[Since this story was published, and after some uncertainty, President Obama has decided not to release any pictures of Bin Laden’s corpse. Obama has said that glorifying the kill with pictures is “not who we are.”?Ed.]
Amid the stunning news of the surgical American commando operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, one feature looms large in the background: The extraordinarily careful, strategic, and savvy media management of the strike and its aftermath.
Perhaps the most notable feature has been the complete lack of battlefield imagery; instead, all we’ve gotten so far is the powerful, somber announcement from President Obama at the lectern in the East Room, and old file images of Bin Laden. (We’ve also gotten a video of the Bin Laden compound, taken after the fact, and some ridiculous faked imagery.) So far, the White House appears unlikely to release a photo of Bin Laden in the moments after the raid; the decision to hold back is a savvy, precisely calibrated decision.
With battlefield imagery, you can’t be sure who will win the ensuing global PR battle.
That’s a stark contrast to what happened surrounding the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Saddam Hussein. There, the images served as proof and propaganda: A picture of a bedraggled KSM being hauled out of bed, looking like a frumpy slob. And Saddam Hussein, withered and grey, being dragged from a hole in the ground. The management of those images was intentional, meant to portray both Al Qaeda and Hussein as weak enemies, totally defeated by American forces.
But the media landscape since then has changed completely. As the Twitter-fueled revolutions across the Middle East have shown, you can be sure that: 1. Images of an event such as Bin Laden’s killing would’ve spread like wildfire. 2: You can never be quite sure how those images of will actually be used, and who will win the global PR battle that results.
What would happen if images of the actual killing surfaced? Would they become a rallying cry for Al Qaeda sympathizers — the terrorist’s equivalent of those gruesome images of Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death, at the hands of state police, inflamed riots in Iran? And would they be grotesquely tacked up across the U.S., affixed to gates and telephone poles like the modern analogue of a head on a pike?
Neither of those scenarios helps the U.S. fight terrorism; on the contrary, both would fan the flames of Al Qaeda’s rage, giving them a fresh gust of support and legitimacy that they could then use to recruit new fighters and sympathizers. Fittingly — and, perhaps, masterfully — the only detail to emerge from the actual scene of the strike is that in addition to Bin Laden, his son, two couriers, and a woman caught in the crossfire. Only one other person was killed: One of Bin Laden’s wives, who was used as a human shield, which merely reinforces the narrative of Al Qaeda as a cowardly, opportunistic and self-serving group of thugs. [New, official statements reverse those initial reports of a human shield.–Ed.]
There is no whiff of personal vendetta. Simply justice.
And consider too the details surrounding Bin Laden’s burial. He was apparently buried within 24 hours of the killing, in accordance to Muslim tradition, with an imam present. He was buried at sea. Thus, the American military and the Obama administration have insured that there will be no shrines or pilgrimage sites, and no relics to be paraded. There is no specter of disrespect for the dead, as with Saddam Hussein’s execution, where a Shiite man shouted insults as Hussein stepped across the gallows.
Instead, all we’re left with is old images of Bin Laden, and the image of a stern, dignified President Obama. The latter presents a far more dignified, far less political image than any of the high-profile captures that have attended the War on Terror, inaugurated under George W. Bush. There is nothing there for Bin Laden’s cohort to twist and remix for their purposes. There is no whiff of American savagery, and no whiff of personal vendetta. Simply justice.
Now, you could argue that this media strategy has its risks. There is sure to be a wave of conspiracy theorists arguing that Bin Laden isn’t actually dead; they will likewise probably argue that this killing was all-to-conveniently timed to the run-up to the 2012 election campaign. But for the Obama Administration and the U.S. military, those risks had to be acceptable. After all, we’re not fighting cynicism and fear-mongering at home. We’re fighting an enemy abroad whose chief weapons have been PR.