I miss Susan Sontag. In this moment in history regarding Osama bin Laden’s death, and more immediately regarding the debate over releasing the photographs of his death, I long for Sontag’s insights into the American psyche. In 2004, she wrote “Regarding the Torture of Others,” in which she argues the photographs U.S. soldiers took of and with prisoners at Abu Ghraib indicate a deeper and more disturbing reality, that Americans have become desensitized to images of torture to the point of explaining the necessity and the acceptance of not just the images but of torture itself. In that article, she addressed the growing public practice to photograph all aspects of our lives: “To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one’s life….” She continues, “But to live is also to pose.” She refers of course to the soldiers that stood next to the prisoners, sometimes smiling. She notes that when we do anything, we do it for the camera, and when we take pictures, we do it with a smile. She adds, “To act is to share in the community of actions recorded as images.” The community of recorded images includes the viewers, and it is this notion of voyeuristic sharing that seems to be the issue in the current debate over whether or not the White House should release photographs of bin Laden’s death. Americans want to see the pictures because they want to share in the experience of his death, and a visual representation of his death would fix the idea of a dead bin Laden in our collective memory.
We are already being inundated with images of bin Laden sitting on a floor, or holding a rifle, or walking through the mountains with a walking stick. I probably know more of what the man looked like now than ever before because his face seems to be on every news channel and on the cover of every newspaper. The deluge of his image will have the same effect of the repeated news clips of the airplanes going into the twin towers: the repeated images will fix this moment in history in our memory. Unfortunately this also means the image of his corpse would become and remain part of me; I don’t want that to happen. I am not suggesting that the photographs should not be made public; that seems a non-issue as CIA Director Leon Panetta told NBC Tuesday that the U.S. will eventually present a photograph. I am suggesting that the photographs will have lasting effects that are already apparent by the fact that many Americans want to see them. In a recent poll, CNN found that “56 percent of Americans want the U.S. government to publicly release a picture of Osama bin Laden’s body, while 39 percent say no.” This is not surprising. After all, we have seen the images from Abu Ghraib and of the death of Saddam Hussein. We were able to stomach those gruesome photographs which pushes our tolerance level even further away.
Those Americans who argue that anyone who doesn’t want to see the images doesn’t have to, may be right. We can look away, so to speak. But I cannot look away from the idea that the images exist at all, because their existence means someone saw fit to take them. Because the natural inclination when taking pictures is to pose, I am left wondering and fearing if anyone saw fit to pose with bin Laden’s corpse. The idea is provocative but it’s happened before. I fear the photographs could show us something we do not want to see and are not ready to accept about ourselves. I do not want to see the photographs of a dead Osama bin Laden, because I do not need visual proof of a death the world has already accepted. I do not want to see the photographs of a corpse, not because death frightens me, but because murder does. The image of a dead bin Laden would be an image of sanctioned murder made in the name of preserving my freedom. I do not want to see an image of his body anymore than I want to see an image of a dead American soldier. Sontag writes, “war is hell, more so than any of the people who got us into this rotten war seem to have expected. In our digital hall of mirrors, the pictures aren’t going to go away.” The pictures of Osama bin Laden’s body and his burial at sea are among millions of pictures that archive this war/these wars. Sontag explains that archive here: “What is illustrated by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality.”
In 2004, Sontag correctly assessed the growing human need to photograph all aspects of our lives; today, seven years later, her assessment may be even more true. The Facebook generation, with all our albums of daily life, demand a visual representation of this moment in history so that we can share in the moment and recall it as our own. What I am suggesting and what I find disturbing is that Americans want the satisfaction, even the pleasure, in being able to see the photographs of the body of “public enemy #1” in order to marvel and celebrate it as a victory disguised as closure. As Sontag writes, “There is the satisfaction at being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching.” I can’t control whether or not the images were taken, whether or not they will be released, or how they will be received; and I can’t control the culture of torture, brutality, and death war creates, but I can control my gaze, and I choose to focus my gaze on the living not on the dead. In this way, I can do some small part in resisting the growing trend to accept war as a celebrated evil.