If the Daily Telegraph is right that the unreleased detainee-abuse photos include graphic images of rape, Obama must have been lying when he said the photos are "not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib." For all the pain of those earlier images, what they depicted were not generally criminal acts in the same way that rape is. They showed violation, humiliation, the horrific power differential between prisoners and their jailors-war crimes, to be sure-but they tended to document the effects and aftermath of violence more than its actual commission. Gourevitch, who writes that he has seen "many-if not most" of the unreleased photos, also gives no indication that they depict sex crimes.
I wouldn’t put it past Obama-or any president-to lie about the content of images that he thinks the public will never see. But what about these photos, which may well be released soon if judges continue to rule as they have recently in favor of the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act request? Wouldn’t that be a big risk for the president to undertake? Is it possible that he hasn’t seen the photos of rape, but is referring only to the 40-some images that are part of this particular lawsuit? (Activists say there are as many as 2,000 others that we haven’t yet seen-maybe those are the ones depicting sexual violence.) And does Gourevitch think that if indeed these pictures document rape, that doesn’t even merit a mention in an article arguing against their release? Maybe this would make no difference to his larger point, but it makes a difference to me as a reader to at least acknowledge this content, which as Susannah points out , may complicate matters for some.
Yet even if these unreleased images do depict rape, I still agree with Major General Antonio Taguba's position in the Telegraph piece that they shouldn’t be published. If we have in written form the evidence needed to frame a criminal prosecution, why do we need, as a society, to look at photographs that would further violate the victims by their release? Article 13 of the Geneva Convention notes that prisoners of war must be protected not just against violence and intimidation, but "public curiosity." When does our need to see the vivid imaes of abuse trump our effort to enforce the very codes whose violation the photos document? In Regarding the Pain of Others , Susan Sontag rightly notes that "most depictions of tormented, mutilated bodies do arouse a prurient interest" and "all images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic." We have already seen the pornography of this war. If we don’t know by now that detainee abuse in all its forms is real and appalling and must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, more pictures won’t convince us.