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Osama’s Controversial Aftermath


It’s inevitable that the joy and national unity over the killing of that monster bin Laden would cool. Already we’re debating the journalistic and political ramifications. President Obama told CBS he wouldn’t “spike the football” by releasing photos proving Osama is dead.

I agree with the president, as much as that pains my friend Sean Hannity and other conservatives (and non-conservatives like Juan Williams). Some argue that it will put to rest any conspiracy theories that this is but a hoax. No, it won’t.

Let’s go back to the American killing of Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay in 2003. To deal with the paranoia and disbelief of Iraqis, the military allowed access to the bodies – after they did facial reconstructions to make the sons look more like they did before their faces were shot off.

Guess what? None of that helped with many Iraqis, who continued to express skepticism. The failure of the Hussein sons to reappear (and now Osama) should be proof for the doubters, but not so for fanatics. Before he had birthers; now we’ll have deathers.

Is the inherent risk of greater violence by the release of the pictures worth it? Reuters gained access to some grisly pictures of dead men at Osama’s compound. I look at them and see pictures of dead killers, murderers of innocent men, women and children – and I’m glad they’re dead. Many millions of Muslims will see pictures of what appear to be defenseless, innocent men – and will be outraged. Perception is everything. Why fuel it?

Why not just say – proclaim – Osama bin Laden’s dead, and we’re happy with the result? On the broader question, we can ask our media to please develop a consistent standard for these things. Why aren’t they going nuclear against Obama’s (correct) decision? Whatever happened to their “right to know”?

On August 4, 2005, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press proclaimed that a coalition of 14 media organizations and public interest groups they organized – including CBS, NBC, and The New York Times – had filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the ACLU in U.S. District Court in New York urging the release of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos.

The RCFP also filed an amicus brief for the release of detainee-abuse photos in prisons other than Abu Ghraib, which the Obama administration agreed to release in April 2009.

“The government has taken the position in this case that the more outrageous the behavior exhibited by American troops, the less the public has a right to know about it,” complained RCFP executive director Lucy Dalglish.

So far, in the days since the White House announced it would not release the Osama photos, there’s been no objection from the RCFP.

Liberal journalists have favored gruesome images when the dead are American troops. In both wars with Iraq, in 1991 and in 2003, former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite insisted it was terrible (even “criminal”) that “we’re still not seeing the bloodletting.”

In 2006, CNN chose to show video, apparently made by Iraqi insurgents, of American soldiers being shot by a sniper. I don’t recall the liberal journalists or Senator Barack Obama raising objections to that.

Under the liberal standard here, it seems political: the “right to know” matches neatly with the need to embarrass (or “hold accountable”) the Bush administration. Embarrassment or accountability isn’t so urgent at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in the Osama case.

Team Obama also faces a curious controversy over Osama’s quick burial at sea, achieved so as to satisfy Muslim religious traditions. Once again, unlike many conservatives, I didn’t have an early objection to showing that respect – not to Osama, but to the faith he supposedly upheld. A quick glance at American military procedures for the burial of internees suggests a burial according to the religious rites of the deceased. That’s simple American decency.

But if it will help, upset conservatives can go to al-Jazeera and discover they’ve found Muslims who think the burial at sea was horrendous. Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain of Georgetown University, called the sea burial an “absolute violation” of Islamic traditions, and an unwise decision that (naturally) mars America’s image.

“Islamic law traditionally allows disposing of a corpse at sea only if the person dies on board ship and there is no possibility of getting the body to dry land before it decomposes,” added Marion Katz, professor of “Islamic law, gender and ritual” at New York University.

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It’s inevitable that the joy and national unity over the killing of that monster bin Laden would cool. Already we’re debating the journalistic and political ramifications. President Obama told CBS he wouldn’t “spike the football” by releasing photos proving Osama is dead.

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