Ever wonder what our nation looks like to folks from afar? Here we look at how a uniquely American story--the kind of news we have trouble explaining even to ourselves--is being told overseas. Want to see a particular topic covered here? Let us know.
When it was announced yesterday that President Obama had decided not to releases the photos of bin Laden's body, many criticized the decision. Others, of course, have been anti-release for days. Pundits and politicians have been bickering since the beginning of the week about trophyism, conspiracy theories, inflaming anti-Americanism, and more. There was no such discordant clamor among Western Europe op-ed writers: The photo they're really interested by, they say, is the one of the national security team tensely watching a screen that's just off-camera. It's the most interesting precisely because the other image, and the knowledge of what the team itself is looking at, is missing. Take a look at the striking similarity between these arguments, and how the writers are thinking about the debate.
- "It's smart. Now another [photo] can take its place in history," reads the summary of Wenke Hussman's article for the German Die Zeit. "There is no photographic proof anymore," Hussman argues; "in this time of digital processing techniques," the bin Laden image isn't worth much as evidence. That said, "even if we can forgo images as evidence, we need it for our education." Hussman reviews the "power" of images. What will be this event's equivalent to September eleventh's plane crashing into the towers, or Fukushima's image of exploding reactors? The photo of the advisers during the operation:
It shows Obama in the middle of his national security team, concentrating to the extreme, bent over and yet with a certain distance from the actual operatives. A thoughtful, perfect image of great authentic effect.It has what it takes to make it into the history books.
- "This image here remains the most powerful one," declares Nicolas Demorand for Libération. "Obama in the Situation Room of the White House, his face grave, tense, marked. The expression if his advisers, the attitude of Hillary Clinton." Though he writes over the remarkable fact that "one of the most advanced democracies and videocracies of the world ... finishes by stumbling over the demonstration of its own power," he says "the plotters and conspiracy theorists everywhere will see here an additional reason to go wild. Everyone else admits that [the image of bin Laden] should remain invisible in these spectacle-driven societies."
- "No body, no executioners, only a group of people looking at a screen" We don't have the photo of bin Laden, writes Lluís Bassets for the Spanish El País, but we have this one:
Thus, in this official photo released by the government you can see everything while nothing is being shown. The severity of the faces. The fixed gaze with extreme care on the screen. Hillary Clinton with her hand covering her mouth in a gesture that could be casual but is identified with suppressed anguish. You don't see it in the photo, but sources in the White House say that at this moment Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, has a rosary in his hands. ... The gravity of the moment, palpable in the image of the group, is summarized in the seriousness and the look of Barack Obama, the man who made the decision, the ultimate responsibility for taking the life of another man.
- What are images supposed to prove anyway? Meanwhile, the Bavarian Sueddeutsche Zeitung also compares the two photos, noting how striking the Situation Room one is and mentioning both the dramatic value and the to-do over Hillary Clinton actually showing emotion--and being the "only one" to show emotion. It also takes a moment to ask: "Why does the world believe so much in images? What makes one sure of putative depiction of reality, when it is so clear that pictures can be staged? That they can be manipulated and treated as pawns in various circumstances? Even that they can be fully fabricated by a computer?" The paper doesn't seem overly impressed with the "image-hungry world demanding food."
So that's the roundup of this fascinating theme (which apparently doesn't extend too far north on the Continent, by the way--the Danish Jyllands-Posten reports on the views of a strong critic of Obama's decision to keep the bin Laden photo back). For headlines, of course, we're still smitten with Le Monde, which brings us both "The death of bin Laden? 'Not bad for a Muslim Kenyan Communist" and "OUAF - Le chien qui a attaqué Ben Laden" ("chien" is "dog"--if you missed the lovely canine debate, head over here).
Heather Horn is fluent in written German and French, proficient in written Arabic, and has received purely decorative doses of Irish Gaelic and Western Armenian. All other languages are muddled through with the help of Google Translate.