Why the Photos Are Important

Flying back from Italy, I'm finding it hard to continue to reckon with the ongoing debate about torture.  There is an inexorable psychological undertow pulling me away from a reckoning with something so painful.  Can't we just move on? 

Yet every time I give in to the idea of going with the flow, I'm interrupted by something more upsetting: ongoing attempts to bury the past or to make light of it. 

Last week, President Obama announced that he would resist the release of more photos chronicling the abuse of Abu Ghraib - not long after he agreed to make them public.   His military advisers apparently convinced him that making more photos public would put our soldiers in danger overseas.  Yet, not so very long ago, other military voices had made the argument that any American tolerance of torture - and not releasing the photos is a kind of tolerance - would put our soldiers in jeopardy because ruthless favors would be returned.   So which is it? 

What message does hiding the Abu Ghraib photos send to our allies and our enemies?   By resisting the release of the photos, Obama is on record as saying, in effect, that we will hide evidence of wrongdoing.  What kind of sunlight is that?  As many, notably including Gen. Petraeus (who is resisting the release of the photos), have made clear, a policy of torture is dangerous for our soldiers on purely pragmatic grounds because it makes enemies out of friends, provides unreliable intelligence, and offers our enemies a recruiting platform.  It also encourages corruption and undermines the very values for which we fight.   Phrased another way, a strong public stance against torture will undermine our enemies and protect our soldiers. Why then, do Petraeus and others resist the release of the remaining Abu Ghraib photos? 

On the one hand, there is the argument that these new photos are not so very different from the others that have been seen.  Do we really need to plow this same ground?  I confess that I was initially somewhat sympathetic to this argument because I think that too much attention has been devoted to Abu Ghraib.  It has become a convenient smokescreen of exceptionalism to mask the systemic nature of the brutal policies of the Bush Administration. 

On the other hand, Christopher Brownfield, a former Naval officer (his book on his experiences in Iraq, "My Nuclear Family" will be published by Knopf this fall) reminds me of a Pentagon briefing in 2006, in which a Deputy Secretary of Defense declared that "the problem with Abu Ghraib is that they let those guys have cameras."  When another officer wondered if the "problem was that it happened in the first place," he was censured for being disrespectful to a senior officer. The official message was clearly conveyed: It was not the abuse that was wrong; it was the taking and the leaking of the photographs that was the real crime.

Well, that solves my ambivalence.  I don't want to go back to that point of view.  After initially agreeing to support the release of the photos, Obama's sudden turnabout sends a dangerous signal left over from the previous administration: it's not ok to show pictures of torture because, well, they might upset people and because we need to cover up our crimes in order to protect ourselves. That's like saying we have to destroy our principles in order to protect them. I also don't take President Obama's word that there is "nothing new" in these pictures.   

When I was making "Taxi to the Dark Side," we scanned scores of previously unreleased photos from Abu Ghraib and discovered disturbing evidence of widespread abuse and lack of discipline.  For example, mixed with the famous pictures of Sabrina Harman giving the "thumbs up" over a murder victim, and Lynndie England holding the dog collar on the neck of a stripped detainee on all fours beside her, were shots of half-dressed US soldiers flashing and fucking each other, fondling detainees and using their weapons to blow the heads off camels.  Because the mix was so indiscriminate, all the images took on a pornographic cast, evidence that bonds of discipline and restraint had been loosened, and the dispassionate practice of interrogation had been overcome by  darker impulses from that uncontrollable place in the psyche where the prison cell meets the orgasmatron.   In other words, the photos confirmed a de facto policy that was meant, according to an investigation conducted by Major General Fay "to condone depravity and degradation."

The photos we discovered also clearly indicated that certain specific softening-up "techniques" - like shackling detainees in painful positions (see below) often with underwear on their heads- had mutated and migrated from Afghanistan and the relatively controlled laboratory of Guantanamo to Iraq.  So, painful as they may be to examine, these new Abu Ghraib pictures probably have even more to teach us about how the "enhanced interrogation techniques" approved by the Office of Legal Counsel, for a few detainees in CIA custody, somehow managed to spread to Iraq, where even John Yoo has said that the Geneva Conventions were supposed to apply. 

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Our enemies already know much of what we have done in the CIA black sites, and in our prisons in Afghanistan, Cuba and Iraq.  By following the rule of law, and abiding by our principles of openness and inquiry, we don't give comfort to our enemies.  Just the opposite.  We send a powerful signal that we mean what we say about investigating crimes, rather than covering them up.  We show that we mean what we say about the rights of the individual and that we are strong enough to assert them, not so weak that we must hide our principles - or our photographs - whenever our military forces are engaged in combat.