President Barack Obama’s decision not to make public the photographs of the body of Osama bin Laden can be seen as a genuinely cautious move; it reveals, however, the tendency toward little transparency that has characterized his administration.
Obama justifies his decision by implying that the images portraying the body of the al-Qaida leader with a bullet wound in his chest and another in his head could awaken anti-American sentiments, incite more violence or be considered a method of propaganda.
But censorship does not serve as balm for these ills. Many do not require seeing to believe; they are celebrating with champagne and beer in Times Square in New York City, behavior that prompted threats from terrorist groups such as al-Qaida, which want to avenge the killing and the festivities with more attacks against U.S. interests.
Others are skeptical by nature, and even if they saw the photos they would speculate and imagine conspiracies. An example is the Iranian administration, which in its propaganda hymn equally denies the documented Jewish holocaust and claims bin Laden died a long time ago, the victim of his failing health, despite confirmation of the Navy SEAL attack by survivors in the Abbottabad fortress.
This isn't the first time Obama is targeted by controversy unleashed by images. A few days before Operation Geronimo, on national television, he held up a birth certificate, demonstrating that he is not a foreigner. And early in his mandate, he prevented at all costs the Justice Department from forcing the Pentagon to release photographs of U.S. guards torturing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At that time, now and throughout the scandal that led to the leaking of documents about the war and the diplomatic cables through WikiLeaks, Obama and the military argued that divulging the material would jeopardize the safety of troops and encourage al-Qaida to recruit more terrorists, neither of which has happened nor has been demonstrated.
If authorities are allowed to decide what the public should or shouldn't see or know, there's a risk of feeding paternalistic attitudes that will only worsen with time, for government has a natural tendency to classify, censor and protect national security at the expense of freedom of expression.
So it is healthy that the Associated Press news agency has filed a request — relying on the Freedom of Information Act — for Obama to disclose the photographs. The images of the corpse and its burial in the Arabian Sea have intrinsic news and public interest value, given that this was the most dangerous person on the planet, pursued without success for a decade by the world's greatest power.
Ultimately, the decision not to disclose something morbid because of delicacy, delivering it in droplets instead, has an opposite and more sensational effect, considering that the collective imagination of the unknown fans more legends, martyrs and conjecture than could any set of scandalous photographs. And it was fanned by the detailed explanations of the legislators who this week had access to the photos; the video released without audio, showing bin Laden focused on improving his image and skills; and the content of his personal diary, which revealed his speculations on the impact of future attacks on Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago.
The most evocative picture of the May 1 operation was the one divulged by the White House on Sunday, in the belief that it would safely confirm the facts. It shows Obama, Hillary Clinton and the National Security staff stunned as they watched live images of the operation. To me, this is nothing less than the equivalent of watching fans celebrate a touchdown in a football game.
The Obama administration must walk its talk: It must be more transparent. This self-inflicted ethical disquisition exceeds its mandate and degrades public confidence. Its obligation is to be open and to conform to the truth, whether it hurts or is indecent.