Don’t Disclose The Photos

Normally I am a proponent of full disclosure of government documents, government meetings, and government decisions. In the case of the bin Laden death photos, however, I agree with the President that the prudent course is to not release them to the press and public.

I don’t agree with the President that releasing the photos would be like “spiking the football.”  It is a close question, and I don’t think the people who favor of disclosure (or most of them, anyway) are doing so because they want to rub bin Laden’s death in the noses of terrorists and al Qaeda sympathizers.  Instead, the three main pro-disclosure arguments seem to be that (1) doing so will avoid conspiracy theories about the fact of bin Laden’s death, (2) disclosure favors legitimate interests in transparency (and the photos are sure to be leaked eventually), and (3) there is no reason to treat bin Laden differently from mobsters who were gunned down and whose gruesome death photos have long been part of the public record.

I understand these reasons, but I don’t agree with them.  There is no need to release the photos to avoid conspiracy theories.  Members of bin Laden’s family have confirmed that he was shot and killed.  We’re kidding ourselves if we think releasing the photos is going to prevent nuts from developing nutty scenarios; they will just claim the photos were Photoshopped or use the photos to spin some other web of conspiracy.  Nor should the call for transparency trump everything else; the government has a legitimate interest in keeping some things secret. And bin Laden’s situation is different from that of a gangster — the St. Valentine’s Day massacre didn’t pose a risk of inflaming the sensibilities of millions of people in faraway parts of the world where American soldiers are currently engaged in hostile operations.

The short of it is, we don’t need to release the photos, and there are reasons of military advantage and good taste not to do so.  It is not as if the government hasn’t disclosed the facts of bin Laden’s death — it is just withholding one particularly gruesome piece of the record in the interests of decency.  Years from now, perhaps, when the furor has died down and soldiers are out of harm’s way, the photos can make their way into the public record.