Regarding the Torture of Others

Article in NY Times by Susan Sontag, May 23 2004 (Link 7)

This article refers to the photographs taken in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (originally Sadam Hussein’s most infamous prison).

When these photographs were brought to the attention of the general public, the Bush administration started by trying to limit a PR disaster. But they referred only to the photographs. Sontag was more interested in the crime of what they depict rather than the photographs themselves. In her view the pictures showed the results of torture not just the results of humiliation as described by the US government. An admission of torture would nullify America’s right to undertake unilateral action on the world stage.

It is unusual for the perpetrators to include themselves in photographs of the victims of war. In Nazi Germany there were many cases where the Germans photographed the victims of war for their own personal benefit but they never included themselves in the pictures. there were pictures in the 1880s and 1930s of white Americans grinning beneath the naked mutilated bodies of black men and women but these were regarded as justifiable at the time.

Where once photographing war was the province of photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all photographers, swapping images, transmitting photographs by email and (today) social media. Today the photographs play a different role, more to transmit information than to preserve and keep in an album.

Today there are many instances where individuals log every aspect of their lives down to the act of brushing their teeth. This is a photographic record just like the soldier’s record of an atrocity at war, which today cannot be avoided.

When transmitted, the pictures are usually there to describe “fun” contrary to the attempt by George Bush to show the American efforts as the opposite. And there are many instances in American life today where fun has been extended to the unnatural – pornography, video games of killing etc. Easy delight in violence and sexual humiliation appears to have grown. Is it fun whether it is real or a fantasy? To stack naked men was regarded by many as a college prank.

The effect that the pictures had on the Bush administration was much more powerful than the many words which had been written before them because they were impossible to cover up. Words can be hidden. Photographs can not. The government tried to justify the humiliation saying that it would only happen to the criminals, the murderers of American soldiers but in fact a lot of these victims had committed no crime. they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Governments are still trying to suppress these photographs and there are many more photographs and videos which, as yet, have not been published.

However painful these pictures are to succeeding governments of all countries they will be unstoppable and a contributor to the shape of world politics going forward.

 

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