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On Photographs

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.

By Dan Froomkin  |  May 26, 2009; 2:10 PM ET
Categories:  Torture  
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The public will deceive itself so long as public information sources (some of whom pretend to be media outlets or news organizations) shy away from drawing the obvious straight lines. The public will deceive itself so lang as Beltway pundits obfuscate the issue to hide their guilt in supporting these decisions. The public will deceive itself so long as no one in federal service ha sthe courage to stand up and say I did this, I did it for the good of the nation, now come and get me.

Posted by: kcsphil | May 26, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

...And the costs of publishing a new set of photographs of detainee abuse?

Dan Froomkin is a smart enough guy to understand there would probably be some -- an additional incentive for new terrorists to be recruited in some Muslim countries, an extra incentive for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan to prepare new attacks, an opportunity to undermine efforts being made by the American army in these countries to reconcile former insurgents to their respective governments. He has probably also figured out that other Americans would bear those costs. And that's OK with him.

I understand the frustration of having lost battle after battle the detainee abuse issue with the Bush administration when it was in office. Frankly, I share it. But those battles were lost when they mattered most, and they are not the only battles that matter now. Froomkin's passion for a new visual aid -- and the photographs in question here are only that -- that will help his side does not sit well, seeing that he knows if any Americans pay a price for it they will not include him or anyone he knows.

Gourevitch is right about this subject.

Posted by: jbritt3 | May 26, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

It is the emotional power of the unreleased photos that would help pierce through the political campaign of lies about torture. The photos would help make the truth about torture , a policy promulgated by the Bush Administration, clear to the happily deceived American public.

Part of the reason the Obama Administration did not release the photographs is their fear that they would add to public pressure for real investigations. This is the same reason that the mainstream media does not want them released - they don't want real investigations.

Posted by: gary9 | May 26, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, Obama is in many ways more of a centrist than he claimed on the campaign trail. That's fine with me. But in the form of these photos, we're talking about crimes against humanity. I'll apply Cheney's principle here: there's no middle road. Disclosure or coverup of high-level criminal activity. I think the national embarassment is necessary in the long run for this nation to salvage its prestige.

Posted by: whizbang9a | May 26, 2009 6:18 PM | Report abuse

Dan: The photographs represent no more than emotionally charged snippets, representative of a situation that requires a clarity that can only come from an independent, thoughtful bipartisan commission, that can establish coherent links between the field operatives and the directives of "higher ups" in the Bush administration who allegedly condoned the behavior represented by those photos.

While the President faces a legal entanglement because of a court ruling requiring release the photos, putting them in the public domain without the context of an established chain of responsibility would not only lead to a lack of constructive purpose, but might create a destructive redux of the negative international reaction that occurred in reaction to the release of the original Abu Graib pictures.

Unfortunately, the President has expressed a "let's move on" attitude that discourages the establishment of a bipartisan investigation.

I think that your push for publication of these photos is a journalistic cry in the wilderness. The American public is too consumed with personal economic concerns to give this issue the attention it truly deserves.

The window of opportunity to constructively influence contemporary US public opinion in this regard has been tightly and permanently shut. The administration responsible for the abuses was clearly rebutted by the 2008 presidential election (except that Dick Cheney doggedly seeks to be the political equivalent of a bad penny).

At this point, judgement of this sorry episode will become the responsibility of serious historians (as opposed to opportunistic contemporary pundits and book writers looking for a quick payday).

Assuming that the President's aversion to a "truth" commission could be effectively reversed or circumvented by congress, the current political and economic climate creates a situation where such a commission would expect that its activities would be conducted well under the radar of general public awareness and concern.

Despite this pessimism, in the long run the effort of a dedicated, sincere group of individuals, not subject to constituent pressures, would be a long term benefit to the nation.

Posted by: MillPond2 | May 26, 2009 8:14 PM | Report abuse

"...a clarity that can only come from an independent, thoughtful bipartisan commission..."

What you can expect from a thoughtful bipartisan commission is a total cover-up. Both parties were complicit in these war crimes.

Oh no, if it's clarity you want, look to a jury. As for the photos, one picture is worth more than ten thousand words. Public opinion changes when it gets pounded without letup. The current discussion of "advanced interrogation" is altogether too abstract. Let's have some pictures, and make them high-res color .jpgs, thanks.

Posted by: fzdybel | May 26, 2009 11:12 PM | Report abuse

At this point "millpond2" seems to have the most cogent view of a situation blown way out of proportion, with many "facts" unknown to most of us. Were those Abu Graib prisoners pictured being sexually embarrassed, naked, or threatened by a vicious guard-dog actual enemy prisoners of war in Iraq, or were they the common criminals of a nation at war? If this represented "true"-torture why was the dog leashed/held in check--did the dog bite the prisoner, unfettered by the leash? Or were those jailed Iraqis arrested for common lawbreaking? In the pictures shown to U.S. tv-news viewers we all got to see what was essentially frat-boy "hazing-parties" of Iraqi late-adolescent (and sometimes older) males, who may or may not have been armed enemies of U.S. fighting-forces. When this hazing is described as "torture" anything may follow--which it has. Frat-boys laughed at the already-shown-to-all Abu Graib photos being described as "torture"--they've been through as bad or worse just trying to pledge to a fraternity. Why have you fallen ass-over-tin-cups into this absurd posture of agreeing that the frat-boy-crap of Abu Graib is equivalent to real torture?

Posted by: marc85 | May 27, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Hiding these pictures tells our foes that we have something to hide, that we have behaved shamefully and we know it, and that Obama is in fact complicit after the fact in the commission of war crimes by virtue of his administrations continued efforts to cover for the previous administration. This latest effort to sweep war crimes under the rug for whatever reason is simply the addition of fuel to the fire. They know what we did, and our foes know what we did and are doing, only the American people are blissfully ignorant of what atrocities have been and are being committed with the support of the Obama administration, which has hitched its wagon to the Bush approach. Hiding the evidence only makes it more obvious that we are the monsters our foes portray us to be and the lack of accountability gives them license to up the ante at any time, because no one will believe any more that we are not baby raping murdering racist sociopaths bent on the destruction of all that our foes hold dear-family, religion, and freedom. Our benefit of the doubt account ran out a long time ago and even our allies and co-religionists are giving us the buffalo eye wondering what new horror we will be revealed to have committed.

Posted by: sparkplug1 | May 27, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse

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