Rupert Cornwell: However grisly, the American public will demand the pictures

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"That's not who we are. We don't trot out this stuff as trophies." With those words, Barack Obama yesterday tried to end the debate that followed the greatest national security feat of his presidency: namely, whether to release the grisly photos of the death of Osama bin Laden.

His administration was divided on the issue, as was Congress. But the President felt "very strongly" the photograph should not be published. In an interview yesterday for CBS's 60 Minutes, which will be aired on Sunday, Mr Obama said he had seen images, and was "95 per cent" certain that the dead man was Osama bin Laden. Facial analysis and confirmation by witnesses present in the compound, and subsequent DNA results confirmed the dead man was Bin Laden. "There is no question he is dead," the President said. "He will not walk this earth again."

No pictures will be released because the most conclusive picture of Bin Laden is also the most gruesome: bloody and, according to those who have seen it, with part of the head above one eye shot away. The President believed such grisly images would only inflame anti-American feelings in the Muslim world – and this when no one was seriously challenging the fact that Bin Laden had been killed. Why, therefore, risk putting US troops, and Americans abroad, in danger when there is no problem?

Besides, even photos might not be enough. As the enduring fuss over Obama's birth certificate proves, even after the original was made public last week, even cast-iron, documentary proof – as the President himself noted in the interview – will not convince those who do not want to be convinced.

But the decision not to publish may not still a clamour that has been fuelled, it must be said, by the shifting accounts of what precisely happened in the compound where the al-Qa'ida leader was hiding. A photograph may not be the most irrefutable form of proof. But for stark, stunning finality, nothing matches one.

Nor is grisliness alone sufficient justification. Horrific images, from the beheading of US hostages by Islamic extremists to the hanging of Saddam Hussein, swirl around the internet. The Pentagon itself released graphic photos of the corpses of Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay, showing them bruised and caked with blood after being killed in a shootout with US troops in 2003.

And, proponents of publication contend, no one is forced to look at such pictures. These days American television routinely shows images of violent death, warning that viewer discretion is required. Why should Osama bin Laden be an exception?

They also point out that one of the reasons President Obama opted for a commando raid rather than the less risky alternative of a bombing or cruise-missile attack on the compound was to make sure they could recover an identifiable body – or even take Bin Laden alive.

Most powerful of all perhaps is the "closure" argument. America is where relatives of a murder victim watch the killer die. Publication of Bin Laden's death photos would, it is argued, be part of a comparable "healing process" to lay to rest a mass-murder committed against the entire country.

One poll yesterday showed 56 per cent of Americans in favour of publication. In the US, numbers usually win out. Sooner or later, the world's most wanted man when alive, will in death be subject of what will surely be the world's most-viewed photo.



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