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?"
That same day, on the View, Whoopi Goldberg talked about the Jackson death photos while pictures of his corpse flashed onscreen before she could warn the audience. The video is posted on YouTube now, with commenters ragging on Goldberg for showing the pictures. (Though, clearly, that had to have been the choice of the show's producers.)
So: It's OK to laugh at pictures of dead bad guys, but don't post pictures of the troubled King of Pop after he's met an untimely end at the hand of propofol.
There's long been a squeamishness about depicting death in the media. Journalists debate about the public's need to know before publishing photos of dead bodies. During World War II, photographer George Strock broke a long-held taboo against depicting pictures of the war dead. His photo of three felled American soldiers lying facedown on Buna Beach in Papua New Guinea stoked much controversy about the public's need to know versus offending sensibilities and the soldiers' right to privacy. Did Qaddafi and his sons have a right to privacy as well? Or did we need to know exactly what they looked like after they met their violent ends?
Then again, sometimes the death photo is used as a primal scream, evidence of unspeakable wrongdoing that demands that the viewer be outraged and, from that outrage, act. In 1955 Jet magazine published a photograph of the badly mutilated body of Emmett Till. "I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby," his mother, Mamie Till, said at the time.
The world saw — and acted. Many credit the photo with launching the start of the civil rights movement. Eight years later the horrific picture of Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, setting himself on fire in Saigon illustrated the horrors of the Vietnam War.
As long as there have been cameras, there have been those who have felt the need to depict the dead, to render finality on film. During Victorian times, mourning families posed their dead loved ones for the camera, propping up a dead child on a beloved rocking horse, or sitting a dead twin next to a living one. Sad-faced mothers posed with their dead babies in their arms. For many, it would be their only memento of the deceased. Looking through the pictures, they seem tender, not morbid.
Contemporary artists like Andres Serrano, with The Morgue series, and Sally Mann, with What Remains, her photographs of decomposing bodies, carry on the tradition of post-mortem photography. Their photos are disturbing but also, in their repose, somehow lyrical and haunting.
Are they exploiting the dead? Or merely creating art out of something that we will all eventually experience? Why do we want to look away, and then look again, when confronted with their photographs? Is it the same impulse when faced with Qaddafi's dead visage?
Perhaps we're spitting on his grave. Or just happy that he got to the other side before we did.
"The morgue is a secret temple where few people are allowed," Serrano said in a 1993 interview with Bomb magazine. "Paradoxically, we will all be let in one day. I think you're upset and confused that I've brought you there prematurely."
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.