Death shot: What about the pictures?
“That’s not who we are,” says the president. And this: “We don’t need to spike the football.”
Sorry, Mr. President: That’s exactly who we are.
Or plenty of us, anyway. We’re the vigorously voyeuristic, nothing’s-off-limits, Entitled States of America, and we insist on seeing everything—no matter how private, no matter how gruesome.
A week ago, it was the president’s own birth certificate. This week, it’s a picture of Osama bin Laden with a bullet hole in his head. We want to see it, and we want to see it now.
The word of the president isn’t good enough. The word of the Navy SEALS isn’t good enough. Neither is the DNA evidence, or the facial-recognition software, or the on-the-scene identification by one of bin Laden’s wives.
We want to draw our own conclusions. But it’s also more—or, rather, less—than that.
It’s not just that we don’t believe officialdom, that we have to see for ourselves. We want to see for ourselves. We like poking into other people’s business.
It’s who we are. Who we’ve become.
Thank the paparazzi, yanking bank the curtain on celebrity culture. (But without our hunger for it, there’d be no profit in it. There’d be nothing to sell.)
Thank Twitter and Facebook, inviting us to share every daily detail with every other resident of cyberspace. (But we willingly accept the invitation, don’t we?)
[“Status Update: Osama bin Laden is sinking to the bottom of the North Arabian Sea.”]
Thank the mega-pixel smartphone with the multifocus and the built-in flash. We shoot, therefore we are.
He’s shot, therefore we demand to see it.
He’s famous, therefore we demand to know everything about it.
And there’s that other thing, too: We love to spike the football.
Don’t ever underestimate that part of it—these days, winning without woofing hardly feels like winning at all. The president’s call on our better angels notwithstanding, gloating feels good. Besides, it’s the Sharpie in the end zone that makes the highlight reel. Don’t we all want to make the highlight reel?
And then there’s that other other thing: We’ve been so frightened, for so long. He’s had us feeling so vulnerable, for so long. Now he’s gone. And what sounds like gloating (“U-S-A!!! U-S-A!!!”) may simply be the sound of a nation exhaling.
Did I want to see the photographs? Yes. Not some faceless “we” this time, but me—one part citizen, one part journalist, two parts ghoul. Do I expect that sooner or later, I’ll have a chance to see the photographs? Also yes. Minds change. Leaks happen. Secrets rarely stay secret.
But do I understand the president’s decision not to release them? Also yes. Understand it, and on some level, even admire it, and not just on the strategic-advantage/better-not-to-inflame-those-Muslims calculus. What’s he’s asking of us—a bit of self-control, something approaching modesty even in triumph—is more than we ask of ourselves.
Because we know, don’t we, that it wouldn’t take more than minutes for the photos to move to t-shirts, to poster art, to mouse pads, to coffee mugs. For us to turn the death shot into just one more icon suitable for tagging—to raise the moment up even as we diminish it.
The president thinks we’re better than that.
Take it as a compliment.
Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.