In the Arena

Filthy Pictures

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A picture is worth more than a thousand words to an illiterate. The literacy rate in the non-urban areas of Afghanistan and North West Pakistan is less than 10%. Thousands of American troops will be pouring into southern Afghanistan this summer. They will have their hands full with the Taliban. As it is, they have to overcome the disastrous impact of civilian casualties caused by aerial bombing, a tactic one hopes will become far less common with the new, counterinsurgency-based military leadership in Afghanistan. They certainly don’t need the intense provocation that torture photos will cause among the Pashtun tribes, which is why, I think, the President has decided to oppose their publication.

I am sure the civil liberties absolutists will say that this impinges on the free flow of information. They have a point. But we’ve gotten the picture: we know what American torture looks like. And the distribution of these photos, with American troops and diplomats and international humanitarian workers at risk, constitutes something akin to shouting fire in a crowded theater. 

I oppose torture. I think Dick Cheney, the mastermind of this program, is pretty close to a criminal–and that his attempts to twist the U.S. Constitution to his purposes, based on, shall we say, an eccentric reading of one of the lesser Federalist Papers, is obscene. I also believe that those who are now claiming that these expanded interrogation techniques “worked” have a very steep hill to climb–especially since the example they usually give, the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, is inaccurate. (Zubaydah had given up the whereabouts of Khalid Sheik Mohammed long before he was waterboarded, under proper interrogation by the FBI.)

But I also believe there were mitigating circumstances. This was right after 9/11. There were 3000 dead. There was anthrax in the air. I can understand Nancy Pelosi’s impulse to look the other way–if I’d been in a position of authority, I might have acted the same way…and you might have, too. I think the impulse of some on the left to perseverate on this issue is understandable–torture is illegal–but it is unfortunate. All the energy devoted to this will result in…what? Justice, you say? Well, maybe. But most lawyers who are not civil liberties absolutists seem to believe it will be exceedingly difficult to make a case against the Bush Administration miscreants. And the publication of these photos is far more likely to inflame–and endanger–than inform or illuminate. We don’t need to see them, especially now.