President Obama has in his possession the world's most expensive photograph. And he won't release it.
The photograph shows the corpse of Osama bin Laden. It might not fetch $3.3 million at a Sotheby's auction, as an Andreas Gursky photo did in 2007, but it cost far more than that to make. Into that single photograph went years of costly intelligence work, untold lives lost in pursuit of its subject, and a military operation that risked the lives of 79 Navy SEALs, numerous U.S. intelligence agents and sources, and a U.S. presidency. And the president won't release it. Why, then, didn't he just blow up bin Laden's hideout?
Here is the Los Angeles Times describing Obama's decision to send SEALs instead of a cruise missile into bin Laden's Pakistani safe house:
He had vetoed a plan to obliterate the compound with an airstrike. Obama wanted to be certain he had Bin Laden, and there was no guarantee that a smoking crater would yield proof. He had asked for a bolder plan, one that would allow the U.S. to take custody of Bin Laden or his body. It posed far more risk.
The risk: the lives of 79 SEALS, America's relations with Pakistan and other important quasi-allies, and Obama's presidency. Failure could have ended all of them. A missile strike would have been clean, quick, and easy to explain. Just one problem: It would have vaporized bin Laden.
So the president made the risky -- and right -- call: Send in the SEALs, bring back the body. They did as their president commanded. They invaded a sovereign country, killed the world's most wanted man, and returned with his corpse -- the proof Obama knew he would need to prove to a skeptical world that the United States had gotten its man.
And then, after all of that, he kept the proof secret. The world has no more evidence of bin Laden's death than a missile strike would have produced. Obama has it. But the world is left in the dark. The people of earth will just have to trust Obama on this one.
I don't for a second doubt that Osama bin Laden was killed in that raid. But others do. And unless the president releases a photo, more will.
The "deathers" alone are not reason enough to release the photo. The president says, and he is right, that some people will not be convinced no matter what the government releases. But that's not the point. The same was true of his birth certificate, but he released that. Why? Because the crazies were starting to spread doubt among the perfectly sane.
In his 60 Minutes interview, the president said bin Laden wasn't a trophy. Sure he is. Just as Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg were.
"It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool," Obama said. "You know, that's not who we are. You know, we don't trot out this stuff as trophies."
So after using intelligence gathered from prisoners in black-site prisons and Guantanamo Bay, killing who knows how many enemies in pursuit of leads, and ignoring international law to enter a sovereign country and kill a man who was unarmed and hiding behind at least one woman, Obama says we must show the world our civility by not releasing a picture?
We are at war with a ruthless, barbaric enemy. The steps we took to extinguish Osama bin Laden were entirely justified -- as is releasing the proof of his death, which Obama went to such great pains to obtain. Secreting the photo in the president's desk drawer is not going to win us any brownie points with the death-to-America crowd. Announcing the results of a DNA test is not going to satisfy the pics-or-it-didn't-happen crowd.
Releasing the photo might temporarily raise the blood pressure of people who already want to kill us. It also might give pause to those thinking a life of jihad would be pretty sweet. Domestically, it could do what Obama's long-form birth certificate did: end a cancerous lie.
This is the information age. Governments suffer when they needlessly withhold secrets the people think should not be secret. Better that the image of an expired Osama bin Laden be released by the president of the United States than some hacker from WikiLeaks.
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