More change we can believe in

I see that Barack Obama is going to try to stop the ACLU from publicizing more photos from Abu Ghraib.

Good for him. No useful purpose would be served by the propagation of new images of a terrible problem that has been fully explored and addressed and is a problem no longer. But such images, which would add nothing to our useful knowledge, could easily lead to more American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know how inflammatory images, from cartoons to such photos as these, can be in those parts of the world where our country is trying so hard to foster peace and stability, with American lives on the line.

Abu Ghraib was awful, and a tremendous setback to U.S. interests. We know that; and we’ve addressed it. No one in this country could possibly doubt that such treatment of prisoners is inconsistent with our values.  Why do the whole thing over again, with the fresh repercussions that would invevitably engender?

This is one of those cases where the public’s “right to know” — which folks in my longtime profession can get really, really self-righteous about (usually, but not always, justifiably) — ring awful hollow against the near-certainty that it would lead to more bloodshed.

It’s things like this that tend to lower my opinion of the ACLU (even as my respect for the president grows). I know they can do some good — and I was really pleased by the very smart, sensible op-ed piece we had from the ACLU’s local honcho Victoria Middleton several months ago; she nailed it on our pound-foolish approach to crime in South Carolina.

But the kind of legalistic pedantry-over-real-life (and death) that I see in this matter of the prisoner photos is really disturbing.

I don’t like ever to speak against openness and disclosure — I prefer to PUSH for those values, and almost always do so. But asserting those laudable values over American lives, in a case where nothing new would be gained, is one of those cases that illustrate the fact that extremism even in the service of a virtue CAN be a vice.

11 thoughts on “More change we can believe in

  1. Karen McLeod

    Brad, I agree that those photos need not be published. I disagree that this issue has been settled. Abu Ghraib was settled more or less (I suspect that some people with the least power got railroaded), but our government’s complicity in the use of torture has not, since according to the administration at that time, those actions were not in accord with our policy. Mr. Cheney is frequently in the news these days touting the virtues of torture (gag!). I am less worried about what these pictures might do if published than I am about what other countries/groups may well do to our captured soldiers, because its legal (after all, we said it was). I also worry about how well our allies, or anyone else, will trust us given that we signed the Geneva convention regarding torture. What good is our word? I certainly realize that torture occurs during any war. However, most countries do not countenance it these days. Until we (unfortunately, quite publicly) investigate what was done, and call it by its right name, and deal with what was done legally, we are in the position of having torture depend on who’s in charge of policy right then, rather than being able to take the ethical position that, as the civilized world knows, torture is wrong.

  2. Brad Warthen

    Maybe we could take some pictures of Dick Cheney in those various humiliating positions of the Abu Ghraib pictures, and release those instead. Maybe it would actually make the Arab Street more kindly disposed toward the U.S.

    But who’s going to break the news of this plan to Dick? Not me. That guy’s got a twitchy trigger finger.

    But back to being serious — Karen, I have to take exception to your question, “What good is our word?” It’s as good as any other nations, ever, and better than most. Few nations in the history of the world, and no previous superpower, would have gone through the paroxysms of guilt and doubt this episode caused us. We ARE the good guys. Not perfect, but good.

    Of course, the people who WANT to hate us treat stuff like this as their birthday and Christmas rolled into one. And they already had Christmas on this one. No sense giving them another one.

  3. Karen McLeod

    Paroxysms of guilt? You and me, and many others, yes. But our government has yet to repudiate our policy of torture (or “enhanced interrogation” if you prefer, but I’ll buy that choice only after you’ve been waterboarded). Yes, President Obama has stopped it, but we haven’t made it clear that it’s not OK to torture. Instead, at this point, we’ve merely left it up to future administrations. Meanwhile Rush Limbaugh compared Abu Ghraib to frat initiations and all too many agreed with him. To reiterate a point–we called the guilty to account at Abu Ghraib; that instance was not, we claimed at the time, part of our policy. But some of what we did was at ;east according to Mr. Cheney, and a few documents. We need not run photos; the world .can imagine as bad or worse on their own. And how many countries that signed on to the Geneva Conventions on treatment of POW’s have reneged on them? I ask that question honestly; I can’t think of any off-hand, but I could be unaware of 20 or more. The thing is, if we’re going to be the good guys, we have to start acting like the good guys. The longer we keep seesawing back and forth, the longer this whole thing will be dragged out. BTW, I like your idea about Cheney–I don’t know about the Arab street, but I could enjoy it now, and repent later.

  4. Karen McLeod

    And Brad, as I understand it, these photos are not from Abu Ghraib, but pictures from CIA sponsored interrogations.

  5. jfx

    In defense of the ACLU, if civil liberties were violated in a way that was criminal, then that’s certainly their domain, and they probably should aggressively pursue the inquiry.

    On Hardball w/ Chris Matthews tonight, the head of the ACLU agreed in principal to the appointment by AG Holder of a special prosecutor to review the photos behind closed doors as a workable compromise so settle the matter. This seems a more likely, and reasonable, scenario than the polar extremes of simply revealing the photos, or snuffing them.

    On the one hand, these pictures put American lives at risk. On the other hand, they are “evidence” of something not yet resolved. Obama wins political capital for his stance, but this is out of his hands anyway.

  6. Lee Muller

    Every Democrat has voted against releasing any of the terrorist prisoners in the US.

    Watch Obama quietly move them to a prison in Afghanistan, as he closes GITMO.

    By the way, President Bush proposed closing GITMO in 2005, but Democrats opposed bringing prisoners here. The Red Cross inspects GITMO monthly and declared that it is better than 99% of the prisons and jails in Europe.

  7. jfx

    Lee said:

    “The Red Cross inspects GITMO monthly and declared that it is better than 99% of the prisons and jails in Europe.”

    Yes, the Red Cross declared Guantanamo an excellent prison to be transferred to after you’ve been tortured in a secret location by the CIA:

  8. Lee Muller

    The NY Times opinion on GITMO is unswayed by expert opinion or facts.

    Guantanamo better than Belgian prisons-OSCE expert

    Posted on: Monday, 6 March 2006, 13:04 CST

    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Inmates at Guantanamo Bay prison are treated better than in Belgian jails, an expert for Europe’s biggest security organization said on Monday after a visit to the controversial U.S. detention center.

    But Alain Grignard, deputy head of Brussels’ federal police anti-terrorism unit, said that holding people for many years without telling them what would happen to them is in itself “mental torture.”

    “At the level of the detention facilities, it is a model prison, where people are better treated than in Belgian prisons,” said Grignard.

  9. Birch Barlow

    Pictures of torture are a minor problem compared to the torture itself.

    But I do agree that they should not be released at this time.

  10. Bart

    War should never be the ultimate option but sometimes it is the final option. “No civilized human being takes the subject of war, or the brutal treatment of prisoners, lightly.”–William Katz.

    No matter if it is authorized, legal, popular, unpopular, illegal, or any other description, war will bring out the worst humanity has to offer. When ordinary men and women who are civilized, living a somewhat normal life, taking care of every day responsibilities are thrown into a conflict that places them in imminent danger of death, the stresses can transform these otherwise honest, decent, and law abiding citizens into the people we saw tormenting Iraqi prisoners at Abu Gharib.

    Raw emotion, a desire to exact revenge and justice, the sensation of power over another human being, an appeal to the darker side each of us possesses, jingoism or misplaced national pride, or an opportunity to express some hidden desire to hurt or humiliate another human being are among hundreds of reasons we tell ourselves that it is o.k. After all, it is war.

    The soldiers who were disciplined because of bad behavior at Abu Gharib to me were not the monsters they were portrayed to be. They were untrained and were not given proper leadership and discipline and in their over enthusiastic performance of their duties, forgot who and what they were there for. They should have been disciplined and maybe given a dishonorable discharge but never tried as criminals. Their immediate superiors should have been disciplined as well and on up the chain. Apparently they were never given proper instructions in acceptable military behavior either. To make matters worse, those in authority went overboard in their attempt to clean up but it was too late. The damage was done and an even darker image of America was splashed across the news for world to see and delight in.

    Did the person who first revealed the existence of the pictures do so for honorable reasons or for a desire to strike back at an administration they disagreed with? Maybe both but I doubt it. I do ask myself if placed in the same position, what would I have done. 20/20 hindsight is always perfect and armchair quarterbacking easy when you are not in the game. Most of the offences were no more harmful than collegiate fraternity pranks and initiations. However, the military is not a college fraternity and this was out of line but did it meet the level of torture and criminality? I don’t think so.

    I agree with Obama’s decision to not publish any more of the pictures. What good will it do at this point? To what purpose will it serve those who wish to have them displayed for the world to see? Is it an intense dislike for their country? Is there some internal mechanism they have that wants to exact revenge against the previous administration? Could it be the need to purge the soul of the demons created when we engage in activities we find repulsive without considering the consequences of self interests over the greater good. What is the purpose at this point when we are in a more vulnerable position than we have been in decades? Is the left in this country so entrenched in disgust and dislike for their own country that they are willing to inflict even more damage in order to further their liberal ideology? At this point, those who insist on publishing the pictures apparently could care less about this country and place their own agenda first and foremost.

    Public, self-flagellation is generally the refuge of the extreme elements. It is time for a little modesty on the subject.

Comments are closed.