Obama, Osama and the burden of proof


Shopkeepers gather around television screens showing a speech by U.S. President Barack Obama as he announced the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. (STRINGER/PAKISTAN/REUTERS)

These events over the past week may seem wholly disconnected. But although they define the spectrum from the utterly silly to the very, very serious, there is an undercurrent that connects them all. We have reached a moment in our society when our trust in leadership is so low and our faith in technology is so high that they have forever changed the receptivity to a leader’s word. In an age of digital everything, physical proof is the new “trust me.”

Of course, the scenarios above are completely different. The “birther” movement is an exercise in preposterous political absurdity that some have said is filled with racial undertones. It would have been completely understandable for Obama not to ever release his long-form birth certificate, no matter what The Donald said. Obama’s birthplace was an indisputable fact prior to the release, and sharing the document may very well do little to change the minds of people who are convinced the president is a Muslim who was born in Kenya. Still, it should at least help to get the subject out of the news and turn the conversation to more important things.

On the flip side, the decision to make what counterterrorism adviser John Brennan has called “one of the gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory” and send Navy SEALS into the bin Laden compound—especially when there wasn’t certainty the al Qaeda leader was even there—was a necessary one, I believe. Had the president stuck by the initial recommendation to bomb the place to smithereens from the sky, questions (understandable ones) may have always remained about whether bin Laden was actually killed. If the call to release evidence in the case of the birth certificate was nonessential but somewhat effective, the decision to use a method that would produce some kind of proof in the bin Laden killing was not only vital but game-changing.

The right answer to the third decision of whether or not to release the photos, however, is less clear. On the one hand, quieting any doubters on this singular achievement makes sense, and if you’re going to risk dropping a couple dozen Navy SEALS into a compound in Pakistan to catch bin Laden precisely so you can prove you did it, you might as well show the world the evidence. At the same time, releasing what have been called “gruesome” photos could very well inflame Islamic extremists who already consider bin Laden a martyr, prompting an attack response. Unveiling the images, The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch writes, will forever replace our current mental image of the operation as a “a feat of heroic military derring-do” that showcased American capability with a “trophy photograph” depicting the horrific sight of bin Laden’s shot-up head.

The president could always release third-party verified DNA sample tests or independently confirmed results from the facial recognition software that was used to match bin Laden’s face to the images of the corpse. I believe such alternative types of evidence are a far better solution than images that can never be withdrawn once they’re released. At the very least, the photos should be provided only after extremely careful consideration and after all alternatives have been exhausted, in my view.

Still, the photos will likely be shared, CIA Director Leon Panetta said in an interview with Brian Williams on NBC News, although the White House says it is still debating the issue. While I hope the president will consider other options instead, I also know the world will want visual proof, and Obama’s pragmatic leadership style means he very well may put them out there. In today’s world, where taking photographic evidence is only a matter of pressing a cell phone button and where sharing it with the world takes nothing more than a few keystrokes on Twitter, many will unfortunately settle for nothing less.

More from On Leadership:

Panel discussion: The art of persistence?

For a distributed network like al Qaeda, what does the loss of a leader mean?

With Osama bin Laden mission, the exponential power of an accomplishment

A game of musical jobs in national security

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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