To hear Don Rumsfeld tell it, even though the Bush administration had been told back in January about the abuse and torture going on at Abu Ghraib -- and that there were photos documenting it -- the idea that this might be a very bad thing didn't really hit home until recently because no one in the White House had actually laid eyes on the photos.
"It is the photographs that give one the vivid realization of what actually took place," Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. "Words don't do it."
So being notified by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that U.S. soldiers were torturing and humiliating naked Iraqi prisoners in the very place that had once been Saddam Hussein's favorite Little Shop of Horrors wasn't vivid enough to get the alarm bells ringing on Pennsylvania Avenue?
Neither apparently were the non-visual warnings about the mistreatment of prisoners delivered by the Red Cross, Colin Powell and Paul Bremer.
Why not? Is the country being run by a bunch of preschoolers who can't process all those big words and will only sit still for a colorful picture book?
See Rummy spin. Spin, Rummy, spin.
Even the release of Gen. Taguba's damning 53-page report detailing the "systematic and illegal abuse of detainees" wasn't enough to pique Rumsfeld's concern.
"The problem at that stage," he testified, "was one-dimensional. It wasn't three-dimensional. It wasn't video. It wasn't color."
I challenge anyone to read the Taguba report and say that the nightmares it depicts aren't chillingly three-dimensional. Even without pop-up illustrations.
According to Taguba, U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib were guilty of: "Positioning a naked detainee on a box ... with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes and penis to simulate electric torture"; "Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees"; "Beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair"; "Sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broomstick."
Close your eyes. Now picture what you just read. Still need to see photos before you hit the roof? I didn't think so.
What a colossal failure of imagination on the part of our leaders.
But even as ludicrous as the "No photos, no fury" justification is, let's accept the premise that detailed descriptions of chemical light buggery and electrodes attached to genitals aren't enough -- that Rummy and company have made such a habit of twisting and spinning and manipulating words, mere language has lost its power to move them.
But since photographic proof is now the prerequisite for moral outrage, why didn't Rumsfeld demand to see the photos as soon as he was told about them back in January? If you were in his shoes, wouldn't you have ordered them to be on your desk within the hour? Of course you would have. But not the man Dick Cheney just called "the best secretary of defense the Unites States has ever had."
When asked by a reporter why he never got around to actually viewing the incendiary photos until the night before he was called on the Senate carpet, Rummy insisted the problem wasn't his lack of interest; it was the lack of a good photo developer. Call it the Fotomat defense.
"I think I did inquire about the pictures," he said, "and was told that we didn't have copies."
No copies? The biggest U.S. military scandal since My Lai and the secretary of defense can't get any extra prints sent his way?
Memo to Rummy: We now live in the era of digital photos and instant uploads. "The dog ate my negative" just ain't gonna fly.
Rumsfeld claims he was "blindsided" by the revelation of what he called the "radioactive" torture photos. But the timeline proves otherwise: He wasn't blindsided, merely blind to the devastating impact the pictures would have once they became public.
That's where this failure of imagination turned into a profound failure of leadership.
The White House has said that the war on terror is as much a war of ideas as a war of weapons. If that were more than rhetoric, someone there would have seen the writing on the prison wall and gotten out in front of this crisis instead of allowing the Taguba report to languish unread by the top brass and the photos to be made public by the press and not the president.
Indeed, they treated it not as a political land mine that could flatten America's moral high ground but as a P.R. problem that would disappear if they kept the photos from public view.
Always a master of understatement, Rummy termed the Abu Ghraib scandal "unhelpful in a fundamental way." The time has come for him and his cohorts to admit that the situation in Iraq has become untenable in a fundamental way. We can't put the torture genie back in the bottle. And we can no longer pretend that we have any chance of ushering democracy into Iraq so long as democracy has an American face.
See Bush crumble. Crumble, Bush, crumble.