Despite demands by human rights advocates that photos documenting abuse of military detainees be made public, the Senate last month passed legislation to block their release. The legislation is now before the House. President Obama supports these efforts. This is all good news. Classifying the photos would help protect those detainees’ basic rights to dignity and privacy.
After the release of photographs in 2004 showing abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, I shared with many Americans simultaneous disgust and pride. I was appalled at what the soldiers in the pictures had done in America’s name, but proud that those who leaked the photographs had taken the crucial steps necessary to right a terrible wrong in our treatment of detainees in Iraq.
I realize now, though, that I paid little attention to the primary subjects of the photographs: the Iraqi detainees. I pitied them, of course, but did not think about whether their dignity was being tarnished by the constant display of their naked bodies in the news media.
Less than a year later, I found myself at Abu Ghraib, where I was assigned as an Army interrogator. Clear rules for interrogators and guards were strictly enforced, and I believed my country had learned that the mistreatment of detainees is against the values of our nation and military. I hoped Iraqis knew we had been through a process of national soul-searching and were now more respectful of the rights of prisoners.
So I was surprised when I discussed the Abu Ghraib scandal with members of insurgent and resistance groups in our custody. They tended not to be particularly shocked or angry about the abuse itself, which they regarded as normal for prisons in Iraq. Having lived under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, they viewed physical and psychological torture as a standard experience in prison, especially one as notorious as Abu Ghraib. What appalled them was the dissemination of the pictures throughout the world.
One detainee, the former head of the propaganda cell for a large insurgent group in Baghdad, insisted that the publication was a deliberate act by the United States military. He told me that my superiors wanted to humiliate Iraqis and present them to the world as animals.
I insisted that the reason for the publication was to show the misdeeds of our military. I also told him that journalists, not senior policy makers or military personnel, made the decision to publish the photographs. He did not believe me. He insisted that it was all part of a secret program to humiliate Iraqis.
I at first thought the detainee was distorting facts to concoct his own conspiracy theory. But after hearing similar opinions from other Iraqis, I began to suspect a deeper miscommunication. What we viewed as necessary to expose wrongdoing and seek justice, Iraqis viewed as calculated to shame the people in the images. The values of open government and freedom of information, so important in our political culture, were causing some Iraqis to misinterpret our motives. Our news media’s desire for transparency in government clashed with Iraqis’ wishes to prevent their countrymen from being degraded.
On deeper reflection, however, I realized that our values were not so different. Americans do place a high value on the dignity of the individual, and we frequently speak of the right to privacy, especially for the victims of crimes. If the detainees at Abu Ghraib had been American, would the news media have been so quick to publish the images of their naked bodies? If one of the detainees had been my brother, for example, I think my own reaction would have been much different. Some of my anger might well have been directed at those who published the photographs.
In the discussion over whether to release additional photographs of prison abuse, I heard plenty of concern from Americans. Some felt that we must release the pictures so the public can see the full extent of the abuse. Others felt they should be made public because their suppression sets a dangerous precedent.
There are also those who warn that the photos’ release could lead to an increase in attacks against Americans in Iraq. The assumption behind that last argument seems to be that Iraqis will be angered when they see what was done. Maybe now we can finally consider how Iraqis feel about the photos themselves.
William Quinn, a staff sergeant in the Army in Iraq from 2005 to 2006.