Osama bin Laden once argued that the U.S., in its "Global War on Terror," was "like the one who plows and sows the sea: he harvests nothing but failure." Bin Laden made this assertion in his video titled "The Solution," which was released Sept. 7, 2007, in advance of the sixth anniversary of Sept. 11. Since I learned that the U.S. had dispatched the assassinated al-Qaida leader by burial at sea, I have been reflecting on the uncanny relationship between bin Laden's aphoristic assessment from 31/2 years ago and his watery fate.
When military personnel dumped bin Laden's shrouded body into the North Arabian Sea, they completed a mission parallel to — but arguably just as significant as — the operation in which bin Laden had been killed: They finally made him invisible. The U.S. had exerted ultimate control over how and where bin Laden could appear — power it had been seeking since Sept. 11.
Practically, burial at sea solved the logistical problem of finding a country willing to inter his remains and prevented such a hypothetical gravesite from becoming a shrine. But ideologically, it was risky. Unsurprisingly, it sparked debates among some Muslim clerics over whether the body had been properly handled, even as it added fodder to the conspiracy theories that had begun to percolate almost as soon as bin Laden's death was announced last Sunday night. Now that the White House has decided not to release the photos that would verify bin Laden's identity and mortality, worldwide audiences will simply have to take America's word for it.
But even as it leaves these visual questions permanently open, it answers others once and for all.
Bin Laden's visibility has always been a problem, whether in his knack for making and keeping himself invisible to his pursuers or his tendency to appear unpredictably and unnervingly in videotaped messages. When he released "The Solution," a sweeping indictment of the materialism and corporatization of American culture, media and government, many observers were perplexed. The content of bin Laden's speech in the video contained clear evidence that it was current, but bin Laden himself looked younger than he had three years previously. After lots of head-shaking and speculation, the government, the media, and the public finally reconciled themselves to the possibility that bin Laden could be older but look younger (even as some members of the intelligence community had recently been floating tentative guesses that bin Laden was dead).
In January 2010, the U.S. sought a different kind of authority over bin Laden's appearance when the FBI published a pair of age-progressed digital images hypothesizing about what bin Laden would look like and expressed optimism that these pictures would bring the fugitive to justice at last. This possibility proved to be as virtual as the images themselves. Less than two weeks after they were published, they were retracted when it was revealed that their creators had patterned them on photographs of a Spanish politician, Gaspar Llamazares, who had not authorized this portraiture.
In September 2007 and January 2010, images of bin Laden proved as wily and unpredictable as the man himself. To Americans, so familiar with the searing footage of Sept. 11, these visual events were differently haunting because they signaled the limits of American control over bin Laden's image. "The Solution" was disorienting because it looked, for a moment, as though bin Laden had eluded the constraints of time itself, becoming "younger" after six years of war and hiding. Subsequently, the age-progressed images were a reminder that all we could capture was a figment — and then, not even that.
Now that bin Laden is gone forever, the news media cannot get enough of his face because, finally and fully, we get to control the terms of its display. As the networks were covering the story last Sunday night, many converted to split screens so old photographs and videos of bin Laden could remain visible while they broke and repeated the news. Here in Baltimore and nationwide, newspaper front pages were similarly and lavishly illustrated; Time magazine announced plans for a special issue with bin Laden's X-ed out face on the cover. Once bin Laden's body slipped out of sight beneath the surface of the ocean, the visual threat he posed was eternally defused.
With bin Laden thus disarmed, the White House had the luxury of deliberating about whether to release those last pictures. Surely, their decision to withhold them will have negative consequences, perhaps different from those that would have followed from the opposite course of action. But the choice not to release them is also a decisive visual victory, a signal that the U.S. alone dictates the terms of bin Laden's visibility and a retaliation for all the times he inserted himself violently into our lines of sight.
Still, TV news continues its carousel of bin Laden photos and video clips, and there is something oddly compelling about seeing the man reanimated because now we know that he'll never appear again in any form that we have not seen before. And so we watch, unafraid and jubilant.
The sea sown once and for all, we reap our belated harvest on millions of glowing screens.
Rebecca A. Adelman is an assistant professor of Media & Communication Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.