As we all know by now, on May 1, 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid of his Pakistan compound by a U.S. Special Forces group known as Seal Team 6. Good thing, right? The guy who orchestrated the greatest attack on America in our (relatively) short history is now gone. Awesome! But, as with everything else in recent times, this has led to another controversy in social and political circles. Should the government release the supposed “death shot” of bin Laden that was captured during the raid?
Let’s put that issue aside for right now. We can have (and I have had with my dad over two weeks’ worth of dinners) that discussion/fight, going round and round with notions of transparency, boasting, and inflaming other peoples. All are rather valid points and adult-to-adult, they can be argued with some validity. But I want to get to a discussion that was raised in a recent episode of Slate’s Political Gabfest (May 7, 2011 – The Justice and Revenge Gabfest). In tackling the question of whether the photo should be released, Emily Bazelon (one of the hosts) gave a reason the photo should not be released, in that it might be harmful to children. This struck David Plotz (one of the other hosts) as absurd on its face. How can the releasing of one picture “harm” children? Especially in a world where violence is somewhat celebrated in movies, music, and video games that they are exposed to every day?
As a citizen
On the one hand, I can see David’s point. Apart from the proving to everyone that “we got ’em”, the photo could be a symbol of the brutality that is inherent in fighting terrorism in the 21st century. Like David, I do believe that we as a society (at least in America) are too desensitized to the violence that goes along with war. To be honest, the closest thing I have ever seen to war comes from a Hollywood movie. The opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan” is a re-enactment of the Omaha Beach landing on the first day of the Normandy invasion, June 6, 1944. It was brutal, it was savage, it was hard to watch. I can’t even imagine having to go through that in this day in age. And yet, we have soldiers who do go through that now. In Afghanistan. In Iraq. Do we ever see the realities that these soldiers have to face on an everyday basis? No. Do we have any idea the struggles these people go through? Not really. Do we know of their pain, their suffering, their fear? Not even close.
All we know (or at least, all we seem to know) is “let’s kick some ass!”. Collectively, all we know how to do is write a good slogan and fly our little flags. Not to sound too much like Jack Nicholson, but the line fits. We, as common citizens, have no idea how to defend a nation. This photo could be an education, a step towards revealing this hidden truth.
As a father
On the other hand, I can also see Emily’s point. Images are absolutely powerful (see anecdote below). And it’s not like you can keep these images from children. You always hear the phrase “parents should know what their kids are doing at all times on the Internet”. Umm, okay. If you want to live in that little dreamworld, go ahead. With the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and every news outlet’s website, this photo would find its way to your children’s eyes. This was one of Emily’s points as well. You can’t shield your kids from this, even if you wanted to. Now, as my oldest is only 6 and her uses for the computer right now are limited to educational and creative sites such as pbskids.org, starfall.com, and Kerpoof Studio, I think I’m pretty safe right now. Even given her age and what sites she visits now, Jayme and I have been discussing when would be a good time to get her a laptop. What happens then? Will she limit herself to those sites when she has a whole system with the Internet in her room? My guess is no. Will she be curious (like I was, like Jayme was) and explore the Internet, seeing what it has to offer? My guess is yes.
In reality, I don’t want my kids seeing this stuff. It’s hard enough for me to see this stuff. I’m 31 years old and I don’t want to see it. Why should I let them see it? Will it help a 6-year old understand the notion of war and its consequences? No. She doesn’t even know what war is. She’s 6, for goodness sake. I want her to grow up not having to worry about terrorism, war, famine, genocide…all those uncomfortable realities that still reside in our world today. There’ll be plenty of time for her and Brian to contemplate their own views on these things when they grow up. Unfortunately, these things will not be eradicated by then. But not now. Not when they’re this young. I want them to be kids. I want them to enjoy their childhood. Worry-free.
On images and their power
A little anecdote from my own past. In the late 80’s and early 90’s there was a show called Unsolved Mysteries, hosted by actor Robert Stack. I don’t know how many people remember this show, but the very hint of Stack’s voice and that theme music gave me chills. And, let’s face it, it still does. (Especially since he died in 2003…it sort of makes it even more creepy.) I digress. There was a particular episode of that show that revolved around aliens and alien encounters (I can’t remember what year, and I can’t seem to find it online anywhere…my guess is around ’89 or ’90). I would have been around 9 or 10 at that time and pretty much oblivious to the truths of the world. Everything I saw on TV at that time was “real” to some extent, especially when the show purported to be based off of real-life events.
During the course of this episode, they would re-tell the tale of certain people on their alien abduction or how they saw a flying saucer or when they thought they spotted an alien in their house. What creeped me out most, though, were the artist renderings of these aliens that were described by these “believers”. Even back then, the Ken Burns effect was in full force, and as they panned up those drawings, they seemed to come to life. Almost as if this alien-being-thing was looking at me. That picture has stayed with me for 20+ years now. I can still see it in my mind, and it still freaks me out. It got to me so much back then that I changed the way I slept in my room from then on. I would always fall asleep facing my door if the air conditioner was on, so at a moment’s notice, I could open my eyes and see this creature. I wasn’t going to let it sneak up on me behind my back (literally). When the air conditioner was off, I could turn over and face the wall, because then I could (theoretically at least) hear it come in my room. I would then have time to turn around and face it full-on.
Now, why would I do that? Did I really believe in aliens? No. Did I really think an alien would come in my room at night? Well, maybe. But why? I had no rational basis for this. All I knew was that someone had described this creature to an artist so well that they drew a very lifelike image of it. And that image kept cropping up in my mind whenever I thought about aliens, and/or the possibility of aliens. I mean, they could be real, right? Someone saw one. Otherwise, how could they have that drawing? (Remember, I was 9 or 10 at the time.) The point is, that image, and that image alone, changed how I slept as a kid. That’s how powerful an image can be.
You’re probably reading this and thinking, where the hell did the alien thing come from? I got sidetracked. It happens. So, let me get back to what you would be thinking if I hadn’t thrown the alien thing at you: “Lee, you are a citizen and a father…so, which one do you side with?” I think this is the key question. And my answer is, I honestly don’t know. As I said, I would not show my kids this picture and would try my best to keep them away from it. This would be easier in my household with no TV news or TV talk shows and limited Internet access. But, I can certainly see other kids (Caroline’s friends, for instance) watching the news (maybe around dinnertime) with their parents, seeing this photo, and just freaking out. (Having not seen the photo myself, I don’t know to what degree that freaking out would be.)
I still remember watching the TV news as a kid during dinnertime. Every weeknight, it was Peter Jennings on ABC News at 6:30pm. Obviously, I wouldn’t understand most of the stuff he was talking about. But, I do remember vividly watching Jennings when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. I can still see that image in my mind. I would have to imagine this same kind of thing would happen if a child, if my child, saw this “death shot” now. They may not fully grasp it, but it would stick with them.
Look, I don’t know if the “it could harm children” argument is a sound one. It might be. Why should we potentially scare our kids like that? But, I also am a firm believer in showing them (and the rest of the population) the reality of the world we live in. Some people are bad. Sometimes, those bad people have to be killed. And this is what killing them looks like. It’s the way of the world. In our reality, war is real. Terrorism is real. It sucks, but it’s there. And it has to be dealt with.
The reality is, even after writing all of this, I’m still torn.