In yesterday's New York Times, author Philip Gourevitch puts forward the case for keeping the never-seen images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison locked up. The points are well taken, and echo the arguments that President Obama made during his national security speech last week: 1) the images will not tell us anything we don't already know; and 2) they will enflame America's enemies and put American troops in danger.
Gourevitch knows the subject: he authored a book with filmmaker Errol Morris called The Ballad of Abu Ghraib, telling the story of the soldiers who took the images that helped turned public opinion against the conflict in Iraq. As he says, he "spent more than a year living with the photographs from Abu Ghraib...." Like the president, he does not specify exactly how the images would endanger troops; no one has yet presented evidence that the photographs would cause immediate and certain harm; the threat is vague and generalized. His argument that the pictures would not add to the public knowledge or debate is also one-sided, since the images remain classified. Who is to say what information they may provide and what effect they would have on the debate regarding the use of torture? (President Obama countered that the debate is effectively over, because he has outlawed the use of torture.)
More complex, and winning, is Gourevitch's argument about the nature of photographs, and how they can mislead while providing vital information. The photos from Abu Ghraib were made by soldiers put in a situation they were not trained for, who documented acts by comrades who, in many cases, were following orders from higher-ranking officials.
"Crime-scene photographs, for all their power to reveal, can also serve as a destraction, 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 interpretation and explanation."
The images from Abu Ghraid, he says, do not show "that the real bad apples were at the top of the civilian chain of command in Washington." Perhaps seeing the unreleased images would motivate us to learn that story, and not simply forget what happened at Abu Ghraib. Forgetting would be the ultimate failure.--David Schonauer