Show me the photos!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009 | 8:30 a.m. CDT; updated 12:45 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

While the news cycle has moved on to President Barack Obama’s trip to Cairo and family vacation in Paris, the executive branch of our government stopped the release of photographs showing prisoner abuse by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan last month and the public has yet to see hide or hair of those photos.

In his speech at the National Archives in Washington on May 21, Obama said, “It was my judgment — informed by my national security team — that releasing these photos would inflame anti-American opinion and allow our enemies to paint U.S. troops with a broad, damning, and inaccurate brush, thereby endangering them in theaters of war.”  That’s a fine sentiment: We do have a national interest in protecting our military men and women serving in active combat duty. But I’m not so sure they’d thank us for this favor.

Considering the poor reputation that the United States has gained in our dalliances abroad in the past eight years, how could these particular photos make it any worse for our troops? It is a larger shame that our nation’s military asked the troops to perpetrate in such a way as to betray the moral high ground on which this nation was founded. As a nation we cannot truly understand and overcome the specter of prisoner abuses unless we face the images that those abuses created.

Seeing is believing, as the saying goes, and there is nothing like confronting photographs of atrocities to crystallize truth. The role of the photograph is to provide evidence of a moment in time and to challenge the status quo in ways worded documents fall short.

America faced a similar crisis in 2004, when photographs of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq came to light. Susan Sontag, the author and critic wrote in “Regarding the Pain of Others:” “The meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators apparently had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show.” Americans were quicker to condemn such actions in light of photographic evidence.

In the same May 21 speech, the president spoke of his decision to uphold the rule of law and release memos detailing the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read: torture) used at Guantanamo Bay. Obama said: “There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world.” This highlights a dichotomy in the perception of media: Why are the memos acceptable for public discussion and debate, while photographs of prisoner abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan are not? How are the memos less dangerous to our troops than the photographs?

In the end, the danger of inflaming anti-American opinion abroad and increasing the danger of American military personnel already in perilous situations is more theoretical than imminent. It is far more dangerous to let the photographs of whatever happened at prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan lie in darkness than to let them come to light.

“We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe,” President Obama said. Attempting to hold back these photographs – these potentially damning photographs – from public scrutiny is a betrayal of America’s professed cherished values. To shield the public from knowledge that would increase understanding of a war that has been muddled from the beginning is a shame. Show us the photos, Mr. President, and we will be a better country for it.

Erin K. O'Neill is an assistant director of photography for the Missourian and a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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