Philip Gourevitch’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times adds another compelling argument to the ones I’ve been making recently about why releasing more photos of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan is a bad idea. Obama first supported the release of the latest batch of photos but subsequently changed his mind , saying that the pictures in question are associated with “closed investigations” in which the perpetrators have already been identified and sanctioned, and that they “would not add any additional benefit” to our understanding of detainee treatment in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gourevitch, who has written a book about the soldiers who took many of the photos at Abu Ghraib, rightly notes that releasing more pictures “would not be telling us anything we don’t already know.” Indeed, anyone who hasn’t already taken the images that are by now engraved in our national consciousness and magnified their severity by 10 or 100 times has chosen not to see, not to know. The hooded figure standing on a box, arms outstretched and dangling wires in a sick fantasy of imminent electrocution, the pyramids of naked men made to kneel on each other’s backs, the prisoner tormented by a snarling dog, Lynndie England and Charles Graner and all the others with their thumbs up and goofy, unfathomable smiles on their faces-these are neither the whole story nor, very likely, the worst of it. But no matter how many pictures come out, much will have happened that we will never see. This is not just because, as Gourevitch writes, photos “can’t show us that the real bad apples were at the top of the civilian chain of command in Washington,” but because even though the digital camera is a valued companion of soldiers everywhere, the crime scene in this case is too vast to be documented. The potential for detainee abuse exists not just within the known detention facilities in the two main theaters of what used to be called the war on terror but in an endless number of in-between places where detentions occur secretly and where detainees have been reduced to the status of ghosts. We must use our imaginations here-not just to fill in the blanks about high-level accountability in the Abu Ghraib mess and detainee deaths in Afghanistan but to develop a mature understanding of how this war has been waged under Bush-Cheney and how complex it will now be to win or even to end.
As a reporter, I favor openness as a rule. I think the release of the first round of Abu Ghraib pictures was necessary to shake America out of its torpor and blind acceptance of the Bush administration argument that any response was justified by the viciousness of our enemy, and I’m grateful for the investigations and soul searching those photos spawned. I don’t share Obama’s view that protecting American troops from further harm on the battlefield is the most important reason for withholding these additional photos. After all, soldiers already face extreme danger in Iraq and Afghanistan, and doing so is part of their job. No one who likes Americans today is going to have his mind changed by a new photo of detainee abuse if the previously published pictures didn’t sway him.
I’m much more concerned about the people in war zones who don’t carry guns and who are being kidnapped and killed with frightening regularity. If more pictures were released now, the greatest risk would be to aid workers and journalists, those of us still clinging to the last scraps of that old concept of neutrality as we venture unarmed into remote areas to find out how many people were really killed in that bombing raid or how to get food to villages withered by drought. Today’s insurgents don’t care what your intentions are or that you profoundly disagree with the actions of your democratically elected government. All they care about is the insignia on the cover of your passport. Some will say this is self-serving of me. Perhaps. But just as the costs of maintaining the detention center at Guanatamo Bay outweigh its benefits , so our desire to see-and display to the world-more images of America behaving badly should give way to our need for a better understanding of what we’re up against. Already, many parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan are effectively off limits to reporters and aid workers. Releasing more pictures will only make those areas less accessible, further endangering civilians and giving the bad guys and the thugs they employ more cover to attack us, to lump us all together with the Lynndie Englands and Charles Graners, the Dick Cheneys and George W. Bushes. Now is not the time to indulge our collective guilt or further punish soldiers while allowing the leaders who gave the orders to go free. It’s time to show that we can be good again. We need to preserve some ground for engagement with the people we’re fighting among, some sense of the possibility of change, of a better way forward for them and for us. The more people without guns who can get out into these places and make a persuasive, personal case that there’s another side of America, the better.