The now-famous Situation Room photo of May 1 — in which the president and his national security team, crowded together during the Osama bin Laden operation, stare in silence at something the viewer cannot see — may become the most downloaded Flickr image of all time. Why is that image so captivating? A few thoughts:
First, there’s the mystery of it. We don’t know what they’re seeing or hearing. We don’t know if they’re witnessing the death of Osama bin Laden or merely getting a second-hand narration of it from Leon Panetta (the White House has been very fuzzy on this). We know only that all of these very important and powerful people have simultaneously stopped talking. This is an historic silence. Even Biden isn’t talking! And Hillary Clinton is covering her mouth — the universal gesture of tension, of I-can’t-breathe, of I-don’t-know-how-this-is-going-to-turn-out.
Second, it’s so plain. It’s so uncomposed. There’s something shockingly bland and ordinary about the setting. The room looks small. The people — powerful though they may be — are free of the obvious trappings of power (except for the uniformed brigadier general at the head of the table). Most are dressed fairly casually, including Obama, who wears a windbreaker over a golf shirt.
If anything, they look pretty powerless, forced to wait for the outcome, unable to do a damn thing about it. They’re spectators.
This is a demythologizing image. It isn’t Hollywood. These are public servants at work in a government building (where, Obama recently complained, the technology isn’t nearly as fancy as he had hoped).
A blogger named Rex Hammock writes:
‘the photo was captivating because it was so different from how such scenes have been depicted in countless movies and TV shows. In such dramas, this would not be taking place in a spartan, crowded conference room with all the aesthetic appeal of a Marriott Hotel business center — and a table full of HP laptops that still have Intel Inside and Widows stickers on them. In an episode (in every episode) of “24″ this would be in an expansive subterranean room filled with translucent touch screens that make all sorts of electronic beeping and screeching sounds when they zoom in to watch the action of each soldier on the ground.’
There are other images floating around of the Situation Room on this very day, and you see the rear-projection TV at the end of the room, and the two flat-screen TVs on one wall. Maybe there are more gee-whiz gizmos in the Situation Room than is apparent in the iconic image. But I bet not.
Rush Limbaugh also alluded to “24” in his anti-Obama rant yesterday. . Rush noted that Obama looks small in the picture. There’s a conspiracy-theory meme going around to the effect that Panetta or maybe the military proceeded with the operation against Obama’s wishes (because Obama can’t possibly be given credit for anything). The photo helps advance this lie because the president doesn’t appear to be, in any obvious way, in charge. But what I think the image really shows is that this was a moment of such significance, and such tension, that no one was standing on ceremony, no one was worried about who was sitting where at the table.
Protocol fell away. They were all, in that moment, spectators to an historic event — and they didn’t know which way it was going to go.