Sunday, October 7, 2007

Errol Morris on Abu Ghraib

On Friday night, I went to the Director's Guild of America theater to listen to Errol Morris and Phillip Gourevitch discuss Abu Ghraib as part of the New Yorker Festival. Errol Morris is apparently making a documentary centered on the photographs that exposed the Abu Ghraib scandal, which, after watching a few clips of footage and listening to the talk, I think is much needed. The discussion itself wasn't terribly enlightening, but I found three points engaging:

1. Errol Morris raised a particular interest in the inability of photographs to convey the truth of the scenario they depict, because the focus on the subject matter within the frame of the photograph, and the lack of context for what is taking place outside of the frame (both literally, who is outside the frame, and more figuratively, in the sense of, how did this scene come to take place). While this is philosophically an interesting line of inquiry, it is drawn into sharp focus in the case of Abu Ghraib, where the seven soldiers, the seven "bad apples," who were brought to task for the photos at Abu Ghraib as a result of the photos they took and were captured in, while very little else about the system of torture and administrative neglect that apparently exists and is endorsed in our current war has really resonated in the culture, broadly. In fact, for much of the horror depicted in the photos, many of the seven soldiers wre directly involved. They only happened to get caught, by virtue of the photos they took and leaked. And as Morris highlighted the irony: these same photos, taken not by a low-level enlisted soldier, but by a photojournalist, would have been cause for international recognition.

An essay on Morris' site details the case in more depth.

2. The more compelling takeaway, for me, which was effectively, if implicitly, forwarded by Gourevitch during a couple of impassioned rhetorical flourishes in their conversation, drew attention to how truly deep the moral stain of the "interrogation" techniques employed by our government when considered against our self-image as a nation. And a greater sin than the actual acts of physical and psychological brutality and wanton and reckless policing that is enforced in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere in the name of our defense, or perhaps a sin that simply inculpates us more broadly, is our refusal to really acknowledge these acts of torture for what they are. The case made by Gourevitch and Morris is not only that the seven soldiers responsible for the photos were essentially scapegoated, deflecting scrutiny from the military policies and governance that allowed the scenes of torture to become real, but that the media, and the public, in focusing on those photos which showed these seven soldiers acting out stupid acts of ugly Americanism, further tainted with revolting/fascinating sexual overtones, failed to look hard at all of the other photos released at the same time, which were simple documents of brutality. Our fixation with the sensational allowed us to glide right past the real issue -- that we're (once again) enacting random and inhumane violence against helpless people (not good people, just helpless).

Watching this program on a Friday night, I found myself not necessarily learning anything new, but simply being reminded about how low we've fallen as a nation, and in terms of our national conscience, how little we seem to care.

If you are reading this and find yourself wondering what you missed through the week-long sensationalist coverage of Abu Ghraib that's faded into the background, check out the photos on Salon (some of which I've posted as an unwelcome but necessary reminder as part of this post), as well as the Wikipedia posting, which provides a number of useful references on the scandal.

As a coda, I post a video from TalkingPointsMemo, where the White House press secretary engages in the current political standard of prevarication, non-statements, and circular definitions as a smokescreen to avoid engaging in meaningful discourse. While the political actors and institutions drift further into meaninglessness and immorality, I am only left wondering how each of the individual's acting out these absurd roles manage to continue. What happened to shame?

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