President Obama made a wise decision in choosing not to make public photos of bin Laden's body. His reasons are pragmatic and compelling. DNA tests and other evidence showed conclusively that the dead man was Osama bin Laden. Releasing the gruesome photos wouldn't satisfy the professional Obama bashers and conspiracy theorists, who would just claim that the pictures were doctored. Meanwhile, their release could further inflame Muslim hardliners, giving them another excuse for retaliatory action against U.S. personnel.
But there is another reason that Obama did not state, and that has to do with the reactions to bin Laden's death among Americans themselves.
The wild, frankly repellant scenes of Americans dancing in the streets and high-fiving the news of the killing was neither an outpouring of patriotism nor an emotional catharsis. True patriotism celebrates and extols the values of tolerance, diversity, freedom of expression and a denunciation of bigotry. If anything, the avalanche of racist tweets, epithets, and gloating by some bloggers and rightwing talk show hosts mocks true American patriotism.
The supposed joy and relief that countless Americans said they felt at bin Laden's takedown (reflected in the polls) had little to do with any real emotional connection to the Al Qaeda leader. He had been on the lam for a decade and had long since ceased to be an object of daily concern by the media (or even the Bush administration towards the end of its tenure). Apart from the families and friends of the thousands killed in the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden was little more than a name from the past to most Americans. That was particularly true of college students, who seemed to view the news of his death as an excuse for a campus pep rally or party rather than as an opportunity to try to understand what bin Laden and 9/11 really meant.
President Obama understood this reality and was careful to frame the killing as a national security priority in the overall context of the war on terrorism. He took great pains to note that the attack on bin Laden was not a war on Muslims. Yes, undoubtedly part of the reason for the hit was pure vengeance for the 9/11 attacks. But Obama wisely was careful not to play into that sentiment in announcing bin Laden was dead. Releasing photos of his corpse would have reinforced the spirit of bloodlust and vengeance that, unfortunately, remains part of the thinking of far too many Americans. It would have reduced the killing to the level of a gladiator bout in which victory is measured by the amount of blood and gore. The sideshow spectacle would have totally negated the point of why the U.S. went after bin Laden in the first place.
In the days to come, Obama will hear loud complaints from many quarters that Americans deserved to have the bloody pictures of bin Laden splattered in before them as a kind of trophy. There will be endless criticism that, by not releasing the photos, the president is in some way depriving the country of real closure while also feeding our enemies' belief that bin Laden isn't really dead or that his death was more vicious and ugly than Washington wants to admit.
But Obama made the right call. The bin Laden killing brings to a close a tragic and painful episode in American history. That should be satisfaction enough. The photos of bin Laden's corpse would turn the satisfaction many feel at his removal into a cheap, voyeuristic and degrading spectacle.