Until recently, the Department of Defense was set to comply with a 2003 request from the American Civil Liberties Union which would have required the United States to release a “substantial number” of photographs — there are reportedly upwards of 2,000 — depicting the abuse of detainees at military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama, having already released the so-called “torture memos” from the Bush era, initially flirted with the idea of allowing the release of these photos, as well — that is, until the institutional realities of his office got the best of his conscience.
In justifying his reversal, Obama correctly stated, “The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals. … In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in danger.” This turnaround was both prudent and perspicacious, and should be commended.
Dishearteningly, however, the far left’s reaction to Obama’s reversal has been ultra-politicized and just short of maniacal. Barack Obama is usually commended for his “intellectual flexibility” and knack for changing his opinions based on changed circumstances. But not this time. From the ACLU to leftist politicians, from op-ed columnists to netroot groups and activists, the message is loud and clear: the photos should be released, regardless of the consequences. ACLU Director Anthony D. Romero, who helped lobby for the release of the photographs under the Freedom of Information Act, declared that President Obama would “betray” our principles if he did not allow the publication of the photos, preventing us from “[reviving] our moral standing in the world.”
But is this really so? These photos were taken four, five, and six years ago; most of them are from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in 2003-04. They were not released then because their content is either no different or less jarring than the photographs leaked to the press at the time. Their release today, six years later, would achieve absolutely nothing of significance, other than weakening our national reputation and, more importantly, further jeopardizing — unnecessarily — the lives of innocent American servicemen and women. Our soldiers already have a tough job under hard conditions in several war theaters. We need not make their jobs more difficult and more perilous.
The Guardian, for instance, admits there is a “risk the pictures might create another backlash in the Middle East,” but then calls for their release nonetheless! The Los Angeles Times, as well, calls for Obama to release the photos, all the while confessing that making them public would likely put Americans abroad at risk. As the Times puts it:
The release of dozens of new, graphic images of detainees being abused by their American captors would almost certainly reignite international rage. It could lead to an angry backlash in the Middle East and to more jihadi recruits, as the Abu Ghraib photos did in 2004. It could even lead to new outbursts of violence at a moment when the Obama administration was finally hoping to put the last eight ugly years behind us.
Cenk Uygur of the Huffington Post offers a similar opinion. I have spoken with Uygur before on his radio program and he seems quite reasonable, despite his overt leftism. His show, The Young Turks, is often witty and entertaining. But his editorial on this issue exemplifies the dual capriciousness utilized by likeminded people: on the one hand, highfalutin self-righteousness (more like national-righteousness) with an unrealistic barometer of morality and conduct; on the other, a total lack of seriousness and disregard for direct effects and immediate consequence.
“If there’s a real journalist in this country, they will get their hands on those pictures and release them to the world,” Uygur states. “We did what is in those pictures. The longer we cover it up, the more culpable we all become. Not showing the pictures doesn’t make the reality of what happened go away,” he concludes, seemingly unaware of the natural trajectory of his logic, i.e., all wartime atrocities should be, or at least will be, subsequently exposed and publicized in an exploitative manner.
Perhaps the Pentagon should release dozens of photographs of dead Iraqi children, who were inadvertently killed by American bombs some years ago? Maybe photos should be taken and released of dead Iraqi innocents, who were killed on Dick Cheney’s orders? “We did what is in those pictures,” after all. We killed those civilians, did we not? In other words, the United States must air its sins “to the world” or else the collective “we” are consequently “culpable.”
Pictures might be worth a thousand words, but they often lack one caveat of importance: context. Propagandizing against oneself in this fashion does not achieve the moral high ground. Rather, it treats a matter of life and death — someone else’s life and death, let me remind you — in the most careless manner conceivably possible.
There is a reason why current and former presidents and cabinet secretaries decline to speak about certain aspects of geopolitics, and that is because there is such a thing as a sensitive topic in the annals of national security. Whatever one’s opinion of the treatment of detainees, sober minds should be able to agree that the necessity of an action in no way dampens the inflammatory nature of the action. Whether an interrogation is reasonable or reprehensible, sensationalizing it through photographs is the height of negligent governance.
We have a moral responsibility to ourselves and no one else. It is preferable to lead the world by example and when possible it should be done. But when citizens overseas might be killed because of domestic political one-upmanship, we must remember that the Constitution, as they say, is not a suicide pact.
Do those who advocate the release of the photos appreciate the fuel to the fire that would result? Cenk Uygur, paradoxically, seems to want such inflammation: “If something isn’t on television, it didn’t happen,” he states. “Television has a multiplier effect. … On television stories spread and multiply and get spread to other channels and other mediums.” In essence, should the photos be shown on television, the visual effects would shock our moral scruples, thus dissuading more Americans from supporting these interrogative practices. Chalk up a petty political victory for the “team.”
Needless to say, this is not a mature reason to hold a position. It is, in fact, as reckless as it gets.
Recall the Muslim reaction to the Newsweek story that claimed U.S. guards at Guantanamo Bay flushed the Islamic Koran down a toilet: riots ensued, violence erupted, and people were killed throughout the Middle East. That Newsweek later admitted the story was a fabrication did not matter. It was already too late. Recall the Muhammad cartoons in Denmark, which depicted the Islamic prophet in an unflattering light: scores of innocent people were murdered, fatwas and religious death warrants were issued, embassies all throughout Europe and the Middle East were ransacked by angry mobs, and the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan got considerably worse.
At the time, there were those in the West insisting that we stand up for freedom of speech (even if offensive) by reprinting the Muhammad cartoons in solidarity with Denmark. Those opposing this sentiment — overwhelmingly on the political left — contended otherwise, prioritizing the prevention of Muslim rage over free expression.
How odd is it that most of these same people now speak glowingly of “transparency” and “openness,” insisting our demons can only be exercised by committing an act so egregious as to release photographs and rile up the proverbial hornet’s nest, consequences be damned? Where is the concern for violent reprisal and retribution that we saw during the cartoon fury? Is their position based solely on whether or not other people are threatened — like our countrymen in the armed services? Is that the necessary precondition for the haughty self-loving to commence, patting themselves on the back all the while endangering the lives of others? Is it only then that they support an international media excoriation process to broadcast our national sins?
In the coming weeks, the photographs might still be leaked to a salivating press from some dark, oily source. This was a liability President Obama wisely did not want to take on, with potential blood he did not want on his hands. It was the correct decision, a no-brainer. The bottom line is the release of these photos would have resulted, and still may result, in more dead American soldiers. How someone could grant that premise and then make the political case that their release should still be allowed is an ethical duality beyond my comprehension.
Thankfully, it is beyond President Obama’s comprehension, as well. The men and women in the military are real, living people with real, concerned families. They are working against the grain with grace under pressure and are guilty of nothing other than complete unbending commitment to defending the very individuals who so cavalierly envision making their lives harder and their days deadlier.