Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Feeling Missouri: Show Me

The debate on whether or not to release Osama bin Laden death photos and videos of his at-sea funeral turns the White House white-hot, as voices ranging from his security team to loud public voices urge President Obama to keep the images secure.

Read on for more but warning: images contained in this post are graphic and upsetting.

Update 1:30 p.m. May 4: President Obama tells "60 Minutes" he will not release photographs of Osama bin Laden's body.

Most of the arguments against release seem to turn on good taste, whether it's responsible journalism, the potential to inflame and even a barometer of the President's call to release his birth certificate to please the conspiracy theorists.

I'm feeling a bit Missouri in all this. Show me. Let me decide if I want to see and whether I believe. The price of democracy and the telling of history as-it-happens is too high to shroud in good taste.

There's serious precedent involved.

Within the past decade, this same government (regardless of who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a hallmark of the U.S. system of democracy is our government does change -- just the faces) gave our critics and enemies plenty to inflame. The Abu Ghraib images showing torture of prisoners in one of Iraq's most notorious prisons -- at U.S. military hands -- was enough to spark protests across the globe. The images are, without question, troubling even though the graphic nature of the violence is clearly more psychological than physiological. There are even more graphic photographs from Abu Ghraib and all a simple Google image search away. Not as if you haven't seen them all before, either published by your local newspapers, on television, even used as props in congressional testimony. It was hard not to miss these photographs.

It's also a good time to remind ourselves of the graphic photos released of the bodies of Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay in July 2003. Here's the FoxNews coverage when the military released the photos. The Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC down under) noted U.S. military commanders at the time had few qualms on release, noting news organizations in the Middle East routinely published photos of slain U.S. servicemen, including the bodies of those mutilated.

Go back a generation, to the graphic photographs of the My Lai massacre.

For those under 50, this chapter in our Vietnam War history won't be fresh. For those over 50, the mention of Lt. William Calley will evoke memories of the lust for war gone horribly wrong, the desire to kill for victory so contradictory to our mission and cause. I found this photo on the website of London's Daily Mail, in a 2007 story detailing the March 16, 1968 slaughter of more than 500 people by U.S. forces. Odds are this photograph won't come as a surprise; we saw it at the time. It still stands as one of the most horrific war crimes of a war seemingly full of atrocities. Let's not also forget one of the more enduring images from the Vietnam War: a Vietnamese army officer, in plain clothes, shooting a man in the head, the moment captured in Pulitzer Prize flash memory. The brutality of one man versus one man.

Go back to the generation of our grandparents.

Television wasn't in every household, and the descriptions of what Allied troops found in the Nazi concentration camps delivered by radio, newspaper and newsreel seemed unbelievable. Talk with anyone who's visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. for the tiniest sense of what it feels like, passing by piles of clothes. Ask someone who's been to the remains Auschwitz, or Birkenau, or Dachau, or Treblinka to get their first hand account of how walking calm fields today carries with it the sense of dread and sadness of the death camps -- a feeling that the ghosts of millions slaughtered by madness still remain so we still remember. Even with the newsreels, accounts and photographs there are still millions around the world who refuse to acknowledge. Despite the proof to the contrary. The photo above shows the crematorium at Weimar, Germany where thousands were disposed of before members of the 3rd U.S. Army liberated the camp in April 1945.

Then there's the crime Osama bin Laden was wanted for.

Fast forward to that bright September morning in 2001 when jets carrying everyday passengers became flying bombs on his order. You certainly can't forget those images; we saw them again, the planes flying into the World Trade Center. That day we saw the pictures and video of people leaping to the death rather than being burned alive. The images of a gaping, smoking hole in the Pentagon just across the river from the White House and U.S. Capitol. The furrow and spilled earth in a grassy field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and the phone calls made by passengers-turned-heroes to stop yet another flying bomb from hitting Washington.

All these images are graphic and disturbing. So many more also exist in newspapers, books, video archives, the Internet -- as well as the personal testimony from those days of hatred and tragedy, and remembrances from the survivors, are emotional. They are still ugly, raw reminders of the inhumanity men, women and children face from zealots of all stripes who forget their own humanity.

Is there a blood lust in wanting to see the body of Osama bin Laden? Anymore than showing the world the images above, because the ugliness of mankind at its worst can be so unbelievable that it requires us to see for ourselves? Was there blood lust in wanting proof Hitler was dead?

Crime shows on TV routinely show the death photos of John Dillinger, or mob bosses gunned down in barbershops and outside steakhouses, as a matter of routine. We are a society where we'll pay eight bucks to watch movies where actors playing victims perish in spectacular Hollywood fashion. We are also a society where seeing the bloated legacy left behind when Rev. Jim Jones ordered hundreds of followers to swallow poison accompanied the graphic film of his followers also shooting to death a U.S. Congressman and 917 others in Jonestown. We are a society where the Zapruder film showing the murder of an American president is routinely viewed online and on television every November 22nd. We are a nation that sees video of a deranged man shooting an American president outside a Washington hotel just twenty years ago.

My friends from Missouri are proud to say they're from the "Show Me State." Eyewitness evidence matters, from the disturbing images above to today's world of photos, videos and audio.

Why show bin Laden's body and burial? Why were accounts of the hanging of Saddam Hussein needed? Why is it necessary to remind ourselves of the victims of fanaticism, such as those who beheaded journalist Daniel Pearl in February 2002? Should I post an image of that crime, to remind us that bin Laden's henchman Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- now at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in detention -- claimed he personally cut off Pearl's head for the world to see?

I'm feeling Missouri today not because I don't believe, but because it's important not to forget. And turning our eyes away from the unthinkable misses the point: these are images that ought to be seared into our memories, lest we be afraid of the emotions that should rightfully work to keep us from allowing such acts to be played out again and again.

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