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U.S. soldier keeps watch over detainees in Iraq, 2009. Atef Hassan/Reuters

DoD detainee photos raise disturbing questions about transparency

A shirtless man, his back toward the camera, stands before a beige wall, a scabbed abrasion on his left shoulder blade and a small ruler affixed to his skin, for scale.

Scraped knees, swollen ankles, grainy black and white collages of unnamed men, sitting, crouching, kneeling, in various phases of capture and confinement.

This is what transparency looks like, this time around.

On February 5, the Department of Defense (DoD) released 198 previously classified photos that documented the abuse of detainees between 2001 and 2009 by the U.S. military at sites across Afghanistan and Iraq.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) spent more than 10 years fighting for the release of these images. And this is just the beginning.

The ACLU estimates that the Pentagon holds roughly 1,800 additional photos: it has vowed to force the DoD to make those public too.

In the meantime, the ACLU contends that the release of these 198 photos constitutes an important victory for the cause of transparency, and thus for American democracy. The release, they say, represents a means of holding the government to account and, thus, reduces its capacity to torture.

These are critically important goals, but as someone who studies visual culture and militarism, I argue that these photos will do little to foster public recognition of, or empathy for, the detainees. Moreover, their release raises fundamental questions about how we define and practice transparency.

For these reasons, which I will expand on below, I have opted not to reproduce or hyperlink the images here.

‘Benign’ photos?

Most of the images that the DoD has made public are forensic-looking shots of injured body parts, extremities like arms, hands, feet and legs. They are tightly focused and clinically framed in ways that dehumanize the detainees.

These photos reduce bodies – and therefore people – to signs of physical trauma, even as the poor quality of many of the images often makes the injuries difficult to discern. When whole bodies do appear, “redaction” – in the form of black rectangles superimposed over identifying facial features – fragments and abstracts them.

And we never see American military personnel, with the exception of a few exploratory fingertips that might belong to someone other than the pictured detainee.

These images, in other words, tell us virtually nothing about what caused the injuries.

A DoD spokesman characterized the photos as “benign,” wording that minimizes the harm that the pictures document, but also – perhaps unintentionally – acknowledges that they show very little that is likely to elicit widespread public anger.

Of course, any injury that American military personnel deliberately inflict on a detainee, or do not make a good faith effort to prevent, is untenable.

But broad swaths of the American public remain ambivalent about torture and whether it should be permissible.

These new photos are far less graphic than those leaked from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004, and even that relatively clear evidence of torture effected only minimal change in the course of the war. The release of the Abu Ghraib photos corresponded to a decrease in President Bush’s already declining approval rating, but he was reelected roughly six months later.

Given that these photos are unlikely to affect public opinion, how significant is their release?

The ACLU case

The ACLU asserts that the photos the DoD did not declassify are much more graphic.

Perhaps this is why, in its press releases, the ACLU has made relatively cursory mention of the content of these 198 photos, and focused much more on the legal and symbolic significance of the disclosure.

For example, on February 5, a staff attorney for the ACLU published a column in Time magazine contending that the photos are “disturbing and hint at the brutality of what the government is still keeping secret.”

But such a claim devalues these photos, and the suffering to which they attest. At the same time it whets a public appetite for even more dramatic scenes. The photos – and hence the people captured within them – are being used instrumentally in the service of a larger mission.

The ACLU’s argument points, as I see it, to a fundamental problem with how we typically understand and apply the idea of transparency in the matters of detention and abuse.

Problems with transparency

Transparency is the cornerstone of legislation like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and websites like WikiLeaks. The transparency paradigm is based on the assumption that governments and corporations will conduct themselves lawfully and ethically if they operate under the fear of public scrutiny.

Justice Louis Brandeis (1856-1941). Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress

Justice Louis Brandeis famously opined that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” and this claim figures centrally in American ideals of transparency. But it also obscures the actual mechanisms by which that metaphorical disinfecting takes place.

Scholars have recently begun to grapple with the limitations of “transparency” as a framework, both theoretically and practically.

There is, for example, the matter of impunity, the untouchability of very powerful actors even when their wrongdoing is public knowledge. This is seen, for example, in the fairly minimal punishments meted out after Abu Ghraib to military personnel low on the chain of command.

There is also the question of who, and what, actually gets revealed (or doesn’t) when the government makes itself transparent. Rather than showing government officials, these photos show only the targets of their actions, in circumstances of degradation and extreme vulnerability.

From the perspective of the DoD, the choice to release these relatively “benign” photos rather than other, allegedly more incriminating ones, is unsurprising. But the calculus behind the decision to release any photos is also worth considering.

The DoD fought tenaciously in defense of its position and, presumably, it could have continued to find ways to justify noncompliance with the court order. But, in the end, the secretary of defense agreed to release these images. This is a curious concession given that the Obama administration has reneged on a promise to release interrogation photos in the past, citing the danger that their content might pose to U.S. troops abroad.

This latest decision would seem to be a wager based on the nature of the photos and the relative ambivalence of the American public about such images and the practices they suggest.

But it also reflects the extent to which the costs of transparency are borne by the other individuals involved.

Yes, transparency has rendered the government’s actions visible. But it has also made the bodies of the detainees available to public inspection. The imperative that the government operate in the open has, in other words, been passed along to the detainees, who ensure its compliance with their own visibility according to terms they cannot control.

There is no indication that the people pictured in these photos authorized them to be released in this way. They have no authority to object, and the government has complied with the law by exercising yet another form of power over the detainees.

In this way, even the redactions function less to protect the privacy of the detainees and more to reaffirm their status as the property of a government that controls whether they are visible or not.

The argument for transparency in this instance derives much of its moral force from the assertion that Americans have not only a need but a right to know what the U.S. military is doing “in our name.” Indeed, this is the thesis of the ACLU-penned article in Time.

But such a formulation puts the emphasis on the symbolic injury that these detentions and this abuse have inflicted on Americans. And this, in turn, makes it easier to overlook the detainees whose mandated exposure is apparently required to remove the tarnish from our national identity.

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