Incoherent Truth Suppression
As op-eds go, this one in the NYT praising President Obama for reversing himself and deciding to block the publication of additional torture photos is particularly vapid and incoherent.
You have to read the whole thing to appreciate just how nonsensical and self-contradictory it really is, but here’s the author’s argument, boiled down:
1. The release of the Abu Ghraib photos in 2004 was good because the photos showed the Bush administration was lying when it said it didn’t order torture.
2. But the Bush administration was able to wriggle free by portraying the soldiers who took the photos as rogues and prosecuting them.
3. Obama was right not to release additional AG-style photos taken at other prisons because new photos would enflame anti-American feeling while not telling us anything we don’t already know.
By proving the AG techniques were employed at other US prisons throughout the world, the new photos would tell us *exactly* what we need to know, exactly what the Bush administration managed to obscure by painting the AG guards as a few bad apples: that these techniques didn’t spring up at random in isolation, but rather were the result of centralized orders. The author, Philip Gourevitch, himself decries the Bush administration’s ability to obscure this central truth of Abu Ghraib — that what happened there wasn’t an aberration — and yet he salutes Obama for covering up the very evidence that would prove the “bad apples” narrative was a lie.
As for enflaming things, how would the new photos be inflammatory if they don’t show anything new? Maybe there would be a little enflaming, but surely not nearly so much enflaming as with the AG photos in 2004? Gourevitch himself argues that the AG photos enflamed in vain. Now we have a chance to finish the job of demonstrating where the AG abuses really came from, at far lower cost of inflammation. But Gourevitch shies from the opportunity.
Gourevitch goes on to argue that:
“Crime-scene photographs, for all their power to reveal, can also serve as a distraction, even a deterrent, from precise understanding of the events they depict. 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.”
If photos are so distracting and deterring, why was it good to release the AG photos? And really, “photographs cannot tell stories?” Is he serious? How does someone come to write something so self-evidently silly?
Regardless, why does Gourevitch set up his argument as though words and images are an either/or proposition, when obviously ideally we would have both? This is all especially confusing because we already do have words, born of “investigation and interpretation,” proving that AG was not an aberration. Here, let me quote a few of them, from the bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry Into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody:
“The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of “a few bad apples” acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority. This report is a product of the Committee’s inquiry into how those unfortunate results came about.”
So we already have the words, and they’ve accomplished little about fixing appropriate responsibility for torture, as Gourveitch himself laments. It’s the photos we need, but Gourevitch claims that (this time, as opposed to last time) the photos would be distracting, deterring, mute, unable to tell a story. Bizarre.
Gourevitch says “Mr. Obama is not suppressing information when he opposes the release of more photographs.” It’s difficult to imagine that he would say the same thing were Mr. Obama Mr. Bush.