UPDATED: If White House Releases ‘The Photo,’ Will Conspiracy Theorists Believe?

Helene Cooper at the New York Times has a post today on The Caucus Blog that reports the White House is “leaning towards” releasing photographic evidence of Bin Laden’s killing.

“It looks like him, covered in blood, with a hole in his head,” an unnamed official told Cooper. There are reasons the White House wouldn’t release the photo, including their desire to honor Muslim law, which led to Bin Laden’s burial at sea, and concern that releasing the photograph might provoke Bin Laden’s followers, or perhaps even violate international law.

In her article Cooper notes that in addition to voices on the political right and conspiracy theorists, many ordinary Americans are interested in seeing the photo to provide “closure” to the September 11 attacks and their aftermath.

It’s interesting to consider, however, whether seeing will be believing. The ordinary citizens who believe Bin Laden is dead seem likely to accept a photograph as the final bit of proof.

But a photo, if released, may do little for conspiracy theorists and others who disbelieve the claim Ben Laden is dead, except of course touch off another round of debate and analysis centered on the image itself and its validity.

In an age where a fake photos of a dead Bin Laden were already picked up and circulated by news organizations, much to their embarrassment, it is certainly conceivable that a photo could be created and/or staged. It begs the question: can a photograph alone bear the burden of proof any longer, or will the public require testimony from imaging experts in order to accept the validity of the image? Will a photograph do anything to convince those who already question the US government’s claims?

UPDATE, 5/4/11, 3:15pm EST:

President Obama has decided not to release photographic evidence of Bin Laden’s death, saying in an interview with 60 Minutes, a transcript of which was read today at a White House press briefing, “we don’t trot this stuff out as trophies — that’s not who we are.” Though Obama appears to be positioning the decision as a moral and ethical choice by the government, the fact that a photograph would do little to prove Bin Laden’s killing to those who don’t believe it happened must have played a role, making the release of the photo a decision with more potential downside than upside.

When issued by a government, the decision suggests, photographic evidence isn’t worth much, except to those who would use it as—positive or negative—propaganda.

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