“Open the second shutter, so that more light can come in.”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, last words
The United States Supreme Court will decide in October whether to hear the Obama administration’s ill-advised plea that it not be required to comply with a court order mandating the release of photographs documenting torture and abuse inflicted on prisoners in the War on Terra.
The Justice Department had initially declined to pursue the BushCo-era appeal, with presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs publicly describing the case as “unwinnable.” However, after intense lobbying from military officials and BushCo holdovers, Obama in May declared “that releasing these photos would inflame anti-American opinion and allow our enemies to paint U.S. troops with a broad, damning and inaccurate brush, thereby endangering them in theaters of war.”
Replied Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU, the plaintiff in the case: “It’s an awful idea to give violent extremists veto power over the Freedom of Information Act.”
As the linked New York Times report points out, the case turns on one of the very principles behind the establishing of this nation, memorably expressed by William O. Douglas in his dissent in Environmental Protection Agency v. Mink (1973) 410 US 73: “The generation that made the nation thought secrecy in government one of the instruments of Old World tyranny and committed itself to the principle that a democracy cannot function unless the people are permitted to know what their government is up to.”
I am not the sort of person inclined to myself print such photographs. I am atavistic enough to believe that photographs contain slivers of the soul, and I am generally uncomfortable with using photographs that portray people undergoing great suffering. However, in cases such as these, I believe that such photos should be published, and precisely because they make people uncomfortable. When such deeds have been performed in your name, you need to look at them.
Obama in this instance is making a mistake. I said that originally back on May 13, in a diary on Daily Kos. Because I said it well enough then, now, as we wait for the Supreme Court to act, I’m going to reprint that piece here.
This Is Us
The photographs which the Obama administration resists releasing, documenting the torture of prisoners by American citizens at seven separate facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, are my responsibility. As they are yours. For we paid the people who took those photographs, and we paid those who inflicted the suffering. They acted in our names.
This is not May 2004, when the New Yorker printed those first shocking photographs documenting the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and we could be led to believe that such grotesque abuse was the work of a few wild-eyed hillbillies run amok—”bad apples.” This is May 2009. And we know now without doubt that Abu Ghraib-style torture of War on Terra prisoners was approved and directed by persons at the highest levels of the executive branch of the federal government. S/elected to office by the people of the United States. Twice.
Those photographs are our country. They are us. And the sooner we get them out, all of them, the sooner we own them, own up to them, to ourselves and to the world, the sooner we can become something better.
Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris produced a lovely song, “This Is Us,” involving a married couple of a certain age reviewing a photograph album depicting their lives together.
Most married folks, like the married folks in that song, do not keep, much less fondly review, pictures of their uglier and more unpalatable moments. I, however, work in a job where I see such photographs frequently. In this criminal-defense law office, we regularly review pictures depicting the results of violent acts committed (allegedly) by our clients against their spouses, and against others—crimes ranging from domestic violence to murder. And sometimes part of my job is to argue for keeping such photos from the eyes of a jury.
The law doesn’t help me much, though. Out here in California, pictures depicting the damage defendants have inflicted on other human beings are pretty much admissible unless they additionally depict damage inflicted by others (like, for instance, autopsy surgeons). The reason for admissibility is, in lay language, that such photos depict what is. Each presents a fact. This eye was blacked, this nose was slit, this leg was broken, this face was erased, these brains were spilled. Jurors are charged with weighing facts, and thus they are entitled and even obligated to view photographs documenting the facts of damage and suffering.
In the great plural marriage in which we are all joined as citizens of these United States, the photographs which the Obama administration would conceal capture some of our uglier and more unpalatable moments. Much as some might like to, we cannot keep these images to ourselves, burn them, hide them under the bed. Though we are not at present involved in any official, acknowledged legal proceeding, we are in every real sense of the word on trial before both ourselves and the world. And I see no valid reason why those photographs should be concealed any more than should those that I labor vainly to keep from the eyes of jurors in a criminal court. The images Obama would keep pressed to his chest also present facts. They also depict what is. Crime, damage, suffering.
Sloth has heretofore prevented me from diarying on two threads I see running through this new administration that have heartened me even through the inevitable disappointments. And today’s announcement regarding these photos grieves me because they cut across both those threads.
First, I believe that more than any president before him, Obama, as the philosopher William Irwin Thompson has observed, possesses a “sense of a new planetary humanity.” He has repeatedly expressed the interconnectedness of the United States with other nations and peoples of the world, and has specifically declined to endorse the notion of “American exceptionalism.”
Today’s act, however, is a selfish act. It dismisses the interests of all others in this world but armed Americans serving in countries where they are not welcome, as well as the vaporous interests of that sinister shibboleth known as “national security.” His decision today is cramped, cabined: oldthink. As such, it is unworthy of him.
Second, Obama has consistently stressed the necessity of both individual Americans and the country as a whole to learn to feel, and act on, empathy for other nations and peoples. He has even identified empathy as a foremost quality sought in his first appointee to the United States Supreme Court. Empathy such as that felt by the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who once memorably expressed his concern for the law’s effect on “the miserable, the sick, the suspect, the unpopular, the offbeat.”
No one was more suspect and unpopular, and made more sick and miserable, than the prisoners depicted in those photographs that Obama would keep from us and from the world. Yet by keeping those pictures from the American people, Obama prevents us from feeling empathy for these men and women. Forced to confront those images, we will be forced to feel their suffering. It is our duty to do so. Because we are responsible for that suffering. Those photos are us.
Cenk Uygur is correct when he notes that “talk about torture doesn’t really do it for the American people. But when they see pictures, they get it.” People like ourselves, here on little bubbles like this blog, may be able to “get” torture from words marching across a page, but we are a small and privileged minority among the people of this country, much less the world. For whatever reason, we here all have the time and ability to devote a good chunk of our lives to things that do not directly concern us. That is not true of most people on this planet.
John Mellencamp once said a wise and true thing:
People are really involved, and rightfully so, in their own lives. You can’t say anything negative about people not being informed, because they don’t have time to be informed. It’s a hard world to get a break in.
Long, long before tubes or books or stone tablets, human beings were taking in and making judgements upon pictorial images received through their eyes. Viewing the photos that Obama would keep from us would trigger that atavism, and from that would spring empathy. Americans who haven’t the time or the inclination to follow endless streams of words about torture would understand, in viewing these photos, exactly what we were about. Words can act like squid ink; they cloud, hide, conceal. That is how words were used when the original Abu Ghraib photos were released: jet after jet after jet of mendacious squid ink befouled the national discourse, reducing the atrocious behavior enacted in our name to an inexplicable and unsanctioned rampage of rogues.
Everyone in the country knows better now. They know that the damage and suffering inflicted on these people was official American policy. No amount of squid ink can hide that fact, not any longer. Viewing these new photos today, the American public would be forced to say: we did this. This is us.
The release of these photographs would help greatly in centering this nation’s reckoning of its involvement with torture on those most afflicted by it: the victims.
Relying on criminal investigations to address torture would immediately disappear the issue into the maw of the legal system, the very source and inexhaustible supplyhouse of squid ink. The accused will attempt to turn any proceeding into an endless, monotonous drone, sucking any and all life out of it, until evil, as the saying goes, has been rendered utterly banal.
The focus of any criminal prosecution, like all criminal prosecutions, would be primarily on the perpetrators. This is where the danger of “revenge” and “retribution” rears its head. Hunter S. Thompson acutely observed that the popularity of the televised Watergate hearings was attributable to “millions of closet Hell’s Angels whose sole interest in watching the hearings was the spectacle of seeing once-powerful men brought weeping to their knees.” We all need to guard against this impulse; to deny that it exists, is foolish. Howard Kurtz has noted, correctly, that he has “rarely seen the kind of passion that now surrounds the torture debate, even more, it seems, than when it was going on.” This seems a fair description of the state of this blog. Back in the day, it was not always easy to interest the community in torture; today, we need to make sure we’re not motivated most by the base desire to see heads on pikes.
Back in that day, I was most drawn to Alexa’s work, because she always remained focused on those victimized, harmed, made to suffer, in the War on Terra. Her touchstone was this statement from the War on Terra prisoner Rehab Abdel Mohamed Ali: “I was beaten and verbally abused in detention. After a few days, the guards asked me, ‘Do you know that your name is all over the Internet?’ After that, I was treated better by the guards before being released.”She tried to find out as much as she could, and write as much as she could, about as many of these prisoners as she could, in the hopes that what she set down might, even in the smallest way, set some imprisoned someone, somewhere, more at ease.
Many of those people are still out there. They still suffer. They still need our help. Whether we pursue criminal prosecutions, or a truth and reconciliation commission, or both, we should not forget those who are the reason why: those who were tortured. On our dime. In our names.
The photographs that Obama does not want us to see will help us to remember what this is all about: real people, really hurt, really badly. By us.
Years ago, Alexa and Vitamin O inspired me to write on this blog: “When we are all Abu Zubaydah, there will be no Abu Zubaydah.” Meaning that if we can all feel what he felt, no one of us will ever be capable of inflicting such suffering upon another. Seems to me there’s no worthier a goal here on this weird and often very wretched world we find ourselves—briefly—in.
Three years ago the Kossack BlaiseP, a self-described “old soldier who used to be a Republican,” while dispensing advice to a young man in Sri Lanka flummoxed by his co-worker’s wingerisms, described this sort of thing as a core Democratic Party value:
In the Democratic view of things, we may superimpose the Buddha’s vision of life on all things. To live in this world is to suffer: we measure progress by how the poorest are doing, and often our constitutional liberties are defined by defending criminals.
Do not be ashamed to be a Liberal. For me, this was the hardest obstacle to overcome. Being a Liberal is hard work, intellectually, I repeat myself, our causes are most closely bound to the lowest and the least-likeable people. It is easy to hate, it is more difficult to love, especially when those we love do not love us in return. A criminal still has rights in law in the USA, and these rights are under attack. The Conservatives charge us with Loving Criminals and Being Defeatists, nothing could be farther from the truth, for those who love the law understand how easily the law may be abused.
That remains to me a really lovely statement. The prisoners in the photographs that Obama would conceal were—and are—”the poorest,” “the lowest,” “the least-likable” among us: that is why they were treated as they were. And it is, as BlaiseP said, our duty as Democrats to both love these people and to bring them within the full embrace of the law. Obama has today frustrated that effort. He has made a mistake. In time, he will come to see that.
I want to close with a comment I read today in mcjoan’s FP diary, from the Kossack Bobs Telecaster. It resonates with me because of its weariness, and its determination. The natural impulse of most human beings faced with a harsh task is to shirk it. This is doubly so if the task is to admit error, face wrongdoing. But evasion and delay solve nothing. They are futile, and they are folly; judgement day is not a thing that can be delayed overlong. Best thing to do, is just get to it. Those photos are us: we need to admit that, and them, to the world.
Maybe it is outrage fatigue
I know I feel it sometimes.
But think about this. We tortured people. We tortured ’em the way Torquemada did. The way the Viet Cong did.
There is proof. Don’t we finally want it out there? Don’t we want the darkness brought out into the light? Don’t we want the lies from the right about “splashing a bit of water” to be finally exposed once and for all?
I know sometimes I am not outraged by it anymore. But I should be. We cannot let shell shock win.
Let’s just get it done.