Torture and abuse by American military personnel at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, as it turns out, is old news. CNN in January had quoted a Pentagon official's report that "soldiers reportedly posed for photographs with partially unclothed Iraqi prisoners." Two months later, the network reported that charges had been filed.
So why didn't the news hit public attention until late April? "There were no horrifying pictures of the kind revealed by 60 Minutes II" and other news outlets, explains The Washington Post press critic Howard Kurtz.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made the same observation in his testimony before the Senate. "The words that there were abuses, that it was cruel, that it was inhumane, all of which is true you read that and it's one thing. You see the photographs, and you get a sense of it, and you cannot help but be outraged."
In the case of Abu Ghraib, photographs didn't just make the storythey were the story. The mistreatment was reportedly not orchestrated for interrogation but for the guards' entertainment. Photographing the abuse was integral to the abuse itself.
Christian leaders and others have noted the pornographic nature of the images, and the role pornography has played in training Americans for precisely this behavior. When kids raised on porn "become MPs in a prison in Iraq, they don't pull out the fingernails or set off loud radios to harass prisoners," said Prison Fellowship's Charles Colson. "Instead they strip them and make them pose in pretend sex actsjust like pornography. And then they film it incredible."
Others argued that the abuse photos were themselves pornography unfit for news publications, but the consensus seems to be that they shine light on important truths. "Maybe so," wrote National Review's Jonah Goldberg. "[But] if showing snapshots and images reveals the truth better than words, then why do networks refuse to show 'socalled' partial-birth abortions? After all, that whole debate is over the nature of the procedure. Going to the videotape would surely settle it better than any news anchor."
It could certainly end discussion, Neil Postman suggested. His Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), asserted that images appeal to the emotions, never the intellect. "The words true and false come from the universe of language, and no other," he wrote. "The photograph itself makes no arguable propositions, makes no extended and unambiguous commentary. It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable."
Postman's point was not that pictures never lie, but that they shape perception with little regard for truth or reality. William Randolph Hearst understood this when trying to push the United States into the Spanish-American War. When a photojournalist telegraphed that there was no war to report on, Hearst reportedly responded, "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war."
Warmongering publishers are fewer today. More common is the case of U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a top official stationed in Iraq who was last October maligned by NBC Nightly News and the Los Angeles Times as some kind of 21st-century crusader. By selectively editing video taken at a church meeting, Boykin seemed to be saying that the war against terrorism is a religious war. In fact, Boykin told the church, "Who is that enemy? It's not Osama bin Laden. Our enemy is a spiritual enemy. His name is Satan." Media reports are still replacing Satan's name with those of Osama and Saddam, and picking up the quote with him saying we must fight "in the name of Jesus." Such deliberate twisting demonstrates that not all bad media coverage is due to images alone. Some of it is simple invective. But that only reiterates the point that viewers shouldn't believe everything they see.
We who worship the "image of the unseen God" have rightly gloried in the Incarnation while remaining healthily skeptical of pictures. Even today, while evangelicals aren't destroying images as they did during the Reformation, they are still wary of having any images in their churches. They remember the Decalogue's prohibitions against graven images, and know firsthand that images, for all their wonder, can sometimes seduce us at the expense of the Word.
Ted Olsen is online managing editor of Christianity Today.
For more reflection on the brutality at Abu Ghraib prison, see our full coverage area.
This column appeared in the magazine's July print issue as the third entry of "Weblog in Print," CT's effort to duplicate on paper our popular online Weblog feature. Earlier entries include:
Misfires in the Tolerance Wars | Separating church and state now means separating belief and action (Feb. 24, 2004)
A Theoblogical Revolution | Billy Graham's vision goes from print to online, then back again. (Jan. 16, 2004; Weblog update: "New Kids on the Blog," Feb. 13, 2004)