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Let the families decide on photos of the fallen

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 26, 2009 at 8:17 pm |
February 26, 2009 8:17 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates was right to allow photography of coffins of war dead – on condition that loved ones agree.

Exploitation or honor? The U.S. policy of barring photographs of the coffins of war dead has been construed both ways.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates got it right Thursday, we believe, when he relaxed that policy to allow photographic coverage of the arrival of the flag-draped coffins – but only with the approval of the families involved.

The ban on public photography was imposed in 1991. Since the Iraq war began in 2003, it has been vehemently criticized and defended.

Critics – many of them opponents of the war – said the Bush administration was using the ban to prevent Americans from seeing frequent scenes of coffins coming home from Iraq through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Defenders argued that the critics were bent on politically exploiting those scenes as antiwar propaganda.

But the question ought to be separated from the arguments over a fading war. The issue of how best to pay respect to the fallen deserves to be dealt with on its own merits.

There seems no intrinsic offense in photographing the dignified ceremony of unloading the coffins from transports and transferring them to waiting vehicles.

And coverage of these somber homecomings offers considerable instructive value. It’s a way to let America share in the ceremony and better appreciate the human costs of any war.

As Paul Rieckhoff, director the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said, "The sight of flag-draped coffins is, and should be, a sobering reminder to all Americans of the ultimate sacrifice our troops have made and the high price of our freedom."

This country has too little sense of the reality of those sacrifices.

That doesn’t mean any family should be forced to share its grief or its share of the ceremony. Simple respect calls for letting survivors decide whether the coffins of their own loved ones can be photographed.

As Gates said, "We ought not presume to make that decision in their place."

Presidents have made exceptions to the ban. In 2000, Bill Clinton allowed the Air Force to release photos of coffins of sailors killed in the terrorist attack on the USS Cole. The following year, under George W. Bush, the Air Force released a photo of the transfer of the remains of a victim of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

Both releases presumably served the purposes of those presidents. Far better to let the families – and the families alone – make that call.

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