The administration’s clashing desires to celebrate the successful killing of America’s enemy but also to mollify jihad-sympathizers has caused repeated media flubs in the days after the Osama bin Laden raid, say PR experts and Islamic-modernizers.
The fumbles are exemplified by the two-day debate over whether to release photographs of bin Laden’s “gruesome” facial wounds. Officials simultaneously argued that any disrespect shown toward bin Laden’s body would spur violence in Muslim countries, but also that bin Laden was not a leader of Muslims.
On Sunday, President Barack Obama seemingly gave a green-light to the release of photographs when he said that “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims…So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.” On Wednesday, Obama backtracked and formally overruled CIA chief Leon Panetta’s push to release the photos. “It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of someone shot in the head are not floating around as incitement to additional violence,” Obama said.
The core conflict is the White House’s “desire to kill bin Laden but also to have the world think we did so respectfully and politely,” said Eric Dezenhall, founder of Dezenhall Resources, a PR firm. “I’m in the PR business, and I don’t think guys like me have the alchemy to persuade the public that something is the opposite of what it is,” he said, adding, “spin only gets you so far.”
The photographs of bin Laden exemplify the dilemma because they show him both clearly dead and gruesomely disfigured. On Wednesday, after White House spokesman Jay Carney said the photographs show that bin Laden was shot in the face, he quickly backtracked, saying “he was shot above the neck. Let’s say that.”
“Several days of discussions have shown the administration is not in as much control of the story as they should be,” said Scott Stanzel, a deputy press secretary for President George W. Bush, who also painted bin Laden as an unpopular Muslim extremist. Obama’s deputies had plenty of time to make a decision prior to the raid, but their media-related disputes have now blurred their military success, he said.
The administration’s two-sided policy also explains their controversial decision to use Islamic ritual when disposing of his body at sea. “We were absolutely within our rights to go after the most wanted man in the world…it needs to be recognized that this [killing] is seen as a good thing throughout the world,” Carney said Wednesday. “Yet, because of who we are, we took extraordinary measures to show the kind of respect that was shown in his burial,” he added.
“I was offended they wanted to give him religious recognition” after he had killed so many Muslims and non-Muslims, and even after the administration has repeatedly called him a extremist, said Zuhdi Jasser, a former Navy doctor and the Muslim founder of the Arizona-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy. Jasser, who is seeking to combine Islam with Western ideals of personal liberty, said he would have declined to participate in the Islamic rituals used during the disposal of bin Laden’s corpse.