Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Who has the right to Osama bin Laden’s photo, dead or alive?

Who has the right to Osama bin Laden’s photo, dead or alive?


Osama bin Laden (OBL) was killed unarmed (executed?) in front of his family without putting up a fight. An issue is raised as to whether his dead photo, with a shot in the head, taken by the US special force, should be released.


President Obama, after serious internal discussion and long personal deliberation, decided not to release the photo to the OBL family, US public, or the world community.

When asked in a CBS “60 minutes” interview (May 3, 2011), President Obama gave the following reason for non-release: "It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence."

I agree that the President, as the chief executive of the nation and Commander-in-Chief of the arm force, has the ultimate responsibility and legal authority to decide. I support his decision as a US national. However, with all due respect, I disagree with his decision, on legal and humanitarian grounds.


First, photo(s) of OBL, dead or alive, might have been taken by the US special force, but OBL’s image belong to him and him alone. A fugitive might give up his life, not his privacy, still less copyright interest to his own image.

To begin with, it must be remembered that the dead by shooting photo was taken at OBL’s home and without his consent. Since that is the case, I do not see how the US government can claim that it has the right to first take the photo and later to disposal of it, at will.

In terms of legal analysis, the question of right to take the photo should be separated from the right to invade OBL’s home and kill OBL. The US might be justified to kill OBL as an act of justifiable defense in time of war, it nevertheless has no right to take the photograph, and later dispose of it. This is particularly the case with the dead photo of OBL. OBL might deserve to die, but he is entitled to his privacy (control of his own personal information).

If the US now argues otherwise, that the US government has a right to the dead image of OBL, where does such a right derive? If we follow President’s Obama’s suggestion and keep OBL’s photo, what is to stop the US government to sell OBL’s dead photo to the highest bidder, for a gain. I am sure OBL’s dead photo is worth millions of dollars. As an example, I do not suppose the US government can now take pictures of executed prisoners and sell them for a profit to deflate the cost of execution?


Second, President’s decision to not release OBL’s photo is based entirely on strategy – tactical grounds, i.e., the photo is too inflammatory, it might excite emotions and incite riots, to the detriment of national security. In this the President has learned from Abu Grab. This I understand and concur: a picture is worth a thousand words. However this kind of argument has one major flaw – it places the cart before the horse. The killing, not the photo is the inflammatory act.

In declining to publish OBL’s dead photo, what the President is actually saying is that it is OK for US to kill people, in a gross fashion), but it is not OK to for the US to show people that it is killing people, grossly. More simply, US government is willing to kill people but US is not willing to face the consequences, of public opinion, of collective emotions. If the US government believe that it is doing the right thing, it should stand tall and be be prepare to deal with the consequences, in a forthright and courageous manner.

If that should be the logic, what is to stop the President to take it one step further and order secret killing of adversaries and enemies of the state. Surely, there is everything to lose and nothing to be gain, in covering ones "right" doing.


Third, OBL’s dead photo was taken by US paid personnel with the use of government equipments. Thus the photo belongs to the American people. In a democracy, the people have an absolute right to know, all the facts, not “managed” (manipulated or sterilized) facts. While I agree that the people’s right to know might at times be subject to countervailing considerations, e.g., impede investigation, but that should not include avoid adverse impact of the photo release, on our people. This is particularly the case when the details of how OBL execution was vividly described, highly publicized, widely known, in and around the world.


Finally, President Obama in making his decision did not consult the OBL family nor consider their sentiments. This raises the issue of whose vales and interests the President should be taking into account in the disposition of OBL’s body and photo.

I would like to think that in deciding on when and how to capture/kill OBL, US values and interests should be of most concerns. However, in bringing closure to OBL’s death, the family of OBL should have the the ultimate say. The President seems to agree. President Obama was heard saying that the US respect the tradition of Islam in burying OBL at sea after cleaning. But the President never once asked PBL’s family what they want to do with his body or photo!!

I would like to think the family of OBL would like to obtain OBL’s remains, including his photos, such that they can remember him by. It is inhumane to deny the OBL family members' wish to share in OBL's last moment.

In the US we routinely return bodies of executed prisoners for proper family burial, why not OBL!?

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