the United States to produce a body is raising doubts around the world about the death of Al Qaeda’s leader. At the same time, interested parties ranging from members of Congress to family members of 9/11 victims are calling for a release of photos the US military possesses of Mr. bin Laden’s body to allow for a sense of closure.
As a result, a White House that only last week was grappling with whether or not to release President Obama’s birth certificate to quell stubborn doubts about his birthplace now appears on the verge of releasing photos – pictures White House officials admit are “gruesome” – to answer the Doubting Thomases who want graphic proof of bin Laden’s death.
“This needs to be done thoughtfully,” said White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, appearing Tuesday on morning television. Speaking to reporters, White House spokesman Jay Carney said officials up to the president are weighing demands for the photos’ release against the potentially “inflammatory” nature of such an action.
Some Middle East experts warn that the US could lose the “moral high ground” by releasing pictures. The US could blemish the perception of a sensitive military operation – the fact that soldiers were used to go after the US target rather than a missile strike that could have endangered civilians – by doing the very thing it criticized in the past, says Bernd Kaussler, an expert in Middle East policy at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.
“It happened in 2003 when US servicemen were killed and [it was] broadcast by Al Jazeera, which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rightly condemned,” Professor Kaussler told WHSV-TV in Harrisonburg. Adding that the US was criticized for releasing photos of Saddam Hussein in his underwear when he was apprehended by US soldiers, he says, “What’s at stake is a moral high ground which the US has maintained” in the bin Laden case.
Consensus on photo release forming
But by Tuesday afternoon a consensus appeared to be forming around releasing at least a photo of a dead bin Laden.
President Obama said in releasing his official birth certificate last week that he wanted to put an end to the “silliness” of the birthplace controversy. No one in the White House was calling the debate over bin Laden’s picture silly, however.
“This news is only coming from one side, from Obama’s office, and America has not shown any evidence or proof to support this claim,” said Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid in a statement released Tuesday. “Our sources close to Osama bin Laden,” he continued, “have not confirmed or denied the news.”
Some members of Congress said some proof should be released to nip such rumors in the bud, while others said the families of 9/11 victims deserved the “closure” that a picture of a dead bin Laden would provide.
“There will be those who will try to generate this myth that he is alive,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine.
Some media experts were also beginning to weigh in on the side of releasing some form of proof of bin Laden’s death. “Conspiracy theories are starting to germinate,” says Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and research center in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The expert in reporting and ethics says she sees two reasons justifying the release either of photos or of video evidence: to answer public doubts, and to help answer some of the lingering questions about what really took place in Sunday’s raid.
“The public in general is increasingly cynical, everybody has an experience where they accepted something that turned out not to be true,” she says. “People naturally doubt information, so this can help address those doubts.”
'Hold the powerful accountable'
At the same time, she notes that the release of visual evidence can not only address doubts but perform the journalistic function of getting at the truth.
“It helps to hold the powerful accountable,” she says.
McBride says she believes photos can be released – and published – in a “sensitive” manner. And she believes from experience that most media outlets will handle any materials released “in an appropriate manner,” although she recognizes that “at the end of the day the White House won’t have any control over” how any photos it releases are used.
Still, Senator Collins’s colleague, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, has a different take on the issue. Speaking with reporters in Florida, he advised any doubters to simply wait for bin Laden to offer proof that the news of his death was premature.
“If he’s not [dead], let him produce a video to prove he’s not,” Senator Rubio quipped. “Because he was pretty good at doing that once upon a time.”