Celebrating death (even Bin Laden's) demeans our humanity

By Pascale Palmer
May 5, 2011

So President Obama has decided that he will not release the image of Osama bin Laden’s body. The reason, he says, is that it could be used for propaganda purposes by terrorist organisations. How about the fact that making public the blood-stained and damaged body of a human being is just plain unpleasant, undignified and quite wrong?

In The Guardian (5 May 2011) photographs of two unidentified bodies from inside the al-Qaida leader’s compound have been published and I’m hard-pressed to see the reason why, when the article leads on bin Laden’s 12-year-old daughter having seen her dad shot dead.

Surely holding this up as a gross emotional and psychological violation – which it is – should be carried through to an understanding of the sensitivities surrounding images of dead men in pools of their own blood?

When Princess Diana died in 1997 London newsdesks collectively agreed not to publish the image of her body that arrived in their inboxes. There cannot be different rules for different people, whatever their history and actions. If victims of a crime or accident and their families deserve respect, then as right-minded, fair human beings we must offer that same respect to perpetrators of crimes, however catastrophic.

In the FT this week John Gapper described the scene at Ground Zero after the announcement of bin Laden’s death as ‘more like a college fraternity house party than a sober response to the death of Osama bin Laden’.

I can understand the desire to celebrate, I can understand the feeling that the death of al-Qaida’s figurehead could be felt as a relief, even a cause for happiness for those who have suffered at the hands of his organisation. But what makes us human is that we know that to be gleeful in the face of another’s death makes us less; it takes away a piece of the very humanity that allowed us to judge the actions of that individual as wrong in the first place.

In response to John Gapper’s piece a group from Yale University wrote to the newspaper pointing out that they "chose to gather...to express our feelings...not because a bad man died, but because of what bin Laden’s death represents. We celebrated this moment as a step towards liberating Americans from fear of terrorism; we celebrated on behalf of those for whom bin Laden’s death brought closure."

But it’s a very thin line to walk and an even thinner one to represent clearly to and within the media. I suspect that part of President Obama’s reasoning behind not releasing the image of bin Laden’s body is to save us a little from ourselves.

In amongst the analysis of bin Laden’s death and US relations with Pakistan and the future of al-Qaida, another man died to less media noise. Claude Choules, who fought in both World Wars, died at the age of 110. He was the last veteran of the First World War.

During his extraordinary and ordinary life he fought for both Britain and Australia, met and remained married to the magnificently-named Ethel Wildgoose for 76 years, raised and palpably loved his children and wrote his autobiography at the ripe age of 108. Now this is a death that warrants celebration because when we cheer we raise a toast to a life lived well.


(c) Pascale Palmer is Senior Media Officer (Policy & Campaigns) for CAFOD (www.cafod.org.uk).

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