On Photographs

By Dan Froomkin
2:10 PM ET, 05/26/2009

Abu Ghraib chronicler Philip Gourevitch writes in a New York Times op-ed about photos of abuse.

In April 2004, when the Abu Ghraib photos were leaked, "they shocked the world’s conscience," Gourevitch writes. "They also performed a great public service. They told us something about ourselves that we might have suspected but did not fully know — that the Bush administration had decided to fight terror with terror, and torture with torture.

"We did not fully know this before the photographs came out, because our leaders hid it from us, and when it was revealed they denied it. 'We do not torture,' Mr. Bush kept saying, even as a stream of official documents leaked to the press contradicted him."

But Gourevitch says President Obama was correct not to release a new crop of photos: "Releasing additional photographs would not be telling us anything that we don’t already know. We don’t need to see a picture to know that American interrogators used waterboarding — a crime our military has prosecuted as torture for more than a century — when we can see former Vice President Dick Cheney taking credit for having people waterboarded."

Unfortunately, Gourevitch is wrong about what "we" know and what we don't. Gourevitch himself evidently gets the connection between the Bush administration's policies and Abu Ghraib, but my distinct sense is that the general public still doesn't. The "bad apples" argument -- which, as Gourevitch later notes, Obama is actually reviving -- still seems to hold a lot of currency.

And that's exactly why we need those pictures, which reportedly show abuse at other prisons, not just Abu Ghraib. They will viscerally demonstrate that the abuse at Abu Ghraib wasn't just a vile accident, but was a vile byproduct of a vile policy designed and advocated inside the White House.

"Photographs cannot show us a chain of command, or Washington decision making. Photographs cannot tell stories. They can only provide evidence of stories, and evidence is mute; it demands investigation and interpretation," Gourevitch writes.

And that's exactly right. We need investigation and interpretation -- and the longer the public can deceive itself about the Bush White House's culpability, the longer such investigations and interpretations will be delayed.

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