J. KARL MILLER: A civilized nation does not need photos of bin Laden's death

Friday, May 6, 2011 | 1:53 p.m. CDT; updated 3:44 p.m. CDT, Sunday, May 8, 2011

By the time you read this column, the big question posed, dissected and spun by the media and requiring a response from the Obama administration will have been overtaken by events. The photos of the late Osama bin Laden's will have been deemed appropriate for release or not, by proper authority or, worst case, leaked by fools excusing themselves under the guise of "the people's right to know" or merely seeking notoriety.

Make no mistake about it: President Obama's order to "terminate with extreme prejudice" the architect of the World Trade Center's destruction and the murder of more than 3,000 innocents was both courageous and warranted. Bin Laden, along with Adolph Hitler, Hideki Tojo, Saddam Hussein, Rafael Trujillo and history's other murderous thugs, richly deserved his fate at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs and supporting special operations forces.

As a retired Marine, I am not surprised by the detailed planning, precise execution and uncommon courage displayed by those who accomplished this mission flawlessly and casualty-free in approximately 40 minutes on the ground. And, our oft-maligned intelligence community has regained our respect in the clandestine gathering, sorting and evaluating the data that made success possible — all without compromise of security. This is a proud moment.

However, as to the question of releasing photographs of this slain enemy combatant, the answer must be an unalterable and resounding no. As a combat veteran, one who has experienced the horrific and tragic deaths of friend and foe alike, I am appalled that anyone would advocate the display of a dead enemy — any dead enemy — as a trophy of war. Let us leave that desecration to the barbarians we fight to cleanse the civilized world.

To those, in government as well as the media, who pose the caveat that releasing the photos might inflame hostile fanatics to retaliate, I say hogwash. Any group with a penchant for flying airplanes into buildings, strapping on explosives as human bombs to maim and kill innocents, publicly beheading journalists, etc., certainly does not need Gitmo, Abu Ghraib or a slain bin Laden to motivate its blood lust.

The withholding of the photographic details of bin Laden's death is more than justified on the grounds of human decency and the propriety of good taste. To bow to the demands of the voyeuristic, sensationalist thrill seekers, revengers and gore-loving video game players is not in the best interests of the U.S. government nor the journalist community.

The upper left hand corner of the New York Times displays the motto, "All the news that's fit to print." That posting, while not always applied with strict adherence, is one that should be the goal of all respectable and serious publications. It is that attribute which separates, or at least should, reputable news sources from supermarket tabloids or the veritable locust plague of untutored and/or unsupervised bloggers.

There is ample reason to believe that the president, advised by the secretary of defense, the secretary of state and the director of the CIA, will correctly continue to decline release of the photos by reason of their lack of propriety. One would hope The New York Times, The Washington Post and their European counterparts would also refrain from posting sensational portrayals merely to sell newspapers; however, I would not hold my breath.

There is also little doubt that some self-aggrandizing organization as WikiLeaks will see fit to acquire and print the offensive material, as will several fly-by-night pseudo-journalistic publications. It is indeed unfortunate that there exists on the fringes of society a core of individuals who, in earlier times, were devotees of public hangings, gladiator bouts and feedings of Christians to lions — lovers of gory activities without personal participation.

One can always hope that reason and decency will prevail — that the overstated and ill-advised right to know won't be sullied by overzealous and unscrupulous promoters of perverted and sensational exhibitionism. To defeat one's enemies in the cause of liberty and freedom is laudable — to exhibit the vanquished as a trophy is beneath our dignity as a nation.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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J. Scott Christianson May 6, 2011 | 3:35 p.m.

"One can always hope that reason and decency will prevail — that the overstated and ill-advised right to know won't be sullied by overzealous and unscrupulous promoters of perverted and sensational exhibitionism. To defeat one's enemies in the cause of liberty and freedom is laudatory — to exhibit the vanquished as a trophy is beneath our dignity as a nation."

Excellent column. I don't often agree with Col Miller but this is spot on and very well written.


J Scott Christianson

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 6, 2011 | 3:37 p.m.

Colonel Miller:

I agree.

But I do so with the very real wish that I knew all the information that went into the planning and execution of this operation.

Just me....but not everyone else (:^)

I can only imagine the incredible amount of planning and training that went into this operation. Training that began with new volunteers for military service and continued with SEAL and helicopter training. And continued. And continued.

I've tried double-taps in the relative comfort of the firing range. Ain't easy.

I have great respect for all those involved with this and other operations. Ballsy stuff.

We'll never know the details, and I'm fine with that. A little "Wha' happened" by your enemy won't hurt our future black-ops operations one whit.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire May 6, 2011 | 4:23 p.m.

They sent him to Iraq.

(Report Comment)
frank christian May 6, 2011 | 4:44 p.m.

I guess, I agree as well, but as a child, I saw, as did people around the world, pictures of Benito Mussolini and his wife, beaten and killed by the people he brutalized, hanging by their heels for the public to see. Are we, somehow, better people now than then? If we are quarantined from the sight of dead monsters, when we know there are those whom will claim ben Laden is not dead, will we be better for it? I, somehow, doubt it.

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush May 6, 2011 | 5:02 p.m.

Excellent column. To maintain dignity with victory is what a civilized people do., heck - I can't say it better than you did.

(Report Comment)
frank christian May 6, 2011 | 5:29 p.m.

Colonel, Mike - I heard this morning that the "special forces" (is that the correct term?)groups in ME have recently been increased from 4 to 20. Isn't that good news concerning the way we now fight the smaller groups of terrorists?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 7, 2011 | 4:21 a.m.

I agree with the caption for this column.

Now, Karl, where do we find a truly civilized nation? There must be one out there somewhere...

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 7, 2011 | 10:33 a.m.

Ellis: I think "being civilized" is a thin veneer of human behavior originating the day we decided to live in closer proximity to one another. It is a surface patina that hides our historical animal biology. I believe the concept of "being civilized" is nothing but agreed-upon rule-making that defines how hard we try to get along.

INO, The only difference is how hard you are trying.

The underlying bases are much more complex, tho. For example, "ethics" is a decision about right and wrong. "Morality" is a decision on whether you follow your ethics. A culture can believe something is ethical, but not follow that ethic; hence that culture is not moral and, therefore, is uncivilized in the eyes of another culture that DOES practice that ethic.

A nation that believes it is an ethical thing to humiliate defeated opponents by dragging them through the streets or hanging their heads on a pike, and faithfully practices that set of ethics, can be considered extremely moral AND civilized. If another nation believes the underlying ethic (dragging and piking) is NOT right (i.e., unethical), that nation will judge the first nation as rather uncivilized. As another example, a society that believes female circumcision is an ethical thing, and faithfully practices that ethic, is civilized. Another nation may believe female circumcision is completely unethical and, hence, the first society is considered uncivilized.

This is why the concept of multiculturalism...that all cultures have legitimacy and are created equal, is so bankrupt. It's easy to judge "morality" once you know the underlying "ethics" simply have to know if those ethics are followed.

But who is the judge of ethics, the decision about rightness and wrongness? Who is the referee?

That is why we have wars........and religion.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 7, 2011 | 10:38 a.m.

Ellis: Further, my argument shows that the title of Colonel Miller's article is fallacious.....being civilized is in the eyes of the beholder. If it is your ethic (that is, the right thing to do) to view the mutilated body of your defeated enemy, and you follow that ethic (morality), then you are indeed a civilized society.

But if you believe in the ethic of NOT viewing the mutilated body of your defeated enemy, and you practice that are still civilized.

We either need a new word, or we need a better definition of "civilized".

Or a war to settle the issue once and for all.

After all....the winner makes the rules.

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble May 7, 2011 | 1:47 p.m.

An excellent, thoughtful column, Col. Miller. Dignity and honor is always a good choice, no less in moments like this one. Thank you for articulating these valuable thoughts so well.

(Report Comment)
David Rosman May 11, 2011 | 12:32 p.m.

Well written Karl and I could not agree more. I have been seeing a lot of "Deather" arguments in the blogosphere, many from the same people who are "Birthers."

(Report Comment)

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