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Imaginary homelands


Regardless of all consequences
Abu Ghraib: images of abuse and the abuse of images


Saturday 15 May 2004

arries an article by the readers’ editor, Ian Mayes, in which he considers complaints from the newspaper’s readers about the publication of a picture from Abu Ghraib. The picture in question was printed across five columns on the front page of the Guardian on Tuesday 11 May 2004. It carried the caption ‘A naked Iraqi prisoner cowers in front of barking dogs held by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib jail.’ In contrast to earlier photographs which had shown hooded prisoners, the face of the man in this picture was clearly visible.

A number of Guardian readers complained about the picture and suggested either that it should not have been presented in the manner that it was or that it should not have been used at all. One reader wrote: ‘Please could you explain to me how the photo of a naked Iraqi prisoner on your front page does not infringe his human rights?’ A reader of the online editions of the Guardian, writing from Germany, said: ‘Please, please replace the image of the naked Iraqi on your front page and world news page with something less upsetting. It is shameful enough that he has been abused in such a way, but for you to broadcast his humiliation to all your online readers worldwide is certainly adding insult to injury.’

Another reader wrote: ‘I realise that you have printed such pictures before on this terrible subject and I know that it is important for us to receive this information. Nevertheless, I object to [this picture] because I feel it is now bordering on voyeurism - it feels like incitement, somehow, or as if we all have a part of this man’s shame and humiliation. I do not wish to be in any way associated with this sort of inhumanity, and by blazoning it on the front page of the paper it makes us all implicated.’ This reaction is particularly interesting because it suggests that the way in which the pictures of abuse have been disseminated in the West may well project an image to the Muslim world of a collective contempt for Arabs or Muslims which reaches far beyond the military

Ian Mayes comments on these responses in the following terms:

There is, I suggest, some confusion here between the crime and evidence of the crime. Publication of the photograph does not infringe the man’s human rights; but it does graphically convey an infringement of his rights. Taken with other photographs, and we now know there are at least 1,800, many showing greater abuses, the picture has an imperative that demands prominent publication - and demands it, apparently, regardless of all consequences (for instance the further excitement of anti-American feeling in the Arab world). The story has been rightly persistent.

By far the most striking feature here is the phrase ‘regardless of all consequences’. The appearance of these words, written by an experienced journalist and passed for publication by an editor, is nothing other than extraordinary. One sign that, by this point in his article, Mayes is not thinking clearly about the question he is attempting to address is the language which he uses. In reality the decision to publish this picture on the front page of the Guardian was made by journalists - almost certainly including the editor himself. It was a complex moral choice and, as the response of readers suggests, there were and are significant arguments both against using the picture without masking the victim’s face, and against using it at all. Mayes, however, obscures this human and moral dilemma by an oddly impersonal turn of phrase. According to him, the picture compelled its own publication. ‘ . . . the picture,’ he writes, ‘has an imperative that demands prominent publication’.

Having made this practically meaningless claim, he goes on to deliver himself of the extraordinary pronouncement already referred to - that the picture should be published regardless of all consequences. He then pauses to mention one possible consequence: ‘for instance the further excitement of anti-American feeling in the Arab world.’ The choice of the word ‘excitement’ when normal usage would be ‘incitement’ is itself odd. One suspects that one of the reasons Mayes has shied away from the more natural choice of words is that ‘incitement’ is commonly used with ‘hatred’. It is indeed anti-Western hatred that the picture in question is likely to incite, not simply ‘anti-American feeling’ as Mayes euphemistically writes. And hatred very frequently leads people to kill those who are its object.

This is one of the possible outcomes which Ian Mayes should be contemplating. If he believes that the picture should be published ‘regardless of all consequences’ he should be thinking more carefully and less euphemistically about just what those consequences might be. How many American and British soldiers is Mayes prepared to see killed before he begins to consider resisting the picture’s alleged ‘demand’ to be published? How many Muslims must lose their lives in the reprisals that follow? How many hundreds of thousands of men, women and children must be killed before those who, like Ian Mayes, mindlessly recite the mantras of free speech, begin to realise that there are some possible consequences of publishing images of violence and degradation of which we should be mindful?

Mayes writes that ‘publication of the photograph does not infringe the man’s human rights; but it does graphically convey an infringement of his rights’. It is this view which leads him to proclaim that the picture has an ‘imperative’ which ‘demands prominent publication’. Would he apply this argument to a victim of rape? Will the Guardian now be publishing pictures of women being sexually humiliated by men on the grounds that to do so ‘graphically conveys an infringement of women’s rights’? And how long will it then be, as the Guardian lurches deeper into the course of brutalisation which its readers’ editor has now commended to us, before it starts fearlessly to publish pictures of children being sexually assaulted on the grounds that such images graphically convey an infringement of their rights?

That the pictures which have emerged from Abu Ghraib are a disgrace both to America and to its allies is beyond question. The existence of these pictures undoubtedly should have been made public, as it eventually was. The pictures themselves should have been seen by a number of people, and these should almost certainly have included responsible journalists. But the decision, taken originally by American newspaper editors, to publish images of Arab Muslims being mocked, bullied and humiliated so that the degradation inflicted on them could be seen by all the world is a very different matter.

Partly because belief in free speech is as unreflective, almost, in Britain and America as belief in an omnipotent deity is among devout Muslims, little if any thought appears to have been given to this question.

Presumably one of the arguments which would be put forward by those who took the original decision to publish is that this was the most powerful way of shaming a seemingly shameless government. This is no doubt true. But in their desire to shame their own government and to break down walls of official denial, the American journalists who published these photographs do not appear to have thought carefully, or at all, about the massive additional hurt which would be inflicted on Arab and Muslim sensibilities as a result.

One of the reasons why no newspaper in this country, or in most countries, would ever publish images of a woman being raped, is that such images would be deeply offensive and hurtful not simply to the victim herself, but to all women - and to most men. By publishing such images we would inevitably convert the private and terrible humiliation of one woman into a collective humiliation of many women. We would multiply the hurt which had originally been inflicted and deepen it inexorably.

This is what we have now done in relation to the pictures which have emerged from Abu Ghraib. If the long-term consequences of doing this have so far escaped wide acknowledgment it is partly because a rigid code of free speech, deriving historically from extreme puritanism, has become the shariah of the West. According to this code almost any degree of cruelty or insensitivity can now be justified by invoking ideals of liberty, free speech and freedom of information. But it is also because, in our protestant contempt for images, we have failed to grasp the immensity of their power in comparison to the written word. As a culture we simply do not understand the huge role images have have played in history in the past and are likely still to play in the future.

If American journalists had arranged clandestine meetings with Al Qaeda terrorists and placed in their hands all the equipment they needed in order to make an atomic bomb, they would have been condemned as traitors. Because they have exposed the intolerable abuses taking place in Abu Ghraib, they have been hailed as heroes. But, by the manner in which they chose to do this, they have in fact placed into the hands of Islamic extremists weapons, in the form of graphic images of abuse, which may, in the long term, be just as powerful.

Out of our very righteousness and our desire to expose a terrible wrong, we have sowed the seeds which cannot but lead to a new harvest of hatred. We have already begun to reap that harvest and may very well continue to do so for a century or more.


NOTE added February 2006

A similar question arose recently in respect of the photographs published by the News of the World of British soldiers beating up Iraqi demonstrators. At least two commentators questioned the orthodox view that the photographs should have been published. Nigel Farndale’s piece in the Sunday Telegraph was thoughtful and to the point. And Howard Jacobson’s column in the Independent put foward arguments some of which overlap with those which I set out above.

For a (very) long essay on free speech and puritanism, click here.

For a brief article, click here.

Saturday 15 May 2004


Richard Webster, 2004