IN THE NEWS
In trying to figure out how to handle the second wave of Abu Ghraib photos, there may be nothing but bad choices. However, releasing the photos is the best among these painful options.
It's entirely possible that the release of the photos will trigger more anti-American violence. The photos may have motivated the execution of Daniel Berg, merely by providing a fig leaf of respectability to cover naked brutality.
It's also entirely possible that we're making these assumptions without any reference to the Iraqis themselves. If you follow any of the news sources from the Middle East (or, for that matter, many places outside the US), you'll notice that the Iraqis are already speculating about the still-secret forms of torture and humiliation. The average Iraqi doesn't have to exercise the imagination too much, since many released prisoners are talking about their experiences in Abu Ghraib.
Americans may have a hard time imagining torture without the aid of pictures, but Iraqis certainly don't. As the Bush Administration has repeatedly stated, torture rooms were as much a fixture of the Baathist period as Elks Club meeting halls in the US. The damage is already done, first by turning Abu Ghraib into a detention facility instead of destroying it as a symbol of the Hussein regime, then by slowly converting it back into a torture chamber.
Here's a formula certain to worsen the "hearts and minds" campaign in Iraq: much like the Hussein regime, the American occupiers are loathe to admit their crimes. Top leaders, either in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) or the US government, didn't release the photos--CBS News did. From the White House to Bremer's CPA office in Iraq, everyone in the US government seems to be working extremely hard to keep the truth from being exposed.
That's a more damaging message right now than the photos themselves. Many Iraqis believe the United States is hiding a lot more than just the torture photos. The people we had hoped will welcome us as liberators now worry about American plans for the permanent basing of US troops (particularly now that we've left the Saudi Arabian facilities), the neo-colonialist domination of the Iraqi economy, and other well-hidden agendas.
Many or all of these concerns may turn out to be unjustified. However, the more secretive the US government is--and it's being secretive about nearly everyting it can--the more these fears will escalate. An Iraqi's trust in our good intentions may collapse if all we can do to butress it is send out press releases full of pablum about "bringing democracy." The radical Islamists claims that the United States just wanted to establish an outpost in the Middle East may suddenly make more sense to that average Iraqi. How we act right now paints as vivid a picture as anything stored in a digital camera currently held in an evidence room.
Of course, a real concern for the Bush Administration and Congress is how the American public will respond. It's not just the pictures and videos themselves that are damaging. It's not even the idea that someone in the chain of command encouraged, ignored, or even ordered what happened at Abu Ghraib. It's the very justified concern that the abuses weren't limited to one prison in Iraq, but were happening at secret facilities throughout the world. The same conditions that led to the Abu Ghraib offenses possible exist at all these facilities. The same reports of abuse, including telling details--stripping captives naked, taunting them about having sex with animals, etc.--echoed in these accounts.
Americans aren't stupid. We don't need the pictures to horrify us. We do need our government to stop treating both ourselves and the Iraqis equally like children. If there are steps needed to protect the privacy of the innocent, or avoid humiliating the Abu Ghraib victims further, then digitally mask the faces. The same technique can protect anyone currently involved, as a defendant or witness, in a criminal investigation.
But please, please release all the evidence immediately. Now is the time, before the speculation and suspicion get any worse than they are already.
Maybe the choices are all bad. But one choice--disclosure--better fits "the real America" to which Bush, Rumsfeld, Myers, et al. allude than all the others.