Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Should the Bin Laden Pictures Have Been Released?

Today, the White House announced that President Obama has decided not to release photographs of Osama bin Laden's dead body. As reported in the press, there was some disagreement over whether releasing them would be a good idea. One view was that it would convince people that he is actually dead. The other was that it would "inflame" his followers, in part because it might be seen as an act of disrespect.

I actually don't have any opinion about whether either of these arguments is true. I was interested, however, that, at least publicly, a third issue was not being discussed. These pictures are described as "gruesome." What effect would seeing them have on your average person on the street?

I myself don't really need to see "gruesome" images. Just as I felt triggered by listening to audio of people screaming on 9-11, I find certain kinds of images very disturbing. Over the years, for example, I have studiously avoided the video of people jumping out of the twin towers. I don't need to see it to understand what happened, but seeing it is too vivid for me. It takes me from the reasonable point of needing to understand others' trauma to being traumatized myself.

Now, it's perfectly reasonable to say that we don't censor the press to protect Naomi Zikmund-Fisher from objectionable images. If I don't want to look, I won't -- just as is the case with the 9-11 videos. This relies, however, on media outlets handling the images in a manner that acknowledges that not everyone wants to see them, or wants their children to see them.

I vividly remember the day more than 4 years ago when I hooked up my laptop to a projector to show a website to some kids, opened my browser (which had CNN as its startup page) and was confronted by -- and confronted my students with -- a picture of the Virginia Tech shooter aiming a firearm at the camera. I had some explaining to do to some parents, and I wished CNN had made it just a tiny bit harder to see those pictures.

This is a free society, and we don't censor our press. If my sensibilities, or even the sensibilities of a lot of people, were the sole issue, the pictures of bin Laden should have been released. The President has decided not to, and I know that a lot more went into that decision than whether they would be traumatizing to the average American. This is a good occasion to remember, however, that sensory input -- sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings -- can trigger very strong emotional reactions, much more intense than just hearing about a traumatic event. While we shouldn't prohibit them, we should be careful about exposing people to them by accident.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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