Qaddafi’s Dead. Did You See the Photo?

From images of Emmett Till to snapshots of deceased dictators, publishing death photos is a practice with a complicated history.


Warning: Some of the links in the article are to images that may be disturbing to the reader.

By the time word broke that Muammar Qaddafi had gone to wherever dead dictators go once they’re gone, they were plastering his lifeless face all over the news, apparent proof positive that the Libyan leader indeed had crossed over to the great beyond.

Hours before the Obama administration had confirmed Qaddafi’s death, MSNBC repeatedly ran images of the dictator’s corpse. (“It sure looks like him,” one anchor mused.) The New York Daily News splashed a bloody color close-up of the dead despot, accompanied by the headline, “A Coward to the End.” Meanwhile, the New York Post pasted the death photo next to a snap of the purported baseball-cap wearing killer: “Khadafy Killed by Yankee Fan: Gunman Had More Hits Than A-Rod.”

Scroll back six months or so to the much-ballyhooed death of Osama bin Laden. As soon as the Obama administration announced that the al-Qaida leader had been killed in a raid, Republican congressmen started clamoring for the president to release pictures of the dead terrorist to “prove” that bin Laden had indeed met his maker. (The better to quiet conspiracy theorists, they said.) The president decided not to release the pictures. 

“We don’t trot this stuff out as trophies,” Obama told CBS.

But as long as there’s the Internet — and a prurient desire to see everything — someone’s going to be trotting out the trophies. Witness the Photoshopped picture of a “dead” bin Laden. Nor have previous administrations been so circumspect. In 2003 the Bush administration released graphic pictures of Saddam Hussein’s two slain sons. Pictures of Hussein’s 2006 hanging, frame by gruesome frame, are yours for the watching with a click of the mouse. Google “Qaddafi” and “death photo” and you’ll get 249 million hits. There’s an appetite for this stuff — a big one.

It’s the 21st-century version of parading through the town square with the freshly guillotined head of one’s enemy on a stick. It’s dancing on the grave. There’s a “gotcha!” element to all of this, fueled by revenge and no small amount of voyeurism. It’s the thrill of taking the bad guy down, the desire to render him impotent, to pull the mask off the bogeyman, to crow in the face of defeat.

But there’s also something at work here, a certain callousness that can be found in those 20th-century lynching photos, with smiling crowds posing next to the dangling strange fruit. These days, you’ll find that same impulse at work on Gawker, which on Friday posted a video of Qaddafi’s son Mutassim, stoically smoking a cigarette shortly before he was killed, followed by footage of his bullet-riddled corpse. Commenters weighed in: “Proof that you can smoke all of your adult life and not succumb to a tobacco-related disease. Chalk one up for the tobacco industry,” and “How do we know he’s not really dead?”