ROGER ROSENBLATT: Some years ago, I did a NewsHour essay on an exhibit in New York of picture postcards of mostly African Americans who had been lynched or burned at the stake. These pictures displayed both the horror of the acts and the aroused excitement of the white crowds observing them, as if at a county fair.
Naturally, they came to mind when the Abu Ghraib photos were published, though the former dealt with murder, and the latter with humiliation. The glee of the onlookers, however, was similar. In Abu Ghraib it was overtly sexual. But there was a sexual element in the lynching photos, too-- people "getting off" on the destruction of others.
SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: No one had seen the photographs...
ROGER ROSENBLATT: During his testimony before the Senate, Secretary Rumsfeld said that he had been unaware of the extent of the depravity at Abu Ghraib, though he knew that abuses were occurring, until he saw the photos.
SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: You see the photographs, and you get a sense of it, and you cannot help but be outraged.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Seeing was believing. For everyone, it was, also, understanding; understanding then brought shame and outrage. It was the same with Vietnam. ( Gunfire ) Michael Arlen's classic, "The Living-Room War," would be written today as the Media-Room War, but little else has changed in terms of a picture's effects. Tell me about criminal behavior, and I am dismayed. Show me, and I am in a white heat.
Between Vietnam and the present day, however, people have learned to take the sure thing out of news photos. What you see may not be what you get. See Rodney King beaten by the police. But the police then said that we weren't seeing that. King had started punching the cops seconds before the video was taken; the cops said that the beating was justified. In the case of Abu Ghraib, some people are claiming similar things. The glee was posed, not authentic. They were carrying out orders. The prisoners had to be softened up to save the lives of our troops.
SEN. JAMES INHOFE: They're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Senator James Inhofe said as much in the hearings. Also, these pictures were stills, and stills bear a powerful yet deceptive clarity. You can look and look again, as into a text. What you see is what you want to see; interpretations change. The question is not: can you believe your eyes? Rather it's, what connects your eyes and your mind and your heart? Shocking as those prison pictures were, they really did not appear out of the blue. The entire chaotic atmosphere of Iraq had subconsciously prepared us for more bad news. In some dark way we anticipated those pictures, if not their content, then their message-- that the place is out of control. Interesting to recall that the government did not wish us to see the flag draped coffins of our honored war dead. So we have seen these other pictures instead.
A connection could be drawn between them, but most of us would have kept our reactions separate. There are things honorable and things shameful, and somewhere in the space between them is America these days, of which no clear and satisfactory picture has been shot. I'm Roger Rosenblatt.