The XX Factor

The Abu Ghraib Photos We Can’t Bear to See

The Daily Telegraph reports unreleased Abu Ghraib photographs include sexual torture and “rape.” Does that have any bearing on the debate over whether we should be allowed to see the photographs? According to the story, the pictures include an American soldier raping a female prisoner and a “male translator raping a male detainee.” Other photos include prisoners being sexually violated with a “truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube.” Yet another is of a female prisoner being forcibly stripped to expose her breasts. Meanwhile, Obama has reversed his earlier stance and refused to release the photos, a position that has generated outcry and support .

According to a recent New York Times op-ed by Philip Gourevitch, who co-wrote The Ballad of Abu Ghraib with Standard Operating Procedure director Errol Morris, “Releasing additional photographs would not be telling us anything that we don’t already know.” (Vanessa weighs in with her take on the op-ed here .) The Telegraph report seems to suggest otherwise-as this set of photos takes what we have seen to a whole new level. “Crime-scene photographs,” Gourevitch writes, “for all their power to reveal, can also serve as a distraction, even a deterrent, from precise understanding of the events they depict.” Ultimately, his point is that it’s the story behind the story depicted in the photographs that matters. It’s the men who led our country to this state that we must keep in our sights if we are to avoid repeating the war crimes of our recent past.

While Gourevitch is generally correct, in this specific case he is wholly wrong. What makes this new photographic revelation tricky, and is what, I suspect, led to Obama’s some say “stunning” reversal, is that these photographs, for all intents and purposes, are pornographic. They are hardcore, unblinking, unphotoshopped depictions of Americans raping and sexually violating the “enemy” in the context of war. Because they are sexually graphic, it’s their reception that is the potentially problematic part. Rightly or wrongly, in all likelihood, these photographs will titillate. All the P.C. politics of the mind cannot override the un-P.C. desires of the libido. But it is i n spite of this fact that these photographs must be released. These days, we speak of “the pornography of war.” This is that writ real. And we must bear witness to it in order to comprehend it, in all its horrifying reality. After all, we paid for it.