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The Picture the World Sees
by Jonathan Alter
May 17, 2003

May 17 issue - A few years ago, I traveled to Vietnam. Without intending to do so, I found myself visiting the scenes of iconic photographs I remembered seeing when I was a kid: the Saigon street corner where Eddie Adams took the shot of a Viet Cong suspect being executed at point-blank range; the stretch of road the naked little girl ran down; the roof of the building near the U.S. Embassy where the last helicopter lifted off. For many of us, these images were the Vietnam War.

The same will be true of the Iraq war. Someday, when Iraq is peaceful again (and that day will come), tourists will want to see the square where the Saddam statue toppled, the spider hole he hid in and, of course, Abu Ghraib Prison. It's too early to know exactly which of the unspeakable pictures from the torture sessions will come to represent this sickening chapter in the book of superpower superembarrassments. Will it be that prisoner wearing the hood with electrical wires attached? Those stacked naked bodies with smiling guards above? Lynndie England leading around a naked man on a leash?

The assumption last week in Washington was that the damage from this fiasco in the Arab world will last for 50 years, as Sen. Jack Reed put it. For all the power of the humiliating images to confirm the worst assumptions about the United States and strip away its moral authority, this seems exaggerated. Pictures play powerfully on emotions, but emotions--when they don't involve immediate family--are not often enduring. They can change depending on the next pictures and the next sequence of decisions and events. The images from Vietnam--searing as they were--were ultimately a reflection of the policy failures, not the cause of them, and the hatred expressed by Vietnamese toward the Americans who bombed them lasted only a few years. The same goes for Iraq and the Middle East. Just because the damage is done doesn't mean that it cannot, over time, be undone. The problem is whether we have the right leadership to undo it.

Take one Donald Rumsfeld. First, he and President Bush and the rest of the war cabinet ignored Colin Powell's presentation of the Red Cross's evidence of abuses in Iraqi prisons. Then Rumsfeld went on the "Today" show to say he didn't have time to read the long report on Abu Ghraib (what else was so important?) but that "anyone who sees the photographs does, in fact, apologize." Anyone? Who is "anyone"? It wasn't until his job was on the line and he bothered to finally view the pictures that he delivered a proper apology before Congress. Rumsfeld said that it was the pictures that made him realize the seriousness of the reported behavior--the "words [in Pentagon reports] don't do it." But high-level government officials should be capable of responding to horrible abuses under their authority without audio-visual aids. They're paid to make decisions on words and facts and right and wrong, not just on the emotional punch of pictures--or how something might look if it came out. Character, we know, is what you do when you think no one is watching.

Of course, some people didn't even mind the pictures. Rush Limbaugh told his audience last week that the whole thing reminded him of a "Skull and Bones initiation." He argued that the torturers should be cut a little slack: "You ever heard of emotional release? You heard of need to blow some steam off?" Limbaugh's peculiar rationalization didn't get traction, but he's right about one thing: when it comes to pictures, context still counts. Sympathy for the prisoners developed in this case because few were suspected terrorists. Some were resisting Coalition forces--which is terrible but not terrorism, unless you think every civilian who ever resisted an occupying army in human history was a terrorist. Others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. None had anything to do with 9/11.

But imagine if these images had been of, say, Al Qaeda terrorists in captivity in Afghanistan in late 2001. There would have been no uproar at all. In fact, at that time, too many people (including me) were complacent about the use of psychological interrogation techniques that end up loosening the bonds of civilized behavior and making Americans look like hypocrites.

Is there any way forward after this excruciation? Any way to rebuild the bridges (remember that overworked Clinton metaphor?) the Bush administration is burning? For all the talk in John Kerry's campaign about America's tarnished image in the rest of the world, most U.S. voters aren't interested. In the broadest sense, they're correct. Being respected and popular again is not an end in itself; sometimes we need to do the right, unpopular thing.

But at this particular historical moment, the United States can be safer only when it is respected abroad. The only way we'll get the cooperation we need to win either the war in Iraq or the wider war on terrorism is by persuading other nations to begin looking to us again for leadership. No respect, no victory. In that sense, restoring America's prestige is a means to an end, and the presidential election, a referendum on which man can best change the picture that the whole world sees. 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

Posted: May 14, 2004


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