To Show the Body, Or Not to Show the Body: That Is the Question


While it may seem strange to celebrate the death of an individual, the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 1, 2011, is surely one of those rare occasions warranting this particular kind of grim satisfaction. The question facing the U.S. government now is: should photographs and video of the dead Al Qaeda leader’s body be officially released to the public?

Of course there are already leaks of images and video purporting to be Osama bin Laden’s dead body, which may well prove genuine. The AP briefly published one macabre photo but then retracted it, explaining that it can’t verify its authenticity, and a video purporting to show bin Laden’s body circulated just as briefly on YouTube before the site took it down. But so far none of these images and video bear the imprimatur of the U.S. government -- that all important stamp certifying “this is the guy.”

Obviously the issue of authenticity is an important one: to borrow from the Wizard of Oz, photos and video of the real Osama bin Laden’s body will help prove that he is “morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead… not only merely dead… really most sincerely dead.” On the other hand, images or video that turn out to be hoaxes may encourage the inevitable conspiracy theories (probably already in circulation) to the effect that he isn’t actually dead at all. Likewise, a decision not to release official visual proof will also feed paranoid imaginations: after all, failure to plaster the dead guy’s photo everywhere can only mean they have something to hide, right?

Fortunately (or unfortunately), there is plenty of precedent for the decision to release photos of dead bad guys. Following is a quick review of dead bad guys and their visual records, as well as their ramifications.

1. Jesse James

One of the most notorious outlaws to ever scourge the Old West, Jesse James somehow managed to be both a popular hero and a universally feared sociopathic killer. On April 3, 1882, after a spectacular career of train and bank robberies (which James and his gang presented as a guerrilla-style continuation of Southern resistance after the Civil War), James was famously betrayed by a fellow gang-member named Robert Ford in the hope of collecting a substantial reward. Thousands of people turned out to see his corpse, which was preserved on ice so visitors could have their picture taken with it -- as if to reassure themselves that the seemingly invincible outlaw was really dead. Nonetheless rumors circulated that James had survived and it was all hoax well into the 20th century.

2. Bonnie & Clyde

After leading a gang that committed a string of bank robberies and murdered at least nine policemen, Texas outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were ambushed and killed by law enforcement in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, on May 23, 1934. The young couple had already earned iconic status through a series of photos taken while they were alive -- particularly dramatic images of Parker holding pistols in menacing yet oddly feminine poses. Their place in history was cemented by the images surrounding their death: the better-known, more palatable image shows the bullet-riddled car they were driving when they were gunned down near Arcadia, Louisiana. Like James, their dead bodies attracted thousands of gawkers confirming that the couple was dead with their own eyes. Meanwhile a handful of macabre photos circulated showing their dead bodies mutilated by bullet wounds and covered with blood. The gruesome images seem to have effectively preempted any rumors that they might have survived.

3. Ted Bundy

The handsome serial killer -- who raped and murdered at least 30 young women across the U.S. in the mid-1970s -- gained additional notoriety for escaping from prison twice (killing at least three more victims after the second escape). While alive, police remarked on the indistinct quality of his facial features, which were attractive in a bland, “Ken Doll” way that made it almost impossible to identify him from photographs and police sketches. After he was finally executed in Florida on January 24, 1989, his extraordinary record of eluding arrest and then escaping imprisonment seemed to drive the public’s demand to see his dead body. With his head shaved for electrocution, Bundy’s corpse was once again almost unrecognizable when compared to other photos of him when he was alive, but the death photos still seemed to satisfy the public that the photogenic monster was no more. His body was cremated and the ashes scattered in the Cascade Mountains.

4. Nicolae Ceausescu

A monster on a whole different scale than the outlaws mentioned above, Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu earned a reputation as the most ruthless dictator in the former Warsaw Pact, which is saying quite a bit. His “Securitate” secret police tortured and killed thousands of Romanians over the course of his 24-year reign, including about 1,000 during the revolution that finally removed him and his hated wife Elena from power in December 1989. Between the Romanian public’s visceral hatred for the couple, and the widespread fear that they might somehow escape custody (his watch contained a homing beacon for a helicopter rescue that never came), the leaders of the revolution had little choice but to show their bodies on state TV after they were summarily executed on December 25, 1989. A video -- beginning with an indistinct shot of two crumpled bodies, before zooming in to show Ceausescu’s face -- became an iconic image symbolizing the dramatic end of the Cold War.

5, Saddam, Uday, and Qusay Hussein

After tyrannizing Iraq for a good 35 years, following his apprehension in December 2003 there was little doubt Saddam Hussein would be found guilty of crimes against the people of Iraq and executed. The only real question was whether images of his dead body would be released to the general public. As it turned out, lax security meant that at least one observer was able to record video showing not only Hussein’s dead body but the execution by hanging as well -- making it perhaps the world’s most famous snuff movie.

While the video of Hussein’s execution probably served to dispel fears that he might somehow survive and return to power someday, the simple fact that the video was taken and then leaked without the knowledge of the Iraqi government or U.S. military was viewed as deeply discrediting to both, generally calling into question the quality of justice afforded to criminals in Iraq. Photos also circulated of Hussein’s dead sons, Uday and Qusay, after they were killed in a firefight in July 2003; their mutilated bodies were heavily made up by undertakers to make them “presentable” to the general public.