Tuned In

Obama's Image Problem on Prisoner Abuse

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Yesterday President Obama announced that he would oppose the court-ordered release of photos depicting abuse of prisoners by U.S. authorities overseas. As I did when the Bush Administration opposed similar photo releases, or fought the depiction of caskets of war dead returning from Iraq, I believe this is the wrong move. (Among the people who disagree with me is TIME’s Joe Klein, who blogs on the subject at Swampland.)

The reason has nothing to do with my beliefs about the use of torture, or about whether Bush officials should be prosecuted for authorizing it. It is, as with those earlier photos, this: we should all be disturbed when a U.S. administration takes the position that the dissemination of certain images—which is to say, certain information—is dangerous enough to prohibit. 

There is, obviously, the “shouting fire in a crowded theater” argument, and I believe it’s well-intentioned here. The problem with it, as ever, is that very few situations other than shouting “fire” in a crowded theater are really like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater: that is, few have such dangerous, objectively determinable results that can be shown to be directly caused by that utterance and nothing else. To argue that acts of violence can be directly attributed to the release of photos—and only to those photos, not to reports of abuse, other acts, or, indeed, the repression of such photos—is a much greater stretch. A stretch democracies should not take. 

I don’t claim to know whether anyone might be moved to violence by seeing the pictures. I do know that I haven’t seen a convincing argument that the same person might not be moved to violence by any number of other factors. And one of those factors could very well be the suppression of those photos, which only fetishizes them in the mind of anyone interested in them. Conversely, we’ll never know what credibility we might have gained from making a clean breast of past abuses, or how much we’ve already harmed ourselves by going to court to avoid it. 

Yesterday Obama went out of his way to say that the photos were not especially sensational. Well, they are now—now that they are unavailable, now that their suppression is front-page news, now that anyone with reason to doubt the U.S.’s veracity and motives in the first place is all but invited to assume that they must be the most horrible, demeaning pictures possible. 

Bottom line: if U.S. interests, or soldiers’ lives, have been endangered here, it was by the fact that the abuse was ever allowed to take place—not that someone took pictures of it.