The "Neda video," torture, and the truth-revealing power of images

The President's remarks on the images of Iranian violence are in conflict with his suppression efforts at home.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published June 24, 2009 9:25AM (EDT)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)

The single most significant event in shaping worldwide revulsion towards the violence of the Iranian government has been the video of the young Iranian woman bleeding to death, the so-called "Neda video."  Like so many iconic visual images before it -- from My Lai, fire hoses and dogs unleashed at civil rights protesters, Abu Ghraib -- that single image has done more than the tens of thousands of words to dramatize the violence and underscore the brutality of the state response.  

For the last question at his press conference yesterday, Obama was asked by CNN's Suzanne Malveaux about his reaction to that video and to reports that Iranians are refraining from protesting due to fear of such violence.  As Obama was answering -- attesting to how "heartbreaking" he found the video; how "anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust" about the violence; and paying homage to "certain international norms of freedom of speech, freedom of expression" -- Helen Thomas, who hadn't been called on, interrupted to ask Obama to reconcile those statements about the Iranian images with his efforts at home to suppress America's own torture photos ("Then why won't you allow the photos --").

The President quickly cut her off with these remarks:

THE PRESIDENT: Hold on a second, Helen. That's a different question. (Laughter.)

The White House Press corps loves to laugh condescendingly at Helen Thomas because, tenaciously insisting that our sermons to others be applied to our own Government, she acts like a real reporter (exactly as -- according to Politico's Josh Gerstein -- White House reporters "could be seen rolling their eyes and shifting in their seats" when Obama called on The Huffington Post's Nico Pitney, who has done some of the most tireless work on Iran, gave voice to actual Iranians, and posed one of the toughest questions at the Press Conference).  The premise of Thomas' question was compelling and (contrary to Obama's dismissal) directly relevant to Obama's answers:  how is it possible for Obama to pay dramatic tribute to the "heartbreaking" impact of that Neda video in bringing to light the injustices of the Iranian Government's conduct while simultaneously suppressing images that do the same with regard to our own Government's conduct?

The reason Thomas' point matters so much is potently highlighted by a new poll from The Washington Post/ABC News released today -- not only the responses, but even more so, the question itself (click to enlarge image):

Half of the American citizenry is now explicitly pro-torture (and the question even specified that the torture would be used not against Terrorists, but "terrorism suspects").  Just think about what that says about how coarsened and barbaric our populace is and what types of abuses that entrenched mentality is certain to spawn in the future, particularly in the event of another terrorist attack.  But even more meaningful is the question itself -- it's now normal and standard for pollsters to include among the various questions about garden-variety political controversies (health care, tax and spending policies, clean energy approaches) a question about whether one believes the U.S. Government should torture people (are you for or against government torture?)  That's how normalized torture has become, how completely eroded the taboo is in the United States.

It would be one thing for the Obama administration to argue that there is no value in releasing torture photos specifically, and in investigating and imposing accountability for past abuses generally, if there were consensus among Americans that torture is wrong, barbaric and -- as Ronald Reagan put it (hypocritically but still emphatically) -- "an abhorrent practice" justifiable by "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever."   But we have the opposite of that consensus:  we have an ongoing debate over torture that is fluid, vibrant and far from settled, with half the population embracing the twisted and morally depraved pro-torture position.  For that reason, to suppress evidence of what our torture actually looks like and the brutality it entails -- particularly graphic evidence -- is to make it easier for that pro-torture position to thrive, just as it would have been easier for the Iranian Government to slaughter protesters with impunity if they had succeeded in suppressing the images of what they were doing (it was this same dynamic that led the Israeli Army to defy its own Supreme Court and forcibly block reporters and photographers from entering Gaza and which caused the embedded American press to suppress images of the massive civilian deaths which their protectors, the U.S. military, was causing in Iraq). 

Americans are able to perceive torture clinically and in the abstract when they're able to endorse it without seeing its effects.  They're able to delude themselves that the extreme abuses at Abu Ghraib were unauthorized aberrations -- rather than the inevitable by-products of the policies they support -- because the photos showing that those abuses were systematically applied at American detention facilities around the world are being suppressed.  It's almost certainly true that few pro-torture Americans are aware that the policies they support -- and that were approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government -- have led to numerous detainee deaths, because investigations into such matters are being blocked; court proceedings impeded; and media discussions confined almost exclusively to questions about "water in nostrils."  If Americans want to endorse government torture, they should not be allowed to avert their gaze from what they're causing and be spared the facts and details of what is done.

* * * * *

On a related note, the critique I wrote of the NPR Ombudsman's defense of their decision not to use the word "torture" has been discussed in numerous places.  There has also been an outburst of angry (though highly substantive and civil) criticisms from NPR listeners in the comment section of her column.  As a result, we're in the process of inviting the Ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, to appear with me on Salon Radio to discuss her rationale.  Ostensibly, the Ombudsman is not meant to be a spokesperson for NPR but a voice of NPR listeners.  I would hope, then, that she'd be willing to engage and discuss the reaction which her column triggered (at the very least in her column, though even better, in an interactive discussion).  I will post updates of any responses we receive to the invitation extended to her.


UPDATE: The media-manufactured (and, as always, right-wing-fueled) pseudo-controversy over Obama's "pre-coordinated" selection of Huffington Post's Pitney to ask a question is revealingly inane for many obvious reasons:  Pitney's question was one of the most adversarial Obama was asked, and the establishment media reaction clearly stems from resentment over their perceived status being undermined by allowing The Huffington Post and, more to the point, an actual Iranian (rather than a self-anointed reporter-spokesperson for Iranians) to ask the President a question.

But equally revealing is their self-glorifying and delusional belief that only establishment media reporters are sufficiently Serious to be entitled to ask the President questions -- even as they fill Press Conferences with petty, vapid questions and otherwise endlessly reveal themselves to be substance-free and frivolous.  Along those lines, The Washington Post claimed that "budgetary constraints" played a role in the firing of actually serious journalist Dan Froomkin, yet The Post spends money to produce and promote things like the below-posted video from "reporters" Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza that has to be seen to be believed.  Be forewarned:  many will consider the video too petty to bother posting and virtually everyone will find it painfully irritating to watch.  I agree with those assessments, but there is still something about it -- the oozing smugness, the view of politics as a juvenile game, the desperation to be above it all and too sophisticated to care, the total lack of self-awareness in failing to realize how embarrassingly unfunny it is -- that makes it a tour de force in illustrating what and who so much of the Washington media really are:


UPDATE II: We were told by NPR that the Ombudsman is out of the office this week and her office will get back to us by Monday with a response.  Additionally, someone from the Ombudsman's office also just left the following note in the still-growing comment section to her column:

Dear Listeners;

Ms. Shepard is out of the office this week. I work closely with her and have been keeping up with all of your comments. Rest assured that when she returns she will respond to you.

In the meantime, I wanted to let you know that there is someone on the other end reading and receiving your phone calls and emails.


Anna Tauzin

Office of the Ombudsman

The feedback and pressure are obviously having some effect.  I hope it continues; I would look forward to the opportunity to discuss Shepard's column with her in an interview.


UPDATE III: Bridging Update I and Update II:  the Post's Dana Milbank was, completely unsurprisingly, one of the leaders in objecting to the Huffington Post/Pitney question.  He's probably best advised to stick to Post-funded vaudeville videos.  The Nation's Ari Melber has an excellent analysis of the petulant, self-absorbed objections as part of this empty little scandal of the day.  This empty chatter is the sort of thing with which they endlessly occupy themselves -- all while condescendingly scorning Helen Thomas' real questions and acting as though questions from The Huffington Post are a major threat to their protocols of journalistic Seriousness.


UPDATE IV: At Balkinization, Law Professor Alice Ristroph also notes the relationship between (a) the impact which inflammatory images of violence in Iran have had and (b) Obama's efforts to suppress inflammatory images involving the U.S. Government:

To defend this decision, [Obama] drew a distinction between information and image, claiming that the photos would not provide any new information and would inflame anti-American sentiment.  The latter worry has some merit—just as Ahmadinejad is right to believe that images of Iranian protests will inflame anti-Iranian (or anti-Ahmadinejad) sentiment. But the claim that the photos of detainee abuse have no independent value is wrong. Sometimes, images convey ideas and information for which we have no words.  Sometimes, as Iranian tweeters know, images will capture attention in ways that words will not.  And sometimes, as General Eisenhower knew, images can make us speak and think about subjects that we would otherwise like to avoid.

If there's one thing Americans need more of -- not less of -- it's vivid evidence of what it means to have a Government that systematically tortures -- for the same reason that all the words in the world could not have conveyed the violence of the Iranian government.

Glenn Greenwald

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