A Closed-Casket Country in an Open-Casket World

As I write this, there is a growing discussion of whether or not the US will release images of Osama Bin Laden’s dead body. While I’m not a security expert by any means, once the news broke that US forces had killed Osama Bin Laden the first question to enter my head was: How are they going to release the photos of his dead body?

It never entered my thinking that the US wouldn’t. However, I couldn’t envision a politically and culturally “safe space” within which the US could.

The US has become a “closed-casket nation” in more ways than one. This cultural preference not only relates to how bodies are viewed/not viewed at funerals, it more broadly relates to how we as a nation view death. Despite its certainty and ubiquity, on a cultural level, we treat death as though it is unusual, rare, even shocking. We make it so by not openly dealing with and discussing it, by immunizing our visual culture from accurate depictions of it, and even by promoting a commercial perspective that we can defy it.

This national perspective has its limits, to be sure, but, for the most part, we as a nation do not deal with death in a real way. Presently, we even continue to minimize the images of death relating to our own soldiers in our various and current wars. Have you ever seen a photo of the body of a dead soldier from one of the current wars taken while he or she was already dead? When was the last time you saw a photo of a US soldier bleeding or severely wounded? When was the last time you even saw a picture of the casket bringing their body home?

And that’s one of the reasons why releasing photos immediately would have seemed shocking, almost inhumane. From both the image and sense the US has of itself, as well as the image the rest of the world has of us, an immediate release of these images would have seemed out of step and suggestive of gloating more than anything else. You might not have a problem with that as an individual (if so, I am sorry), but it does little in terms of serving the interests of so-called “national security” (which is all that really matters to those in charge).

At the same time, I fully recognize that we live in an open-casket world. No matter how people in the US view death, the rest of the world does not have the luxury of being so isolated from its presence. This isn’t necessarily a sign of wealth as much as it may be a sign of what academic’s might call the “culture of modernity.” It wasn’t too long ago that the US was an open-casket nation. Even in places that are considered the “first world,” visions of the deceased are not rare. They are integrated into the ways people collectively deal with death and heal from the sorrow of it.

In many places in the world–places where the death of Osama Bin Laden needs to be communicated (from a US diplomatic and military perspective)–death is a constant part of life. There are children who grow up seeing death and dismemberment from war and violence on a regular basis. There are places on this earth–far too many places–where you can not escape the capriciousness of human-instigated death.

The horrific and painful photo above is of three of the four children killed in a US airstrikea little more than two months ago in Afghanistan. In the two week period ending last February–when these children were killed–the Afghanistan government estimated 200 civilians had been killed as a result of the war.

In these cultures, death and the body of the deceased go hand in hand. That’s why I recognized right away that the US was going to have to release the photos, eventually.

What seems to be developing is a concerted effort by people in the Departments of Defense and State to “prime the pump” as it were and prepare for the release of the photos. If they were “leaked” then that would suggest some kind of problem within the US military or intelligence apparatus, or even the White House. But the current discussion from Washington is depicting the White House and others are “conflicted” but increasingly aware of the large “public outcry” for these images.

When they do release the images it will be seen as an acquiescence to these external pressures. The US will not come off as barbaric (quite the contrary, since they “withheld” the photos in the first place), and the military and diplomatic interests of showcasing the dead body of Osama Bin Laden to the world will be served.

At least that’s my guess.

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