Abu Ghraib, Take Two

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The world was shocked when the first photos were revealed. Now the ACLU is fighting the Bush administration for public release of a more gruesome set — this time with videos. We seem to be living in an age where pictures speak louder than words–or do they?

The ACLU’s thinking is that promulgating more gore is the best way to outrage a nation. But do we risk becoming immune to these images of abuse? How can we hold the Bush Administration accountable for unthinkable acts if these images leave us thinking not much of anything? In this hour we’ll take a close look at the imagery of torture; what’s gained, what’s lost if the Bush Administration has its way–or for that matter, if the ACLU does.

James Der Derian

Director, Information Technology, War, and Peace Project,

Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University

Author, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network

from Robin’s pre-interview notes:

There’s a whole range of things to talk about here. Whether we’re suffering from fatigue, whether these images can still shock us. What the difference is in the impact of still image vs. video. There’s also the issue of documentation. With the proliferation of new technologies, this will increasingly be an issue. Now that every soldier has a video camera or a video phone, we’re dealing with the so called “Nokkia Effect.”

We also want to deal with the sensitivity of this administration to global efforts to bring these photos before various international criminal courts. We saw their

mustering of forces against Amnesty International, which shows they see this as potential evidence in international courts, and in civil cases as well. This affects their efforts to administer justice.

The media battlefield is the battlefield itself. Right now you have on the one side videos showing beheadings to intimidate and recruit. You have on the other side video of every single smart bomb hitting its target unerringly. It’s completely framed and edited on both sides. During the trials for the first World Trade Center bombings, when they started to investigate Al Quaeda, they found the number 2 or 3 guy was in charge of the websites. It’s a different epistemology of power.

Darius Rejali

Darius Rejali is a professor of political science at Reed College, author of Torture and Modernity: Self, Society and State in Modern Iran (Westview 1994), the forthcoming Torture and Democracy (Princeton 2005), and Approaches to Violence (forthcoming Princeton 2006),

from Chelsea’s pre-interview notes:

The news of torture at Abu Ghraib came out in January 2003. This was before the photos, people were already aware of the situation, the government thought that the photos wouldn’t change anything. Little did they know how symbolic they would become. Particularly the image of the hooded prisoner. This is probably why they are afraid to reveal the next batch.

It’s disappointing that the Dept. of Defense isn’t going to release the photos but it’s not surprising. If this were behind us—this wouldn’t be such an issue. This is what is really troubling—it suggests that something is still going on.

There’s the McCain-Graham bill and Cheney wants nothing to do with it. What kind of message does that send? It is a totally reasonable bill and the Bush admin is vetoing it.

Len Rubenstein

Len Rubenstein is the Executive Director of Physician for Human Rights

from Chelsea’s pre-interview notes:

There are two dimensions to the ACLU lawsuit In a democratic society you have to hold your government accountable when the government is obviuosly behaving atrociously. The ACLU has to file this lawsuit because unlike 9/11 there is no independent review.

The ACLU wants these images released because they understand how powerful images are. We’re talking about the Department of Defense releasing 86 photos and four videos. If instead we were talking about 90 documents , 90 pieces of paper, would you even be having a radio show on this? Would you be talking to me right now?

Stephen M. Walt

Robert and Renee Belfer Professor in International Affairs, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

Author, The Origins of Alliances

from Brendan’s pre-interview notes:

These photos are unlikely to have the same impact as the initial set of revelations. It’s old news. We’re used to the idea that there were abuses. Guantanamo is a black eye as well, the story has already broken. But this gets it back on page one. The sense is that all of these things have become staples of commentary, when someone wants to attack the US, they all spend some times pointing out various bits of misconduct.

However, our image abroad is not in very good shape already, and this can only make it worse. The standard concern for American unilateralism, the slow-motion collapse… Britain and Italy are already getting out. Another wave of revelations would make it harder for people stand shoulder to shoulder with America. People outside America are looking. You pay a price when you do anything wrong, but you pay a bigger price when you don’t appear to be fixing it. Bush went on Arab tv but he never said he was sorry. Concrete and costly steps do get noticed.

Ken Hackman

Air Force photojournalist

from Brendan’s pre-interview notes:

The imagery obviously isn’t going to do our image any good. It isn’t going to help anyone except the people against the war. I’m against the war. It’s gratuitous.

I think it’ll be damning to our reputation around the world. Even though someone should be in favor of freedom of information, an image means everything. In almost any country in the world, say, Pakistan, people are very attuned to a visual image, and also to things that they see that show the US in a bad light. Wherever you would have a radical group of people, it’s going to reignite the hatred.

Rehashing it isn’t going to benefit anyone. It’s going to be detrimental to the US and to our Allies, they’re going to be guilty by association, many of them have stuck by us. In their countries, the UK, Australia, anyone who’s supported us, with men, with words even, they will have to rejustify that support, based on the fact that this has happened. It’s already happened. It’s a story that’s going to make things worse. The horror, the outrage has all been done, hopefully has been corrected, that’s what we’re told. All we’re going to do is show you more of the same horror. If nothing had been done, I’d say “release them.”

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  • Wil Davis

    No one has mentioned “R2I” (Resistance To Interrogation”) – David Leigh wrote a piece in “The Gaurdian” (UK Newspaper) back in May 2004. To answer your question Chris, try throwing “R2I” and “David Leigh” at google…

    – Wil

  • I think the pictures should be released. While graphic in detail, it’s important for our citizens to know these details. This isn’t super secret spy stuff. It isn’t a national security risk. It obviously poses an embarrassment to this administration but I think it is not a partisan issue. It’s a moral and ethically issue.

  • shpilk

    So far, Janis Karpinski, the Brig General who was in charge of Abu-Ghraib was convicted of shoplifting from a PX; and all the rest of the people who have been charged have been at the Staff Sargeant level or lower.

    It is an outrage.

    The real issue is accountability of the highest levels of command and control. To deny the truth and cover up the facts is what is making things worse. Supressing the truth will lead to only more hatred.

    Rehashing it isn’t going to be pretty.

    Did we need to see all the images and stories from the Inquisition, from Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Babi-Yar, from the Gulags? Did we need to hear all the details of what happened in pre-war Iraq, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, what is going on today in Darfur? Did someone decide that these images were not ‘too damaging’?

    How does a society ever learn from their mistakes?

    What needs to be done, is those people who were repsonsible, the ones who made command decisions, or by lack of guidance and sheer incompetence allowed it to happen, be brought to justice – the longer the delay, the more the people will lose trust in the United States.

    What ‘moral authority’ will the US be able to wield in the future if there is doubt about the truth? What hurts worse, hiding the images or revealing them?

    Until all the information is released, there will never be any resolution to this issue.

  • shpilk

    What is extraordinarily pathetic about this issue is thet we forget, too that many of these people tortured were everyday people in Iraq – not terrorists, not insurgents.

    These people were detained and tortured without trial, without habeas, without any rights to be represented.

    The US had invaded Iraq and offered up ‘democracy’ as the canard for the casus belli, after the fact.

    There is no sense of proportion in defending an invasion based upon the concept of bringing democracy on the one hand to repressed people, and the abuse and mayhem that at a minimum was allowed to happen under our watch or even worse directed to happen by the highest levels of our leadership.

  • deb

    Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. ~Marie Curie

    Fear is the lengthened shadow of ignorance. ~Arnold Glasow

    The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest

    kind of fear is fear of the unknown. ~H. P. Lovecraft


    The photos should be released. To not release the photos is to encourage fear of the worst in our imaginations. We need, as a nation, to face this horror honestly and openly.



  • sierramurphy

    I feel the pictures should be released so that the American Public can see what is being done in their name. This torture has every Americans stamp on it whether we want to believe that or not. Maybe it will be a wake up call for many Americans.

  • shpilk

    The press has been totally co-opted by being embedded.

    How about a show on what has happened to our American Press, supposedly the most free in the world – how it has been gelded into submission?

    We found out about these abuses almost by accident, because an American soldier saw what was happening and knew it was wrong; he tried to report it. He was rebuffed, repeatedley, but finally the message got through.

    From the Taguba report {this is the US Army report} “The report estimates that 60% of the prisoners at the site were “not a threat to society” and that the screening process was so inadequate that innocent civilians were often detained indefinitely.”

    Imagine if you will, what Americans would demand as retribution if a foreign nation invaded our country and did these things to our citizens.

    Release the pictures, and let those who are guilty be charged and sentenced.

  • dwg

    The coverage in the New York Review of Books has convinced me that Bush and Rumsfeld are responsible for the torture. The insurgency in the summer of 2003 took them by surprise and in desperation they rounded up guilty and innocent alike. It’s their own fault that they were taken by surprise, because they ignored their own State Department advice on occupying Iraq and the warnings of many people before the war that war would increase, not decrease, terrorism.

    The newspapers haven’t made this story as simple as it should be for the general public, and I guess the gruesomeness of the new pictures will distract the press more than focus them on the story.

    Some new pictures have already been on public display. Aidan Delgado, a veteran of the current Iraq war and a student at New College, Florida, showed slides from his year in Iraq, including six months at Abu Ghraib, on December 6, 2004:


    The pictures are more barbaric than anything the general public has seen. One showed a prisoner with his head half blown off and brain exposed, and an American soldier next to him smiling and holding a spoon.

  • All photographs and other materials should be released. It is not a question of becoming immune to the indignities inflicted by one set of human beings on another. It is a question of openness in a democracy. These images will prompt a discussion about the true issue requiring to be aired, namely the status under international law of the captured. I have no answer as to their proper and legal classification, but it needs to be defined according to international law principles, not the laws of the vanquishing country. And if we become immune to the sights depicted in the photographs, that refelects negatively on our sense of humanity, but cannot be used as justification for suppressing the photos, etc.

  • ddubb

    Shouldn’t this be titled, “Abu Ghraib, Take Three”? Unfortunately, the cameras weren’t rolling during “Take One.” As late as 1994 this prison was the site where biological weapons were tested on “prisoners” (1); most likely they were also innocent lower class citizens randomly taken off the street. Maybe if the US reinstates these experiments the court of world opinion will ignore the atrocity as the UN ignored the Saddam Hussein regime’s use of this prison facility… and then ignored the reports of the UN’s own Special Commission… what DOES the US have to do to have IT’S atrocities ignored…

    Actually, UNSCOM did obtain photos of wounding caused by the biological agent tests conducted in Abu Ghraib. I think the Secretary General of the UN should release those photos. Personally, if I were a prisoner in Abu Ghraib I’d much rather be a victim of the US Military’s “atrocities” than Saddam’s “standard operating procedures.”

    (1) “The Greatest Threat” by Richard Butler

  • thedullroar24

    I don’t see the need to make these images public. Or rather, I don’t think there should be a need to make these images public. If the government was to show some sign that these travesties were being thoroughly investigated and dealt with and that policies were being made to prevent things like this in the future, nobody would be asking to see the pictures. There has been no news, however, to suggest that things are really getting done. Whether there is no news because nothing is happening, or the happenings just aren’t in the news, I don’t know. If things won’t happen without a public outcry and media firestorm (fed by this second batch of images), then I guess we need the images. If the people who are better informed on the matter think that is the case, fine, but that puts us in a very sad state of affairs. It frightens me that some people think that we can’t trust the government to do what is right without enormous outside pressure, because they may be right. We should be able to prosecute these crimes without plastering the images everywhere. If this were a case of torture and sexual assault inside the US, in a cult or some terrorist organization, the public wouldn’t be asking to see the pictures so they knew just how terrible the acts were. You would hear on the news that three men were being charged as the leaders of some organization for crimes X, Y, and Z, and that would be the end of it. A trial would ensue and any relevant pictorial evidence would be used, but it wouldn’t crop up on the internet the next day. Why should this or why does this need to be any different? Some say, “The public has a right to know.� Well, if you tell me that guards tortured, humiliated and raped detainees at a prison, I’ll take your word on it. Nobody has anything to gain by making it up, so I don’t need to see it to believe it.

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  • cassandra

    Chris, thank you so much for raising this question on your show!

    What’s insane about the above sentence? Let me tell you: What’s absolutly INSANE about it is that Chris is virtually alone in raising this question in the American media landscape. And yes, I am talking about blogs, too! Outside of the regular ACLU or CCR-NY press release, who is really asking fundamental questions like

    How can they possibly keep the lid on it all? These are digital files – aren’t they sitting on a number of people’s computers? How on earth have they managed to keep them off the internet until now?

    You can go to ifilm.com/warzone today and find tons of “snuff movies”

    — neocon wet dreams / military porn from the death zone —

    so how have they managed to keep a lid on rape and torture at Abu Ghraib?

    I hope you will ask these questions again soon, Chris! I WANT AN ANSWER.