Why I’d like to see bin Laden’s death photo

Last week was a great week for America, and a great week for American journalism. The two don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Remember, we covered the horrors of 9-11 and the killing of its mastermind, Osama bin Laden. And until last Sunday, the news was mostly bad.

Far be it for us mortals to even contemplate what went into the planning for the raid on Abbottabad, but President Obama, who gets the best advice money can buy, made decisions that were both bold and smart. The two don’t always go hand in hand. This time it was perfect.

Even old soldiers and rock-ribbed Republicans gave him credit for bringing bin Laden’s corpse into custody, and then burying it at sea, to ensure his funeral wouldn’t be a carnival and his grave a martyr’s monument.

However, the president’s decision to quash evidence from the raid, namely death photos of the hated terrorist, was an error — in my opinion.

It hasn’t always been that way, but more on that in a minute.

Obama’s contention, “That’s not who we are… we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies,” is the side of the argument that carried the day. But here’s another side:

Not releasing a representative photo, or photos, of bin Laden’s death cheats the public, at least those of us who prefer our news unfiltered, from seeing the best part of what happened last Sunday. That, of course, is how most journalists think; we want what is difficult to get, and we want our audience to have it too.

This isn’t an easy call. Reading between the lines of the New York Times story published Thursday in the Express-News, CIA Director Leon Panetta wanted to release the death photos while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates did not.

Panetta said he thinks release of the photos is inevitable, and he’s right. But, as for now, Obama’s call is the only one that matters.

Journalists have had this discussion before, when Saddam Hussein was executed on Dec. 30, 2006, and, thanks to former San Antonio Light staffer Joe Schott, when 10 Nazi honchos were executed on Oct. 16, 1946, following the Nuremberg trials. Newspapers are reluctant to use photos of corpses, but they make some exceptions.

Following Saddam’s hanging, the Express-News published a photo, inside the A (or front) section, taken from Iraqi television of a man, identified as Saddam and wrapped in a white shroud. And the paper published graphic autopsy photos, also inside the A section, of Saddam’s sons after they were killed in July 2003.

In spite of extensive research on short notice, I was unable to discern if the Express, the Evening News or the Light published photos of the hanged Nazis in 1946. Life magazine printed the photos, which were fairly graphic. Between Schott’s research and mine, we think the photos were released to the media within a week of the executions.

So, perhaps, Obama will change his mind. Then E-N editors will have to decide whether to publish the photo(s), which are said to be confirmation that bin Laden is dead.

What I did find in my research was that the Nazis’ executioner, Master Sgt. John C. Woods, 43, was from San Antonio. In an interview later with Stars and Stripes, Woods said: “I hanged those 10 Nazis… and I’m proud of it… I wasn’t nervous… A fellow can’t afford to have nerves in this business.

“The way I look at this hanging job, somebody has to do it. I got into it kind of by accident, years ago in the states.”

Kind of like being a public editor.

This column was originally published on May 8, 2011.

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