Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sometimes a Picture isn't Worth a Thousand Words

On the issue of the latest torture pictures, many, if not most of the people whose opinions I normally value are going against me on this one. (Joan Walsh, Jonathan Turley, Rachel Maddow, Sen. Russ Feingold. . .)

But I believe Obama is doing exactly the right thing in withholding those pictures from public scrutiny. It's hardly "hiding evidence", as so many are suggesting. It's simply keeping them from being broadcast al over the world. The people who need to see those pictures have either already seen them or will see them. That's where "transparency" comes in. Because you and I and the other guy haven't seen them doesn't mean there's anything nefarious or even dishonest going on. Nor does it mean that Obama is going back on a promise.

There are thousands if not millions of items that we may never see because they're classified. As I see it, this is entirely a security issue. I do believe our military will be compromised if they're made public. The clamoring for viewing baffles me. What would it gain? What is it any of us needs to see? Isn't it enough that we know they're out there? Do we really need to see them over and over again, day after day, night after night, for weeks or months on end--knowing that the whole world is seeing them, too--including our enemies?

Jonathan Turley called Obama's decision not to release the new photos "Positively Orwellian".

Joan Walsh said Obama sounded "positively Rumsfeldian" when he announced that he would recommend not releasing the photos.

Janis Karpinski, the retired brigadier general formerly in charge of Abu Ghraib prison, told CNN today, "It is sad and tragic. The reversal will absolutely stir up more controversy than release of the photographs, causing an outpouring of rampant speculation -- What is the government hiding? Who are the people in the photographs? How awful can these new photos be? And worse."

She may be right concerning the speculation. We live in an age of information overload, where "news" is broadcast 24 hours a day, with the chance that the day's stories might be repeated 30 or more times. We could spend mountains of time speculating about what is in those photos, or we can spend days poring over the photos themselves. Or--here's a thought--we could get over the fact that we may not see the actual pictures any time soon and move on to the fact that it was Obama himself who released the OLC torture memos in what some might call a refreshing display of. . .transparency.

The fact that we know that thousands of these photos exist is sickening enough. People have been torturing in our name and have been obscenely, absurdly, photographing the acts. That is horrifying--but it's out there. President Obama hasn't swept that fact under the carpet.

There are many who say that we can't possibly get the same gut feelings--and thus the appropriate rage--from a written account of incidences of torture as we can from actual photographs or film. That's assuming that gut feelings and rage are the bottom line here. They're not. It's justice we're after, not a balm for our anger.

But the larger point is that, whether or not the public has a chance to view the new torture photographs, nothing is going to change.

Obama either will or will not pursue the prosecution of American war criminals. (Something I'm all for.)

His administration either will or will not actually change policy concerning confinement, interrogation and torture. (A necessary step if we're ever to hold our heads up again.)

And culpable members of the Bush Administration may or may not get their comeuppance.

Sam Stein wrote a piece yesterday in The Huffington Post quoting an ACLU lawyer who spoke on Fox News (Really? ACLU? Fox News? Together??) about the president's decision to stop the release of the photos. Jameel Jaffer said, "These photographs are critical to the historical record so it is very disappointing... that the administration is going to try and suppress them."

I haven't heard from anyone that the pictures will never be made available. To use the "historical record" argument as a reason to release such inflammatory pictures during a time of war is disingenuous.

Stein also quotes an "anonymous White House aide":
"The President would be the last to excuse the actions depicted in these photos. That is why the Department of Defense investigated these cases, and why individuals have been punished through prison sentences, discharges, and a range of other punitive measures. But the President strongly believes that the release of these photos, particularly at this time, would only serve the purpose of inflaming the theaters of war, jeopardizing US forces, and making our job more difficult in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. "

There is no real indication that Obama is going to sweep the wartime abuses of the Bush Administration under the carpet. There is no evidence that any of that information, including the photos, will be destroyed. We've already begun to have congressional hearings concerning the use of torture in American military prisons. (What Went Wrong: Torture and the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush Administration)

Matthew Alexander, leader of the Zarqawi interrogation team in 2006 and author of "How to Break a Terrorist", gave written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, explaining how useless torture really is. Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent involved in interrogations, spoke behind a screen at that same hearing, saying basically the same thing.

Get some perspective, please. And be honest. We don't need to see those actual photographs in order to get a good picture of prisoner abuses perpetrated in our name. The evidence is surfacing daily and the word is getting out. New witnesses keep coming forward, new memos keep popping up. So how is that happening? It's happening because we finally have a government in place that understands the need for honesty and transparency.

But there are still responsibilities associated with the release of information regarding our actions. Those photos won't tell us anything we don't already know.


(Cross-posted at Talking Points Memo)


  1. hey, Ramona--
    it is nice to have another perspective.

    the main problem I have with the latest announcement is that it, like so many others lately, is a complete flip-flop. I wish he would spend more time deliberating before announcing he would close gitmo or release the photos or prosecute the people responsible. Then, maybe, he wouldn't feel compelled to step to the mic 4 days later and take it all back.

    and, with all the hue-and-cry, he may eventually feel forced to release the photos. and that won't look good either.

    like you, I don't feel the need to actually SEE the photos. in fact, if they were released, I would probably go out of my way to avoid seeing them. but, I wish he would pick a decision and stick with it.

    you probably saw, on Rachel, that the ACLU said Obama's administration will be blamed, when the pictures finally do come out, for conspiring with Bush/Co to cover them up. that could be really bad for him, and us, too.

  2. oh, and just one more:
    all this talk about "torture works" or "it doesn't work" is, imnsho, a smoke screen.

    if torture were 0% or 100% effective the point would be the same-- it's ILLEGAL AND IMMORAL! the rest is window-dressing.

    ok, I'm putting away my soapbox now.

  3. Oh, Two Crows, don't EVER put away your soapbox! YOu're needed out there. I worry about the flip-flopping, too. That's the problem with making campaign promises that at the time seem logical and pure, but have no actual chance in hell of coming true.

    Sitting in that Oval Office chair changes everything. Looking at issues from the outside is far different from looking at them from inside. His security clearance is much higher, for starters, and he's getting info he ordinarily wouldn't have access to.

    Every president has to make adjustments from promises to actual edicts. The problem with Obama is that he's coming in to such utter disaster we can't help but want him to play God and fix things--NOW.

    I believe he's a good man and really wants to do right. He may feel as desperate as we do, which is why he's still promising to do the things that, realistically, he cannot do.

    I'm still willing to give him time. I fully expect that he's going to make mistakes. He's NOT superhuman. And yes, he may lose this battle over the pictures, but I'm going to give him credit for trying.

    (I'm not so naive to believe, however, that he's not a politician first. Much of what he does is calculated, of course. I just have to hope his strategies are in place to help us, not screw us even more.)

  4. hi, Ramona--
    my concern with him is, as I said before, "Think things through BEFORE making announcing them, dammit!" that's all.

    keep flip-flopping and the rethugs will just keep blathering. ok. they'll blather anyway -- but I don't like it when he gives them something to blather _about_.

    let them go back to the birth certificate issue.

  5. hey Ramona--
    this is off-thread, but still--
    I just found your new blog. Cool!
    I'll keep an eye on it as you get it up and running.

    I've never been witness to the birthing of a blog before, except my own. this is exciting!

  6. OMG, Two Crows, I had no idea it was actually "out there" yet! I've been leisurely putting it together, not thinking anyone could see it. Guess I had better get busy. . .

    Thanks for the heads up. I've actually screwed things up with that blog--a problem with how I signed it up with Blogger--and I've been trying to get it resolved. As it is, my comment signature is messed up, too. I should leave this sort of thing to the people who actually know what they're doing!


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