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May 6, 2011

Ethics of showing bin Laden - both alive and dead

Filed under: Uncategorized, Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 9:45 am

Barry Turner explores some of the ethical issues surrounding the representation of Osama bin Laden - both dead and alive

Days after the US military killed the most prolific terrorist murderer in history the press is engaging in the usual conjecture and hypothesising that follows all such activity. One of the central questions arising out of the already blooming conspiracy theories is the ethical position regarding showing photographs of the Bin Laden dead, or even in the process of being shot. It makes for interesting ethical debate on what should be shown in the aftermath of violent conflict but as usual misses a very real point regarding ethical portrayal of images in general.

The media has already created Osama the icon using repeated imagery of him in combat fatigues and traditional dress and, in particular, carrying the ultimate icon of terrorism, the AK47 assault rifle. It is this representation that is far more alarming than the sight of a gruesome corpse.

The media have for a long time portrayed bin Laden as a former ‘freedom fighter’ turned bad. If ever there was a misrepresentation of what he was it is this. The Mujahedeen were never freedom fighters. It was never the intention of these fighters to replace the Soviet supported communist government of Afghanistan with freedom and in that respect the US-backed Mujahedeen were nothing more than state-sponsored terrorists, opposing a socialist government’s attempts to modernise a mediaeval and tribal fiefdom. If anything, Al Qaida were nothing more than a privatised version of that campaign.

It has for a long time been clear that the US support for the Mujahedeen was one of the biggest US foreign policy disasters in a long line of alliances with criminal and homicidal despots. So why do our press continue to compare Osama the ‘freedom fighter’ with Osama, public enemy number one?

In recent years bin Laden had become an irrelevance. On numerous occasions the press speculated he was already dead possibly even from natural causes. The inability to operate in a world saturated with surveillance had ironically placed this medieval warlord into a medieval existence where even telephones and the internet were denied him because they would certainly have revealed his location years earlier. This isolation was only relieved by using couriers which eventually led to his being found.

What has the killing achieved then? Yes, it can be argued that if anyone deserved summary justice he must have been close to the top of the list and, yes, it is cathartic for America and many Americans to see ‘justice done’. But there is a down side.

The US were keen to get him ‘buried’ and out of sight as quickly as possible and were greatly aided by his own alleged Muslim faith requiring internment within 24 hours. The US military wanted no shrine so they buried him at sea. This has already failed. The house he was shot in has already had its first tourists and pilgrims turning up and is set to become that very shrine.

The US government has now quite sensibly decided not to show his corpse. Even if they had it is doubtful that these photographs would ever have been enough to convince the conspiracy theorists who already question whether ‘it was actually him’. Showing images of his dead and hideously disfigured corpse are said to have been likely to inflame his supporters into acts of further nihilistic mayhem, as if showing him lovingly caressing the Kalashnikov that became his trademark did not.

This killing has rid the world of a depraved individual, a terrorist for most of his adult life including during the period that the US and the West called him a freedom fighter. The killing has also made him a martyr and the press do not help by their portrayal of him in iconic poses. Before any further consideration of the ethics of showing him dead they should really consider the effects of showing him proudly alive.

- Barry Turner is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Lincoln.

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