Framing the pain

Published 9:27 pm Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced last week that families of military dead will be empowered to decide whether to allow photographs of their loved ones’ final return home. This is an important first step to opening up the solemn process to media coverage, and by extension, the consciousness of the American public. Gates has formed a “working group” to figure out details. The hope is, as the policy develops, families will see that the coverage offers a chance to honor their loved one’s sacrifice.

The no-photo guidelines began during the first Gulf War, under President George H. W. Bush, continued with President Bill Clinton, and then was most strictly enforced by former President George W. Bush. There have been exceptions, including in 2000, when the Pentagon distributed photographs showing coffins arriving at Dover with the remains of military personnel killed in the bombing of the USS Cole. In September 2001, the Air Force published a photo of the transfer at Dover of the remains of a victim of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. Both of those releases were criticized as politically motivated.

The decision to curtail all news coverage of coffin-arrivals was misguided. While there were claims that the policy was in deference to family sensitivities, in reality, the action amounted to rank censorship. It had the effect of shielding the American people from the human cost of war. Likewise, the politicians were shielded from the political toll. Of course, the human losses have not just been family losses, they have been the larger society’s. Our sensitivities merit no such protection. The pictures certainly help convey the price being paid.

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With the policy change, families will determine access. Therein lies opportunity for the American people to join in the solemn ceremonies and honor the fallen. As Jon Soltz of told the Army Times, “. . . when men and women raise their right hand for the armed forces of the United States, they don’t do it to a political party. And they don’t do it for a president. They do it for the Constitution.”

The nation should be afforded the opportunity to see them through to the end.

—-The Journal News