The moment Donald Rumsfeld had been warning about—the worse-to-come moment—arrived last Wednesday (May 12), when new images of atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison were released. The Pentagon brought this closely guarded evidence to safe rooms in the Capitol for viewing by a very select audience: members of Congress. The legislators trooped out looking undertaker grim. “Disgusting” was their most common reaction. They were more forthcoming with another select group: well-sourced journalists. And so we learned that the hidden booty included images of a man banging his head (apparently involuntarily) into a wall over and over, until he collapsed. And that another picture reportedly showed an Iraqi boy being raped by a private contractor hired by the U.S. military.
We got this news thirdhand. It was fit to print but not to see.
Why the discretion? The line was that these images would inflame the Arab world even more, and put our troops in greater danger. If that’s the case, why not accuse the press of committing treason by publishing photos from Abu Ghraib in the first place? To my knowledge, no reporter pointed out this contradiction to any lawmaker. Too close—on all sides—for comfort, I suppose.
In this week’s New Yorker, Sy Hersh moved the story with a piece on the Pentagon’s attempt to stop Iraqi insurgents by unleashing a special force under the rubric “Grab whom you must. Do what you want.” The response chez Rumsfeld was vehement. A spokesman called Hersh’s findings “outlandish” and “conspiratorial.” (A journalist can stake his claim to a Pulitzer on that sort of official rhetoric.) Meanwhile, other publications noted growing evidence that brutality was common in American detention centers. Then came reports that a high-ranking suspect had been subjected to “water boarding,” a practice that has little to do with what goes on at Zuma Beach. Finally, we learned that no records were kept on the whereabouts of certain “enemy combatants.” They had simply disappeared.
This terrifying revelation resonated with memories of the Argentinean and Chilean military’s victims, the so-called desaparecidos, and raised dire fears of what our government might be capable of after another terrorist attack. But all these frightening intimations were confined to the spoken and printed word, and they appeared in so many different venues that it was hard to piece them together. A picture is different. Whenever you show it, the image remains the same, and its meaning can usually be understood without much mental mediation. Hide the photos and it’s much easier for right-wing pundits to pound home the government’s claim that this was just the work of a few pervs in khaki. That’s why the images of life at Abu Ghraib were so stunning—and no doubt why the new evidence was quarantined.
Recall the pictures of people falling from the stricken Twin Towers. They were broadcast live and printed with some day-one stories, but then they pretty much vanished. A year later, an Eric Fischl sculpture of a tumbling woman was deemed offensive and removed from Rockefeller Center. This reticence is not unlike the belief that people must be protected from obscene images—though there’s always a certain group that can be trusted to see the awful stuff. During the National Endowment for the Arts debate in 1989, Jesse Helms asked that women (and pages) be escorted from the Senate chamber when certain Robert Mapplethorpe photos were displayed. Only grown men could take such a sight in stride. Back in the Victorian era, it was believed that only wealthy gents could be trusted to possess pornography. Things have changed, sorta.
Now that violence and porn march dick in hand, every editor must wrestle with the issue of how much gore-cake readers or viewers can tolerate. But even when the image is the story, it’s not always left up to us to look or look away.
Enter the Internet
Of course, the Internet is changing the rules of discretion, as The New York Times pointed out in a Week in Review piece on Sunday. Armed with the secrets of Googling, you, too, can join the illuminati. I did just that, courtesy of Al Qaeda, which had posted footage of Nicholas Berg being beheaded. The cable news networks announced that this video was too graphic to show in its entirety. But it was obvious that many commentators had seen it. Greta Van Susteren and Aaron Brown said so, and both described it as hideous. If only to prove that I’m a member of this charmed circle, I decided to take a look.
I found the footage at annoy.com, and this was my reaction. As the victim’s screams turned to gurgling, I felt nauseated and started shaking. When his severed head was held up, I fled from the room. Within 10 minutes, I had only an intellectual memory of what I’d witnessed. I couldn’t recall the sounds, except for the killers’ repeated cries of “Allahu Akbar.” This mantra was their way of distancing themselves from the evil deed; my way was repression. Over the next 10 hours, my memory gradually returned—along with feelings of intense guilt. I had come to understand that reportorial duty was my excuse for voyeurism.
I wonder whether those cable anchors really needed to see the Berg footage in order to comment on it. I suspect they were drawn by the same curiosity that had motivated me. Like most people, journos want to see something transgressive, no matter how horrible. Then they edit the awful images so that other people who want to see them are spared. I believe that’s called sensitivity.
Susan Sontag holds that photos of death before our eyes numb us to the suffering of others. I get what she means. I can look with considerable aplomb at such extreme images, but not when they move and scream. I suppose even that acuity could erode with repeated exposure, but not as long as the pictures show me something I don’t already know.
That’s why the beheading footage didn’t enrage me. I expect that sort of thing from a ruthless enemy like Al Qaeda. As a gay American Jew, I know exactly what they have in mind for me. But the images from Abu Ghraib revealed something I hadn’t wanted to confront. It was the real-world manifestation of the snarl-behind-the-smile that Rummy wears so well. Thanks to those leaked photos, we’re closer to understanding why most of the world reads this leer as the look on America’s face.
Pictures of the unfathomable force us to see. That’s why all the evidence of prisoner torture must be released.
Research assistance: Matthew Phillp