President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that he wouldn’t authorize the release of photos of the dead Osama bin Laden, despite the earlier announcement by CIA Chief Leon Panetta that the photos would be made public.
The decision was no doubt a difficult one. On one hand, there are doubts being raised by some people, here and abroad, that bin Laden really was killed in the daring Navy Seal raid Sunday.
But there are also concerns that releasing the photos would inflame outrage in the Middle East, Pakistan and elsewhere and further endanger Americans, especially those in the military.
We have no desire to see anyone put in greater jeopardy. However, it’s not at all clear that “greater” danger would be the result.
It’s not as if groups like al-Qaida were moderating their hatred of America and holding off on murderous plots prior to Sunday because we had not killed bin Laden, or that they are holding back now because we haven’t released photos of his corpse.
Moreover, unlike cartoons of Mohammed, there is no Islamic prohibition about showing photos of bin Laden, alive or dead. Because of the murders of many fellow Muslims that bin Laden’s followers perpetrated, initial support for bin Laden has evaporated among most Muslims. That’s one reason we haven’t seen thousands of people take to the streets to protest his death.
Furthermore, it’s all but inevitable that, in a world of Wikileaks and Washington gossips, the photos will eventually become public. Better to get them out now, when world reaction to bin Laden’s death is mostly positive than to have them suddenly appear at some inopportune time when Muslim reaction might be much different.
The fact that bin Laden’s body was quickly buried at sea, with appropriate Islamic rituals, makes the release of the photos all the more imperative. We understand the reasoning for that burial — to prevent an earthly grave from becoming a shrine for terrorists. But it has helped fuel suspicions that his death was a hoax.
President Obama is right that Osama bin Laden is not a trophy. And photos of his death shouldn’t be triumphantly displayed like an enemy’s head on a pike during the Middle Ages.
But it should be somberly released to end questions about whether he is still alive.