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Why The United States Should Be Cautious About Releasing Osama Bin Laden's Death Photos

There is a debate in Washington about whether to release photos of Osama bin Laden's death. The director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, has said a picture of bin Laden's body could be released in the near future, but that it is up to the White House to make the final decision. The White House is moving cautiously, saying it is worried the photos could be gruesome and inflammatory.

There is a strong impetus to release the photos: to silence those critics, in the United States and around the world, who claim the operation was an elaborate hoax and bin Laden lives on in an Afghan cave/Peshawar market stall/Defense Department basement.

But would releasing the photos really silence the conspiracy theories? Of course not. Conspiracy theorists rarely change their minds when confronted with the truth -- they do not thrive on evidence but rather belief. As soon as the photos are released, there would be claims that the photos had been staged or doctored, that it wasn't bin Laden but a bin Laden look-alike. Releasing Obama's birth certificate hasn't silenced the Birthers -- nor would releasing Osama's photos silence the Deathers. Like sightings of Elvis, in years to come the real bin Laden would pop up from time to time in the tabloids. Anyone hoping the photos would mean case-closed would be sorely disappointed.

As to the question of whether the photos are too gruesome, for right or wrong, our attitudes to graphic depictions of violence have changed. I would avoid using the word "desensitized" -- most people don't watch the video of Neda dying on the street in Tehran and feel nothing.

In fact, the personal nature of social media has in many ways done the opposite: it encourages more human, emotive reactions whether it's sadness or hatred. As Zeynep Tufekci, a sociology professor and social-media commentator, has argued, traditional media encourages distance and that the "massive censorship of reality and images of this reality by mainstream news organizations from their inception has been incredibly damaging."

The danger of releasing the photos is found in that vast potential to elicit emotion. According to CNN, "A key counterterrorism adviser to President Barack Obama said that if the White House does decide to release images, it wants to do it in a 'thoughtful manner.'"

But there is no thoughtful way to release these images, nor is there a way for the White House to control the narrative. Newspapers and mainstream news websites might keep the photos off their front-pages, but that doesn't mean no one will see them -- the gatekeepers of media consumption have now changed. They will rapidly spread through other news sites, Twitter, and Facebook.

The decision was made to bury Osama bin Laden's body at sea partly to prevent the establishment of a shrine. But shrines don't have to be physical, adorned with flowers, visited by the devoted. Nowadays, shrines are also digital -- made up of millions of avatars, status updates, and YouTube videos.

The death photos would undoubtedly form the centerpiece of a digital shrine to bin Laden. Muslim extremists would mash them up with other images and turn them into devotional videos; they would be held aloft on high-definition placards from Kabul to Cairo. Millions would use them as honorific avatars on social-networking sites around the world.

Al-Qaeda -- more of an idea than an organization -- is in many ways the ultimate social network. Digital images, massaged, mash-upped, have always been the fuel and glue holding everything together. The jihadi video has become a genre in its own right, with its own aesthetics and cinematic grammar. Devotional chanting, a distant shot of a U.S. convoy running into an IUD, verses from the Koran over a black screen -- these videos have allowed thousands of extremists around the world to connect.

Conversely the images could be used as part of an inflammatory orgy of chauvinism in the United States. The photos would be manipulated, overlaid with text -- from the relatively harmless "Good Riddance" to vile, gloating, racist badges of honor -- and shared across social networks. At their most moderate they would be a mass virtual gloat; at their worst, the equivalent of burning an effigy in the digital age.

Osama bin Laden will always be a martyr to many and there's no way of stopping that, but why add more fuel to the fire? To silence critics who anyway are unlikely to be silenced, not least by a grainy, bloody photo released by the U.S. government?

Or as Philip Gourevitch wrote in "The New Yorker," "A photograph of the violence you inflict is always, in very large measure, a self-portrait."