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. …