Wrong to show the body

When the news of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s death broke, a thoughtful friend posed a question for Facebook discussion. She, a recovering reporter, instantly recognized a difficult journalistic-ethics dilemma, and wondered how the decision to show the graphic images of his demise was arrived at in various newsrooms:

“The networks are showing Gadhafi’s dead face and body on TV. Americans were outraged to see dead soldiers in Iraq on TV a couple of years ago. Is it different, or the same?”

The responses indicated a significant level of discomfort as Americans grappled with the images. 

“It’s a huge matter of ethics!”

“I think we should take a break from the 24-hour news cycle and really examine our motives, ethics and worldview … how ‘independent’ are we, really?”

“I work for a local affiliate. We decided that we would not air the images of him dead. If people want to see it, they’ll find it on the Internet and the networks. We figured it would upset people more to see it than for us not to show it at all.”

“It’s one thing to kill him; it’s another to splash it all over the TV.”

“I know I’m not a Gadhafi supporter, but there was something un-Christian about showing him being dragged through the street. Americans are supposed to be better than that. Networks didn’t even try to clean up the pics — and no one cared.”

The world is justified in celebrating the end of murderous dictators and terrorists. But are we justified in the grotesque display of glee in exploiting the gory depiction of the corpse? Is this who we are as Americans?

When Osama bin Laden was finally killed, we celebrated our relief that he was on his way to hell, where he belonged. But the national security sensitivities expressed by some in Washington not to publicize the photos of the corpse were a reasonable, responsible reaction. Likewise, there were questions of appropriateness in showing video of the hanging of Saddam Hussein, not to mention the possibility for misplaced sympathies that some might have when viewing something to which they are not accustomed. Our government understands the impact such photos can have, and their decisions to release or withhold are strategic. In 2003, the government’s decision to release the death photos of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, was likely not due to our “right to know,” but rather a judgment based on national security and ability to affect events and reaction because of human emotion.

Our military personnel are highly trained to be immune to the sight of the dead out of necessity — it’s how they are able do their jobs, and for that we are grateful. While some argue the death photos will eventually make their way to the Internet — and thus that it’s OK to splash them all over the screen — there is a difference between making the effort to locate them online, and seeing them right in front of you, despite the sober three-second warning by a television anchor. 

One can easily find the old black-and-white photos of a dead Benito Mussolini hanging in public in Milan, but that was long before the 24/7 news cycle, cellphone video and cameras, and the ability to instantly transmit disturbing detail in a fraction of a second. 

Just because the media can doesn’t mean the media should.

Americans and others around the globe will remember the evil, murderous Libyan dictator and the horror of his reign. Seeing and celebrating his helpless, mutilated corpse does not mitigate his place in history — or in hell. But it might just be his beyond-the-grave contribution to our own eroding sensibilities in differentiating between the justified killing of a man who needed to be wiped from the face of the planet, and a Lord of the Flies-esque baseness and sense of vengeance that is not necessary to be “comfortable” with his demise.

Americans were horrified, shocked and racked with grief when one of our own soldiers was killed in Somalia in 1993 and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. We should take care not to become desensitized as a society, thus numbing our ability to recognize the difference between an American military hero who made the ultimate sacrifice and the pure evil of a Gadhafi, Osama or Saddam.

We don’t need to see a dead Gadhafi to understand his evil, appreciate his demise and maintain the moral high ground.

Jacobus, president of Capitol Strategies PR, has managed congressional campaigns, worked on Capitol Hill and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. She appears on CNN, MSNBC and FOX News as a GOP strategist.