Within days of the dramatic killing of Osama bin Laden, the nation was back to its default position—bickering: Was the killing legal? Did torture make it possible? Should George W. Bush get as much credit for it as Barack Obama? All of those arguments pretty much broke down along the usual partisan lines. But one of the arguments that emerged during the week broke the tiresome partisan pattern and actually provoked unusually thoughtful commentary from all sides of the political spectrum, and that was the argument over whether to release photos of the Osama bin Laden corpse, bullet-through-the-eye and all.
The arguments against releasing the photos were as varied as they were reasonable. One argument was based on the outrage they might provoke among Muslims and against American troops. Another argument basically came down to the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. In other words, how would/do we feel when our slain people are paraded around in foreign public. A third argument was based on aesthetics—do we really want to publicize such gruesome photos for mass public consumption?
The most forceful argument for releasing the photos was based on our concept of democracy as a transparent form of government in which “we the people”--as the actual government--were entitled to see what our representative government had done in our name. The other arguments for releasing the photos were primarily based on the projection of the behavior of others. First, there was projection on the behavior of conspiracy theorists who (it was naively believed) would need to see the photos to be convinced that bin Laden was dead. Then there was projection on radical Muslims who would need to see the photos to be made to step back and take a sobering second look at the chosen paths of their lives.
I found it one of the few enlightening debates we’ve had in quite some time because there seemed to be enough soundness of reason and goodness of intention on both sides. And when it came time for the President to finally make his decision, I found that I could’ve understood and accepted it whichever way he went. This equanimity of mind—rare in my recent political experience—was the result of a number of personal reflections during the debate.
One of those reflections was on an HBO documentary from some months ago called Terror in Mumbai which examined in stunning detail the 2008 attack on two hotels, a train station and a hospital that killed 164 people in India. One of the terrorists survived and ended up providing a great deal of information on the planning and execution of the attack, but only after his captors had taken him on a tour of the morgue to view the slain bodies of his compatriots. That would seem to make the case for the sobering effect of exposing would-be terrorists to the grim reality of taking the destructive path.
On the other hand, the wide distribution of the photo of the bullet-riddled body of Che Guevera did nothing to dampen the romantic aura surrounding him. Perhaps that was because Che was effectively branded as a revolutionary and not a terrorist, having actually participated in the overthrow of a government as opposed to killing innocents in order to provoke an overthrow. Speaking of Che, it’s notable that his admirers chose to memorialize him in life rather than death. Those ubiquitous Che flags, posters, and T-shirts that still abound decades after his bloody death always feature that iconic portrait of him boldly looking off into some glorious socialist future.
Followers of martyrs are not always so upbeat in their imagery of choice. Take Christians, for instance. The crucifixion image that has come to symbolize Christianity for nearly 2,000 years is essentially that of a brutalized corpse hanging from a cross. Ball players routinely lift crucifixes to their lips and kiss them before millions of viewers sitting at home eating pizza rolls and drinking beer and no one screams, “Yuk!” Parents reverently drape crucifixes around the necks of their pre-pubescent children and proudly send them off to birthday parties without any concern that they'll poop the party with their murdered man on a cross accessory.
The ancient Romans would have settled the question of whether to release the Osama bin Laden photos differently than the President did of course. The whole idea behind their leaving bodies hanging from crosses for days was so it would serve as a warning to any other would-be lawbreakers. A strong case could be made that their approach backfired. Centuries later, no more Roman Empire, but crucifixes everywhere--some of them the size of windmills and some of them the center of vigorous legal activity to keep them prominent in the public square.
The success of the crucifix in arousing the emotions and solidifying the determination of followers to a cause would seem to support the President’s decision not to release the Osama bin Laden death photos. There is something about the bloodletting of a leader that raises, rather than calms, the blood of the followers.
Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ drew record-setting audiences, many driven by exhortations from the world’s pulpits. I cannot possibly speak for all of them, but certainly among those I knew were numerous people who had sworn off movies because of their excess sex and violence. Yet they found themselves enraptured by this film that has rightfully been described as an exercise in torture porn.
In recent years I’ve had somewhat of a fascination with films about suicidal bombers. Not content with the explanation that these are just people born evil, I’ve been making a virtual study of these relative youngsters to try and understand what makes them tick (pun intended). The films I’ve watched have not locked in on any one of the conventional explanations (i.e., driven by poverty or driven by ideological hatreds). The explanations in these films come across as surprisingly complex and subtle, tied as much to individual character traits as to any one overarching cause. That may be due to a requirement of movie making that character drives story. A CIA analyst might differ from a film director by paring away individual characteristics to focus on common denominators. How else to combat suicidal bombers if we believe their choices are as unique as fingerprints? On the flip side, why bother to combat them if we believe their actions are the result of being born evil? The filmmaker does what he has to do; the analyst does what he has to do.
What I invariably end up doing while watching one of these films is putting myself in the place of a kid who believes wholeheartedly that he has a cause to die for. Easy to do, actually, since I was once very much there. As a young Catholic boy, I was raised on the stories of martyrs. Indeed, for much of my boyhood I aspired to be one--Daniel in the lions’ den! (Jesus, I took that one personally, and even called my first column in my high school paper Daniel in the Lions’ Den.)
But should I really be comparing myself to suicide bombers? Indeed I should if this whole Love’s Body thing means as much to me as I say it does, because the essence of love’s body is that we are all part of one body, and we get into trouble when we start forcing the separation between us. “Here is the fall,” writes Norman O. Brown, “the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ between ‘mine’ and ‘thine,’ between ‘me’ and ‘thee’ (or ‘it’), come all together—the boundaries between persons; boundaries between properties; the polarity between love and hate…The erection of the boundary does not alter the fact that there is, in reality, no boundary.”
It is commonplace to explain Osama bin Laden’s behavior as evil, but that explains nothing. In fact its supernatural connotation renders the potential victims of such behavior even more vulnerable, as if they’re up against vampires or zombies. Only slightly more helpful is to describe such behavior in terms of geopolitics or religion. If so, then why don’t millions of others living under the same geopolitical or religious circumstances behave in such murderous ways?
This is why I find the Love’s Body explanation more compelling and convincing. Bin Laden did what he did because he had separated himself as a human being from the human beings he turned into targets. He had made them “other” than himself. Says Brown, “The distinction between self and not-self is made by the childish decision to claim all that the ego likes as ‘mine’ and to repudiate all the ego dislikes as ‘not-mine.’ It is as simple as that.”
There was another picture of bin Laden that caused me far more discomfort than any corpse shot would have. It was featured throughout the week Talking Points Memo, and every morning when I went there I winced when I saw it. I’ve posted it on my blog. If you look past it as a picture of bin Laden, what you see is a picture of a tanned, smiling, handsome man. He could be an actor on the set of Lawrence of Arabia sharing a laugh with Peter O’ Toole. It’s unsettling to look at a man exuding such admirable qualities and know what he is capable of--to know what a member of our species is capable of.
To dismiss him as evil—to make him “other” than us--is to lose a chance to get a deeper, albeit disturbing, understanding of ourselves. To make him “other” robs us of the profound lesson of his life, which is this: making what’s “not mine” evil is what makes killing what’s not-mine possible.