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Rupert Cornwell: However grisly, the American public will demand the photos

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A Pakistani man chants anti-American slogans during a rally to condemn the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Multan, Pakistan on Wednesday, May 4, 2011. Pakistan criticized the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden as an "unauthorized unilateral action," laying bare the strains the operation has put on an already rocky alliance.(AP Photo/Khalid Tanveer)

A Pakistani man chants anti-American slogans during a rally to condemn the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Multan, Pakistan on Wednesday, May 4, 2011. Pakistan criticized the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden as an "unauthorized unilateral action," laying bare the strains the operation has put on an already rocky alliance.(AP Photo/Khalid Tanveer)

Khalid Tanveer

ABBOTTABAD, PAKISTAN - MAY 3:  A local man walks through a field near Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces, May 3, 2011 in Abottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military mission May 2, at the compound. According to reports May 4, 2011, the Obama administration has decided not to release photographs of Bin Laden's body.  (Photo by Getty Images)

ABBOTTABAD, PAKISTAN - MAY 3: A local man walks through a field near Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces, May 3, 2011 in Abottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military mission May 2, at the compound. According to reports May 4, 2011, the Obama administration has decided not to release photographs of Bin Laden's body. (Photo by Getty Images)

Getty Images

ABBOTTABAD, PAKISTAN - MAY 3:  People gather outside Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces, May 3, 2011 in Abottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military mission May 2, at the compound. According to reports May 4, 2011, the Obama administration has decided not to release photographs of Bin Laden's body.  (Photo by Getty Images)

ABBOTTABAD, PAKISTAN - MAY 3: People gather outside Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces, May 3, 2011 in Abottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military mission May 2, at the compound. According to reports May 4, 2011, the Obama administration has decided not to release photographs of Bin Laden's body. (Photo by Getty Images)

Getty Images

ABBOTTABAD, PAKISTAN - MAY 3:  Pakistanis along with international and local media gather outside Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces, May 3, 2011 in Abottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military mission May 2, at the compound. According to reports May 4, 2011, the Obama administration has decided not to release photographs of Bin Laden's body.  (Photo by Getty Images)

ABBOTTABAD, PAKISTAN - MAY 3: Pakistanis along with international and local media gather outside Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces, May 3, 2011 in Abottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military mission May 2, at the compound. According to reports May 4, 2011, the Obama administration has decided not to release photographs of Bin Laden's body. (Photo by Getty Images)

Getty Images

WASHINGTON - MAY 04:  White House Press Secretary Jay Carney speaks during a daily press briefing at the White House Briefing Room May 4, 2011 in Washington, DC. Carney said President Barack Obama has made a decision not to release the photo of the death of Osama Bin Laden.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON - MAY 04: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney speaks during a daily press briefing at the White House Briefing Room May 4, 2011 in Washington, DC. Carney said President Barack Obama has made a decision not to release the photo of the death of Osama Bin Laden. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Alex Wong

Pakistani protesters burn representation of a U. S. flag during a rally to condemn the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden,  in Multan, Pakistan on Wednesday, May 4, 2011. Pakistan criticized the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden as an "unauthorized unilateral action," laying bare the strains the operation has put on an already rocky alliance.  (AP Photo/Khalid Tanveer)

Pakistani protesters burn representation of a U. S. flag during a rally to condemn the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in Multan, Pakistan on Wednesday, May 4, 2011. Pakistan criticized the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden as an "unauthorized unilateral action," laying bare the strains the operation has put on an already rocky alliance. (AP Photo/Khalid Tanveer)

Khalid Tanveer

In this May 3, 2011, photo, media and local residents gather outside the house where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed, in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The nail-biting, 40-minute clandestine operation that resulted in Osama bin Laden's death could have been a calamitous political and military failure; a bloodbath in Pakistan that left U.S. forces and scores of civilians dead or captured by America's most ferocious enemy.  (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

In this May 3, 2011, photo, media and local residents gather outside the house where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed, in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The nail-biting, 40-minute clandestine operation that resulted in Osama bin Laden's death could have been a calamitous political and military failure; a bloodbath in Pakistan that left U.S. forces and scores of civilians dead or captured by America's most ferocious enemy. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

Anjum Naveed

Pakistani police officers stand guard at the main gate of a house where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan on Wednesday, May 4, 2011. The residents of Abbottabad, Pakistan, were still confused and suspicious on Wednesday about the killing of Osama bin Laden, which took place in their midst before dawn on Monday. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

Pakistani police officers stand guard at the main gate of a house where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan on Wednesday, May 4, 2011. The residents of Abbottabad, Pakistan, were still confused and suspicious on Wednesday about the killing of Osama bin Laden, which took place in their midst before dawn on Monday. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

Anjum Naveed

Osama bin Laden, pictured in Afghanistan in April 1998

Osama bin Laden, pictured in Afghanistan in April 1998

Anonymous

ABBOTTABAD, PAKISTAN - MAY 3:  Inside Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces, is seen May 3, 2011 in Abottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military mission May 2, at the compound. According to reports May 4, 2011, the Obama administration has decided not to release photographs of Bin Laden's body.  (Photo by Getty Images)

ABBOTTABAD, PAKISTAN - MAY 3: Inside Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces, is seen May 3, 2011 in Abottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military mission May 2, at the compound. According to reports May 4, 2011, the Obama administration has decided not to release photographs of Bin Laden's body. (Photo by Getty Images)

Getty Images

ABBOTTABAD, PAKISTAN - MAY 3:  People walk past Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces, May 3, 2011 in Abottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military mission May 2, at the compound. According to reports May 4, 2011, the Obama administration has decided not to release photographs of Bin Laden's body.  (Photo by Getty Images)

ABBOTTABAD, PAKISTAN - MAY 3: People walk past Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces, May 3, 2011 in Abottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military mission May 2, at the compound. According to reports May 4, 2011, the Obama administration has decided not to release photographs of Bin Laden's body. (Photo by Getty Images)

Getty Images

ABBOTTABAD, PAKISTAN - MAY 3:  People gather outside Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces, May 3, 2011 in Abottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military mission May 2, at the compound. According to reports May 4, 2011, the Obama administration has decided not to release photographs of Bin Laden's body.  (Photo by Getty Images)

ABBOTTABAD, PAKISTAN - MAY 3: People gather outside Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces, May 3, 2011 in Abottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military mission May 2, at the compound. According to reports May 4, 2011, the Obama administration has decided not to release photographs of Bin Laden's body. (Photo by Getty Images)

Getty Images

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A Pakistani man chants anti-American slogans during a rally to condemn the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Multan, Pakistan on Wednesday, May 4, 2011. Pakistan criticized the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden as an "unauthorized unilateral action," laying bare the strains the operation has put on an already rocky alliance.(AP Photo/Khalid Tanveer)

"That's not who we are. We don't trot out this stuff as trophies." With those words, Barack Obama yesterday tried to end the debate that followed the greatest national security feat of his presidency: namely, whether to release the grisly photos of the death of Osama bin Laden.

His administration was divided on the issue, as was Congress. But the President felt "very strongly" the photograph should not be published. In an interview yesterday for CBS's 60 Minutes, which will be aired on Sunday, Mr Obama said he had seen images, and was "95 per cent" certain that the dead man was Osama bin Laden. Facial analysis and confirmation by witnesses present in the compound, and subsequent DNA results confirmed the dead man was Bin Laden. "There is no question he is dead," the President said. "He will not walk this earth again."

No pictures will be released because the most conclusive picture of Bin Laden is also the most gruesome: bloody and, according to those who have seen it, with part of the head above one eye shot away. The President believed such grisly images would only inflame anti-American feelings in the Muslim world – and this when no one was seriously challenging the fact that Bin Laden had been killed. Why, therefore, risk putting US troops, and Americans abroad, in danger when there is no problem?



Besides, even photos might not be enough. As the enduring fuss over Obama's birth certificate proves, even after the original was made public last week, even cast-iron, documentary proof – as the President himself noted in the interview – will not convince those who do not want to be convinced.



But the decision not to publish may not still a clamour that has been fuelled, it must be said, by the shifting accounts of what precisely happened in the compound where the al-Qa'ida leader was hiding. A photograph may not be the most irrefutable form of proof. But for stark, stunning finality, nothing matches one.



Nor is grisliness alone sufficient justification. Horrific images, from the beheading of US hostages by Islamic extremists to the hanging of Saddam Hussein, swirl around the internet. The Pentagon itself released graphic photos of the corpses of Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay, showing them bruised and caked with blood after being killed in a shootout with US troops in 2003.



And, proponents of publication contend, no one is forced to look at such pictures. These days American television routinely shows images of violent death, warning that viewer discretion is required. Why should Osama bin Laden be an exception?

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They also point out that one of the reasons President Obama opted for a commando raid rather than the less risky alternative of a bombing or cruise-missile attack on the compound was to make sure they could recover an identifiable body – or even take Bin Laden alive.



Most powerful of all perhaps is the "closure" argument. America is where relatives of a murder victim watch the killer die. Publication of Bin Laden's death photos would, it is argued, be part of a comparable "healing process" to lay to rest a mass-murder committed against the entire country.



One poll yesterday showed 56 per cent of Americans in favour of publication. In the US, numbers usually win out. Sooner or later, the world's most wanted man when alive, will in death be subject of what will surely be the world's most-viewed photo.


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