What was Hidden

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Seated, from left, are: Brigadier General Marshall B. “Brad” Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left, are: Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President; Audrey Tomason Director for Counterterrorism; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
by Pete Souza

Last week's news was a reminder of the errant power of images. Photographic images to be more specific. In this age of digital manipulation, photography is no longer upheld as the standard for absolute objectivity, if it ever was. But a lot of the debate has centered on its ability to impact emotions and change opinions. In particular, what has gotten people upset is the U.S. government's decision not to release images of the dead Osama bin Laden. The White House has claimed that the disturbing nature of these photos would only further inflame anti-American sentiments. What they initially displayed are the now iconic images of president Barack Obama and his national security team watching something the viewer isn't privy to - tantalizing due to its connection to the raid on bin Laden's compound.

Despite the reasons given, this decision is very much in line with the behavior of the previous administration in trying to avoid exhibiting death, agony and the other negative consequences of war, e.g. when they wouldn't allow images of coffins of dead soldiers being brought home from the Iraq War. And like them, they're even more adamant about not displaying the pain and suffering they bring on their enemies, let alone any innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Putting aside conspiracy theories for now, is this a precaution to guard against even the possibility of inadvertently immortalizing bin Laden through images of his corpse? Regardless, this administration is just as determined to control the flow of images in the War on Terror as the last one. They'll probably end up being just as successful.

When the White House finally released images of bin Laden, it was a set of videos of him in when he was still alive in his compound. They're an odd set, displayed for their supposed propaganda value. I watched one television commentator proclaim that the footage of bin Laden watching televised news footage of himself demonstrated his utter narcissism, and that maybe the case. But what could be seen was the complete opposite of the colossal military might that was bought to bare against him: An old man fiddling with the controls, confined to his own house, far more fragile than the Navy SEALs sent in to kill him. This bin Laden had become a small, plaintive figure. And this was the devil that the free world had gone to war with for almost a decade.

Update: Ruben Bolling makes a reference to the videos in this cartoon.