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updated: 5/11/2011 5:39 PM

Bin Laden photo debate is about life as well as death

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When it comes to Osama bin Laden, we should think as much about the pictures we see as about the ones we don't see. Here's what I mean: I listened this week to an engaging debate on National Public Radio over whether pictures of Osama bin Laden's dead body should be released.

Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, argued stridently that it was not appropriate for the White House to, in his words, "hoist (bin Laden's) head on a stick and parade it through the streets." Nor, he argued, does history require an image of the corpse of one of the world's most notorious mass murderers to accept that he is dead. We seem to have accepted the end of World War II happily enough without benefit of a picture of Adolf Hitler with his head blown off, he pointed out.

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Paul Waldman, senior correspondent for The American Prospect magazine, countered that at least a single respectful image of bin Laden's body -- perhaps covered by a death shroud and being unceremoniously slipped into the sea, he suggested -- would provide "a visual bookend on this period of our history" and send messages to friend and foe alike about the wages of terror. He said photos are eventually going to seep out into the public domain and the United States has a one-time opportunity to provide the picture that, by virtue of being first, will become the iconic representation of a historic event.

Without any pictures to consider, the Daily Herald has not yet had to confront the dilemma of publication, but it's worth noting that even if the White House decided to release a death image of Osama bin Laden, we would do some serious soul searching before deciding whether the picture were appropriate for our paper. The nature of the photograph and arguments like those of both Waldman and Gourevitch would figure prominently in our decision.

Perhaps equally telling, though, is what we do with pictures we do have; to wit, the picture we chose in announcing bin Laden's death. In a conversation last week, Editor John Lampinen told me that when he came into the office the night of the bin Laden announcement, copy editor Jamie Swanson already was pushing for a particular image. It showed bin Laden in a soldier's camouflage, sitting in a starkly vacant room, with a machine gun propped against the wall behind him. He wears a wry smirk and appears to look off into the distance. He is an isolated terrorist.

Lampinen, Swanson and other editors studied several other pictures, including one in particular that ultimately found its way onto scores of front pages around the country. The picture, a prominent profile of a youthful-looking bin Laden, was striking and simple. But, dressed in white linen and headdress with an aura of light behind him, bin Laden appears almost spiritual, a thoughtful imam, our editors decided, and that was not the image we wanted to convey of the man our country had killed. We went with the terrorist.

Cliché has it that a picture says a thousand words. I doubt that anyone who saw the "spiritual" bin Laden believed the world had lost a saint, but there's no denying that the different pictures carry their own unique messages. To a large degree, it's these subtleties that we end up debating when we move to select a picture, or for that matter a word or headline. (There is certainly, for instance, much more packed into the headline we used, "Bin Laden killed," than the softer, vaguer phrase, "Bin Laden dead.")

All that is also the thrust of the Waldman-Gourevitch debate over pictures of bin Laden's corpse. You may find it useful to know we put as much thought into pictures showing the terrorist alive as we will those showing him dead.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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