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3 May 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 6:01am

How can we be sure of the details of Bin Laden’s death?

Without footage or photographic evidence, journalists – and the public – are several steps removed f

By Steven Baxter

“Pics, or it didn’t happen,” is one of the mantras of our time. Without a blurry, badly lit photo snatched on a cameraphone, we can’t believe a claim, even from someone we trust. How do we know they aren’t just making it up? Pics, or it didn’t happen, we say. Without a photo, you could make anything up.

Still, we are waiting for the pics that show that the death of Osama Bin Laden did happen. Which isn’t to say that he’s not dead, of course, nor that I shall be donning the Tinfoil Hat of Truth until his bullet-ridden corpse is displayed for all to see; it’s just that it would make sense for there to be some documented evidence of this momentous event. That there isn’t, or that there is and it hasn’t been released to the public, should make us ask a few questions.

Is the footage too shocking or too graphic to show? Perhaps it might be. We’re not used to seeing bloody cadavers on teatime news broadcasts, no matter how noteworthy they might be. If, as we’re led to believe, Bin Laden was shot through the head twice, then what was left of him probably wasn’t a pretty sight.

News organisations could pixellate the more unpleasant portions of the picture to avoid upsetting the squeamish, but perhaps that, too, would be considered censorship of a kind. Would releasing images of Bin Laden’s freshly punctured body oozing blood and brain-matter be seen as triumphal and hubristic?

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We – some of us being the people in whose name this killing took place – can only speculate until we see. Pics, or it didn’t happen. Or, at the very least, pics, or we can’t believe it happened the way you told us

A lot of the story has been taken on trust, not just by us but by journalists who aren’t allowed to see what happened, and who can only receive the story second- or third-hand. So desperate are we to see a picture of dead Bin Laden that news organisations rushed to publish a faked photo before checking whether it was real or not. They were hastily deleted when the mistake was realised, but doubtless attracted hundreds of curious clicks in the meantime.

That journalists are several steps removed means that the stories of Bin Laden dying behind his wife, hiding like a coward and using an innocent party as a human shield, so eagerly reported as fact this morning, should be treated with a little caution. Perhaps it was not so, according to the latest “clarification”. Perhaps he was not armed, and perhaps he did not use his wife as a shield. Would showing the moment that an unarmed man was shot in the face be footage that could make him appear, in some eyes, as a victim, or raise further questions about whether he could have been captured rather than killed?

In the absence of the evidence, there is no way we can know for sure what happened in that building in Abbottabad. We can look over the aftermath, the grubby bloodstains on the carpet, but we have no way of knowing how they got there, what kind of fighting took place, and which people died in what order. Those beautifully constructed graphics provided by newspapers and TV stations alike over the past few hours are just guesswork, an approximation of what happened, based on trusting “our” side’s version of events.

Naturally, it may well be that this is exactly what took place, and there are reasons – such as editing – that we can’t see the footage right away.

But without the images, without the footage, we can’t know for sure. We can guess, but we can’t know.