Drawing A Veil over A Villain

Tom Nero, advancing the cause of science

In The Four Stages of Cruelty, William Hogarth depicts the body of Tom Nero, a fictitious murderer, being dissected during an anatomy class. From the ceiling hang the skeletons of Burke and Hare, the infamous grave-robbers. Tom Nero might never have existed, but the fate of his mortal remains was entirely plausible: in 1752, the British Parliament had passed a law, permitting the authorities to donate the bodies of executed criminals, as it were, to science.

Hogarth was preaching a homily in images. His moral: break the sixth commandment, and you will pay a terrible price. Not even your body will be yours to do with as you please.

Most people today would find the image shocking, and the reality behind it downright barbaric. Since Georgian times, the idea that human mortal remains deserve some minimum level of decent treatment has become part of the Western social compact. The bodies of the indigent are buried in Potters’ Fields, in deep, regular graves. Painstakingly, DNA experts tested the fragmentary remains of 9/11 casualties, in order to return them to their loved ones. Even Osama bin Laden — who, God knows, did nothing to endear himself to his body’s final custodians — was disposed of with as much reverence and probity as he could have expected, given the circumstances.

On the subject of bin Laden, public figures with views as diverse as Sarah Palin and Jon Stewart are demanding that photographs of his body be released for public consideration. This is no more a part of Western SOP for handling the dead than grinding them into sausages. Yet bin Laden’s vicious history makes it seem reasonable. Even if you disagree with Palin, that providing evidence is “part of the mission,” even if you reject the arguments that sight of bin Laden’s bullet-shattered face will inflame the Islamic world or amount to a football-spiking, there doesn’t seem to be much reason not to do it. As Stewart points out, graphic images of death are all over the internet, not to mention al-Jazeera. Why pick this moment, of all moments, to turn squeamish?

My answer would be that releasing the photos would involve a special directedness. There’s not much chance the pictures will make it onto the net without government say-so; we can’t speak of them as already belonging to some amorphous “dialogue.“ The figure in the photos is more than part of the landscape in a wide-angle battle scene; it is the scene. The person to whom it belongs is not anonymous, and cannot be seen as generic. No, it belongs to someone whose name and history are widely known; indeed, his notoriety is the very justification for showing them. In this case, the violation of the norm stating that dead bodies deserve some privacy, especially when they look their worst, would be knowing and deliberate.

In Touchstone, Wilfred McClay writes: “…there is something of primal importance about the way we treat the dead…Nothing tells us more about a culture’s regard for the human person and its sense of itself than its funerary rituals, its ways of acknowledging and remembering the dead.” If we invite the public to gawk at bin Laden’s corpse we will begin to qualify that statement. We will send the message: We believe in treating the dead with reverence most of the time. Kinda-sorta. Unless, as the legalese goes, we have a compelling interest not to.

Observers have cited no end of compelling interests. The problem is, I don’t find most of them very compelling. The one that, to my mind, holds the most water, comes from Jon Stewart, of all people. In Wednesday’s monologue, he observed, “We can only make decisions about war if we know what war actually is.” That’s a noble purpose: not to spike the football, not to placate the implacable conspiracy buffs, not to warn our enemies — who, as Stewart pointed out, can find all the caveats they’ll ever need on al-Jazeera — but to give people a peek behind warfare’s seductive jargon.

But there remains the question of what, exactly, people will see. In an essay titled “Looking at War,” Susan Sontag makes a case that images of war are never just images of war. Instead, they’re images of particular wars, fought by particular groups of people, who are trying to advance particular agendas. Where people stand on those agendas is going to influence, if not determine outright, what meaning they attach to the images.

“To an Israeli Jew,” writes Sontag, “a photograph of a child torn apart in the attack on the Sbarro’s pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem is first of all a photograph of a Jewish child killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. To a Palestinian, a photograph of a child torn apart by a tank round in Gaza is first of all a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli ordinance.”

To put that another way, most people already have mental boxes into which they can fit any photo of bin Laden, no matter how grisly it might be. To many people, it will represent a football well and justly spiked. To others, it will only serve to confirm that the U.S. is imperialistic and brutal. One thing that photo won’t do — at least in most cases — is teach anything new.

The danse macabre motif that flourished after the Black Death first hit Europe showed death visting all ranks — kings and peasants, men and women, presumably good as well as evil. Death is the great equalizer, the message went. That’s not entirely true — even death has its own caste system. Anyone who doubts it should compare the tomb of, say, St. Bernadette with any of the banal, flat brass-fronted grave markers that are so common in modern cemeteries. But if we make bin Laden’s body the property of the world, we’re suggesting that death has its outcastes and untouchables. I’m not sure I’m ready for that.

– Max Lindenman

As an afterthought, I’d like to clarify something. When I post an opinion on some issue of substance — as opposed to, say, recommending a movie — the opinion is mine and mine alone. Nobody should ascribe it to Elizabeth, much less to some impersonal, authoritative Anchoress editorial staff. If you find any of my opinions wrongheaded or offensive, lodge all the blame with me.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    Max, I completely disagree. It’s not a question of “spiking the football” or getting any sort of pleasure or satisfaction from seeing his dead body. It’s a question of validating facts. Right now there are all sorts of conspiracy theories abounding out there. Even by Americans in the United States. I’ve seen them on opinion sites. It’s not just a question of his death. The manner of his death is also in dispute. The story line from the administration seems to change every 12 hours. Was he really resisting or was he executed? The visual evidence will put many things to rest and quell conspiracies. We just went through a three year ordeal over a birth certificate. Just look at the theories on the JFK death. Shine a light on the facts upfront and it will disinfect, or at least minimize human fancies. Alan Dershowitz in the wall street journal had the best argument for it:

    As to the evolving storyline of what happened at the killing, it seems that while now Osama is with his 72 virgins, we are awash in 72 versions. :-P

  • The FatMan

    This may be changing the topic, so feel free to delete this comment if desired, but it made me think:
    I’d say we already have enough images of war to know what it is. I would, however, like to know if Jon Stewart is pro-abortion or pro-life, because what I do not see across the main stream media is “What an abortion is.”
    The FatMan

  • Max Lindenman

    I try to stay out of debates in comboxes, just because they can be very absorbing. I’ll look up and realize, “Holy cow! I just wrote 500 words that could have gone into a blog or a column!” But I just want to say:

    Manny: That’s a well put-together argument.

    The FAtManL My comments policy is simple: as long as you’re not using cusswords or threatening someone physically, you’re more than free to go on with your bad self.

    I think Stewart is pro-choice. I say this because I remember a Daily Show episode where correspondents intrrviewed Sarah Palin supporters, trying to get them to use the word “choice” to characterize Bristol’s decision to keep her baby.

  • Greta

    Was a good post from Manny and also the link.. Never heard that perspective yet..

    One thing is certain that the after kill handling by the administraion led by Obama has been a huge problem from his first announcement on.

  • Bill M

    >there doesn’t seem to be much reason not to do it

    Here’s one: The ubiquity of PhotoShop, which has made such images, served up as evidence, useless. It won’t quell the deather nonsense in the least.

  • cirej2000


    I think the one thing new that can be learned, or maybe it’s an old thing that can be relearned, is that the US is still capable of being brutal. A message that might drive the point home to those a few jihadis whose mental boxes still have those filters that might just glamorize what Bin Laden’s death might’ve been.

    As for the theory that we need the photos to change silence the doubters and conspiracy theorists…well, I still find the prospect of Obama being born in Kenya intriguing as heck! And I wouldn’t consider myself a birther! So I don’t buy that the pictures should be released for that reason. Besides, Al Qaeda has confirmed that he’s done Bin Dead.


    PS – take that college boy liberal troll! :)

  • isabella

    Not to sound barbaric, but this is why the ancient Romans dragged their prisoners of war through the streets of Rome. It didn’t leave a lot of room for conspiracy theories and doubt. I stopped counting Obama’s contradictions at 10.

    At the risk of sounding “unAmerican”, I cried myself to sleep the night our “leaders” announced his execution, and said a Rosary and Chaplet of Divine Mercy for him. None of us is able to judge somebody else’s soul at death but God, regardless of their lives. Anybody without sin to throw the first stone? Not me.

    On a more cheerful note, I just discovered this blog and it’s great :)

  • http://piercework.typepad.com Jennifer

    The issue of the photographs is a distraction from the central issue. What was the order and how was he killed?

    How we treat our dead is secondary to how we conduct ourselves in war.

    That’s the really poignant point of Jon Stewart’s statement. If we don’t care enough to ask for the unadulterated truth on that subject, we’ve satisfied ourselves with the ends and looked away from the means. This is what Hannah Arendt called The Banality of Evil, in Eichmann in Jerusalem.

    It may well be that even if it is the worst case scenario: kill order, captured, then killed, that there are moral arguments for why it had to happen just this way. The IDF has certainly been making them, a lone voice. This is completely cowardly, to obscure the truth and then hide. It is a big failure in domestic and international leadership. It is the ultimate failure in moral leadership.

    We’ve been blissfully unaware, but targeted killings as a hypothetical have been with us since Clinton. We put the possibility of this into positive law, while criticizing Israel for it on the global stage, an hypocrisy I was hoping our President would have the moral courage to address. So far we’ve received lies and evasions.

  • PattiDay

    Surely everyone has seen pictures of the dead, from the Civil War, from the Jewish Death Camps, of mobsters in New York delis. I don’t want to see them. During the hours and hours I sat glued to television on 9/11 and it’s continuous reruns, and thinking back to the Oklahoma bombing as well, I do not recall seeing a single image of dead or mangled bodies. Did I blot them out of my mind? I don’t care about pictures of Osama bin Laden. I really don’t need or want to see his dead body, face disfigured by gunshots. If I hear that pictures will be shown on television, I will almost surely look away.

    Put them in an archive, pull them out in fifty years. That generation, the ones who don’t know first hand the horror of 9/11, may look without blinking. They may view pictures of bin Laden’s ravaged face much as I view the picture of Mussolini’s dead body swinging in the wind, a picture of true evil from history, but without power to incite me one way or the other.