Earlier, I argued that President Obama was right to change his mind, regarding the release of new photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. My good friend Hussein Rashid took issue with my position, arguing that a notion of higher truth and transparency compels their release. In making his case, however, I believe he makes a common error of conflating the now-repudiated, oficial policy of waterboarding detainees with the unconscionable actions of barbaric cruelty inflicted by rogue military personnel.
Let us not mince words. Torture is morally wrong. It is essentially an evil act, which dehumanizes the tortured and the torturer like. On this point there is no disagreement. Even the staunchest defenders in the Bush Administration of waterboarding, most notably former vice-president Cheney, take pains to argue that waterboarding is not torture when making their case. President Obama made a clear declaration of his feelings regarding waterboarding, stating explicitly that “I believe waterboarding was torture, and it was a mistake” – and invoked Winston Churchill’s refusal to use the technique even at the height of the Blitz on London during World War II (a conflict which was far more existential a threat to Britain than the threat to America today from jihadists).
The photos of prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison were indeed torture – and far worse than “mere” waterboarding. The original photos, and a few more released by the Australian press a few years later, illustrate just how brutal and sadistic the guards at Abu Ghraib were – these are images that you expect from the regime of Saddam Hussein, not liberators. These images arguably did more to damage American self-interest and foreign policy goals than the actual invasion of Iraq itself.
However we must draw a clean and clear distinction between what happened at Abu Ghraib and the official, explicitly sanctioned policy of waterboarding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The former were criminal actions that were not sanctioned by any military or government official, though of course the sheer sadistic brutality of the abuse gave rise to typical conspiracy theories. Hussein falls prey to the fallacy of linking these two things when he writes,
The world knows we tortured. There is no secret kept on that point. There are photos from Iraq and Afghanistan that are already being used in anti-American propaganda. New pictures alter the calculus very little. In fact, one can argue that witholding them at this point further fuels the idea that we have done something so horrible that it cannot be seen. This notion is a far more powerful recruiting tool for terrorists.
Indeed, we (America) waterboarded our prisoners at Gitmo, and that factual knowledge is indeed a potential recruitment tool for jihadis against our troops. However there are no photos of this of which I am aware of. The truth is that the actual photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib did far more damage and were infinitely more powerful in rallying jihadis to the cause than merely the statement, “America tortures”. These images are the kind that get blood boiling and hatred flowing in a way that mere words can never match. And the irony is that these images depict actions far beyond the pale of what America does; we are paying a far heavier price for what we, as a nation, would never accept be done in our name. That’s a familiar dilemma to a muslim.
Over at Talk Islam, thabet noted with some irony that those who argue against the new photos’ release are “accepting a causal relationship between foreign policy and terrorism.” That’s a good point, but it also cuts both ways. Like thabet and Hussein, I have long argued that foreign policy is a causal factor in terrorism, which is exactly why I am concerned about the effect of these photos’ release. If we demand intellectual honesty from those who argue on one hand that terrorists simply “hate us for our freedoms” and then argue against releasing the photos, we must also do the same and acknowledge that there is a real cost associated with their release. As Hussein says, there surely is a higher notion of truth at play here, but to blindly follow that notion without regard for the consequences is a dogmatic, ideological course of action, the kind we have expressly criticized the neoconservatives for in the past.
As I said earlier, if the photos contained new allegations of abuse beyond what was known, such as child abuse (as alleged by Seymour Hersch) or rape, then I would believe that the need for justice would outweigh the cost, and would agree that the photos need to be released. But there is no way we, the public, can ascertain what the photos contain without making them public, and making them public carries a real threat to our troops and our national security, even if the photos contain nothing new at all. Even invoking the moral argument against torture at Guantanamo, when arguing for the photos’ release, does damage in terms of perpetuating the notion amongst muslims abroad that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were indeed official policy.
We must trust the assessment of President Obama, who has personally reviewed all the photos in question. After all, we elected him to make precisely these kinds of decisions in the first place, and if we are unwilling to extend him of all people that benefit of the doubt, then what does that say about our agenda? What is our true motivation in calling for these photos to be released at all cost?
Make no mistake about where I stand. These photos will need to be released someday, and there will indeed need to be a full accounting and formal congressional invetigation, backed by force of law, regarding American policy towards detainees during the Bush Administration. However, with the resurgent Taliban in Pakistan (incidentally increasing its nuclear stockpile), the utter helplessness of Mayor Karzai against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the increasing power of Al Shabab in Somalia, total transparency can wait. To attempt to force the issue now, by drawing a false equivalence between torture policy and criminal abuse, is to undermine the very real war going on, one in which ordinary muslims are still the primary victims, at the hands of those who do far worse than anything we have done.
One final thought. I am glad President Obama recognizes the potential damage of releasing these photos, in terms of inflaming public opinion in the muslim world against America, inciting hatred and violence against our troops, and overall damage to our national security and self-interest. I hope he recognizes that the use of aerial bombardment against civilian targets causes even worse damage and hatred against us than the photos are. That is why I have argued that we should disavow the policy of collateral damage as a whole. It’s precisely the same argument, a fact that those who argue for and against the release of the photos alike would do well to recognize.
Related: Frank Rich makes a great case for why the photos need to be released – someday – along with a full investigation. He fails to make a case for immediate release today, however. Fawaz Gerges makes a similar argument, but also treats the issue as though there is no cost to releasing the photos whatsoever – he grudgingly concedes the photos might “undermine the standing of the US military” but then hand-waves, “it is difficult to say that publication would cost American lives.” To deny that possibility is to surrender credibility on the issue. Also, see ongoing debate at Talk Islam. Finally, my friend Steven den Beste has an old essay about the “fog of war”, an anecdote about the war in the Pacific after World War II, that is highly relevant reading.