Saturday, May 30, 2009

Releasing the Abu Ghraib photos is a good idea, but it would be the wrong choice

Coming on the heels of Dick Cheney’s disingenuous, absurd attempt to burnish his legacy, it’s useful to consider what the Abu Ghraib abuses meant for this country, and where the most recent Abu Ghraib photos fit into the broader discussion of how we fight against our enemies.

What happened at Abu Ghraib was a despicable blot on our country. In the grand scheme of things, it certainly wasn’t as evil as the acts carried out by some of the erstwhile victims, although it makes my skin crawl a little bit to have to weigh which is worse, sexual humiliation (as occurred at the prison) or kidnapping someone in your neighborhood drilling through their kneecaps (as at least some of the jihadists in Iraq were fond of doing). However, the fact that some of the prisoners had it coming is more of an evasion that anything else.

The practical difficulty with the “had it coming” position is the very fact that when you have a prison in a war zone, there is a real possibility that some of the prisoners may not be guilty of anything particularly heinous. Generally speaking, it’s a necessary but unfortunate consequence that in a war zone you err on the side of security – the standards of proof are lower and the risk of false positives (i.e., a non-guilty person getting locked up) are higher. I characterize this as a necessary consequence because the risks associated with a false negative (i.e., releasing a guilty person on the basis of insufficient evidence) in a war zone are also higher. (As a point of clarification, a war zone is a place where shooting is going on and bombs are going off; it is not a relatively stable suburb or city where such things are the exception rather than the rule.) Therefore, if you routinely turn a blind eye to inhumane treatment of prisoners, there are going to be at least a few who didn’t “have it coming.” If one tacitly approves of prisoner abuse because most prisoners are guilty of something awful, one should at least be forced to grapple with the question of how many potentially innocent abused prisoners it would take before the abuse becomes wrong.

Furthermore, we criticize our own people for their crimes because we, as a country, are supposed to be the better ones. If a dog pees on your rug, you clean it up; if a fully-grown adult pees on your rug, you’re probably going to file a restraining order.

While I do believe that Dick Cheney and his ilk are the cause of what happened at Abu Ghraib, I also believe the official story that what happened there was the work of lower-tier jackasses taking matters into their own hands rather than following any orders to do so. Even so, Dick Cheney’s attempt to distance his policies from the actions of “a few sadistic guards” is, in a word, bullshit. When your national leadership embraces a bunker mentality, and when your country starts being willing to sacrifice constitutional principle on the altar of fear and paranoia, it creates an environment where cruelty to perceived enemies becomes a little less unthinkable. Even if no one gave an order to abuse a prisoner, that’s beside the point. When leaders like Dick Cheney encourage their country to jump directly from “unidentified person located at a suspected terrorist safe-house” to “worst of the worst,” then those leaders ultimately bear the responsibility when the less intelligent ones among us can’t quite make fine procedural distinctions between “harsh interrogation” and sexually abusing prisoners.

Given that very real threat from rhetoric like Cheney’s, there is a persuasive argument for releasing the most recent batch of detainee photos. That argument is not that withholding the photos will prevent the public from finding out the truth of what happened, or that it allows the government to undermine the public debate. The facts of what went on at Abu Ghraib and other prisons are widely known, and to the extent that they are not, the photos are hardly going to contribute anything new. Furthermore, as the ongoing dialogue in the press, and the blogs, and the Facebook postings illustrates, it’s a reasonable conclusion that the public debate has hardly been imperiled.

Instead, releasing those photos would illustrate, in the starkest possible terms, exactly what we become when we lose sight of our principles. Violence, even when justified, takes a psychological toll on the perpetrator. We train our Soldiers and marines and law enforcement officers to use the appropriate violence necessary to defend themselves and others. What we don’t do is train them to be ruthless, amoral murderers – that would make them effective in their jobs, but it would also make them a danger to the community. I wouldn’t particularly care if a mass-murdering radical jihadist was torn apart by wild dogs. But I also don’t want those same dogs in my house. If treating our prisoners humanely is what we as a country need to do in order not to become monsters ourselves, that’s hardly a great sacrifice.

The photos would serve as a useful reminder of the risks involve in encouraging ourselves to bend the rules or toss them out altogether. Words can capture what happened at Abu Ghraib, but they are also more suited to appealing to reason. Many of those in the “pro-torture” camp have already rationalized it to the point that words alone are ineffective in changing hearts and minds. Breaking that complacency would require something that hits them at a gut level – if the photos in dispute are as graphic as has been suggested, they might be the harsh imagery that forces the Dick Cheneys of the world to reconsider their opinions.

That being said, President Obama probably made the right decision by not releasing the photos. Because while Americans would react strongly to the photos, so would the citizens of countries where American soldiers are in harm’s way on a daily basis. If those emotional reactions turn into violent riots, American soldiers will be forced to face that, not the citizens or policy-makers involved in the torture debate. Iraqi citizens, no less than American ones, are subject to very human reactions. If they see something horrible, they’re going to look for someone to blame, just like we have done. And while most of them may not translate those emotional reactions into violent demonstrations, the ones who would turn to violence probably won’t be inclined to make fine distinctions about who is responsible for what’s shown in the pictures. If they see a group of American Soldiers who look just like the guards the Abu Ghraib, rioters probably not going to care whether the ones they attack were the ones who were responsible either.

Soldiers living in Iraqi towns and trying to stabilize that country are not the ones who committed the abuses at Abu Ghraib. No one who actually committed the crimes at Abu Ghraib is being protected by the President’s decision – it’s the folks who have been doing their jobs the right way that we’re concerned about. By and large, they are fundamentally decent men and women, doing the job that they were ordered to do, under circumstances that pose constant threat to their lives. While it’s true that these service members have agreed to put themselves in harm’s way by virtue of their service, the fact that they are willing to die does not give anyone the right to risk those lives needlessly.

For those of us who are trying to push back against the Cheney mentality, the photos would be a great tool. But if using that tool means that an American Soldier has to die – or worse, has to fight back with lethal force against an enraged group of Iraqis – then the human cost of our public debate is too high.

One should always look askance at a government decision to withhold information based on claims of a security risk. Claiming that the free flow of information is too dangerous is a time-tested tool of oppressive governments, who use it as a sham to avoid legitimate criticism of their decisions. That technique has been used so often, in fact, that we are sometimes unwilling to admit that any government decision to withhold information from the public could be grounded in a legitimate security concern. In this particular case, looking at all the circumstances, the President deserves the benefit of the doubt, especially when he very publicly changed his decision after consultation with military leaders. While the military, like any other profession, is not immune to covering its collective ass, that fact alone, without more, doesn’t show that they are fabricating a security threat in this case.

For many, that’s probably an unsatisfactory answer. Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world – while we shouldn’t trade our security for our liberty, we also shouldn’t force good people into harm’s way by disclosing the photos just for the sake of disclosure.