With debate now raging in Washington, and in the media, over the wisdom of releasing a "death photo" of Osama bin Laden, I can’t help thinking back to what happened almost five years ago. On June 8, 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq — our Public Enemy #1 in that country — was killed during a U.S. air raid and his bloody corpse displayed for photographers. TV newcasts and newspapers showed — in the most prominent, even obsessive, fashion — the close-up images, as some pundits and administration officials a proclaimed a possible “turning point” against insurgents in that country had arrived. Of course, the war actually grew worse for awhile.
Here’s a piece I wrote in the midst of that, on June 9, 2006, for the magazine I then edited, Editor & Publisher. It was titled, "Dead and Loving It."
As shown on TV screens, Web sites and front pages, few editors are reticent to display graphic close-up images of the dead head of slain terrorist Musab Abu al-Zarqawi. The vast majority of papers, as they had done on the Web the day before, carried at the top of their front pages either a large image of the bloodied face of Zarqawi being held aloft at a Washington, D.C. briefing, or a tight close up of the same deathly visage from a video image. The Los Angeles Times, which did not use one of the images on the home page of its Web site on Thursday, threw it across the top of its front page Friday.
Leading the pack, not surprisingly, was the New York Post, which devoted its full front page to the dead head, with the headline "Gotcha!" and a quote bubble leading from Zarqawi’s mouth with him saying, "Warm up the virgins."
As noted by some commentators, this was in stark contrast to newspapers’ general ban on showing the full cost of the war, including pictures of dead U.S. soldiers or Iraqi civilians.
But several papers, with the same opportunity to display the deceased terrorist, chose for whatever reason to avoid that on their front pages (as shown at the Newseum’s daily collection online). Neither the Detroit Free Press nor the Detroit News used a death shot on Page One. The Dallas Morning News and Ft. Worth Star-Telegram failed to run a death skull, but the San Antonio Express-News did. Both major dailies in Seattle carried the image but the Spokesman-Review in Spokane did not.
Among others that did not use a death photo on their front pages (again, very much in the minority), were the, San Francisco Chronicle, Des Moines Register, and Christian Science Monitor. Perhaps we will learn eventually if any of these papers felt showing the close-up of a dead man — even if he was one of the world’s most notorious killers — violated their standards of decency, or if they broke from the pack for other reasons.
But in considering the wide showcasing of the death photo, Washington Post staff writer Philip Kennicott on Friday wondered if "as with so many images in this war, it is loaded with the potential to backfire." It might add to his martyr status — "and it reminds others how much this war has been about cycles of killing, retribution, tribal and sectarian violence, and the most primitive destructive urges. …
"And now we gaze on Zarqawi’s face one last time, as he reminds us that the new product wasn’t so new; the war turned out to have all too much of what wars have always had in them, death, destruction and chaos. Zarqawi’s head forces us to confront once again the most primitive dynamic of war: It’s an eye for an eye, or a head for a head. …
"What began as a war of necessity, premised on the slam-dunk certainty that Saddam Hussein was staring us down with weapons of mass destruction, eventually became a war of ideas. If there were no weapons, then at least it was a war of liberation, bringing freedom and democracy to a land in desperate need of both. And when that war devolved into clouds of dust and pools of blood as the country broke into religious and ethnic factions, and the rule of law was extinguished by terrorists and militias, the war of ideas began to seem more like another thing — a war of trophies.
"We may not have victory. Iraq may be a living hell both for those who are fighting to make it better and for those who live there. But we bring home the occasional politically expedient marker of ‘progress.’ Major combat operations are over. We got Saddam’s sons. We got Saddam. Now we have Zarqawi. The trophy case fills: elections, a constitution, a new government — everything but peace and stability for an exhausted nation of Iraqis who have died by the tens of thousands during the evolution of this war.
"Zarqawi is gone and good riddance. But there’s nothing in the image of his face that deserves a frame."
The Sun in Baltimore interviewed Philip Seib, author of "Beyond the Front Lines: How the News Media Cover a World Shaped by War." He said, "I think it’s important for the American media not to turn this into a Star Search kind of a thing where you have one super-celebrity in al-Zarqawi and you make a huge deal out it, when the fact is that the insurgency is so much more complicated. …
"I’m not saying al-Zarqawi’s death is trivial – it’s an important development — but parts of the media just get caught up in it and are falling all over themselves to show the dead body and the bombs and make it into much more than it is in terms of its importance to the overall insurgency and military effort."
This article also appears in Greg Mitchell’s book, "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits and the President Failed on Iraq." His two current books and e-books are "Bradley Manning" and "The Age of WikiLeaks."