Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Shoot First, Face Court Martial Later

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 11, 2004 --  

As Americans painstakingly grapple with damning revelations of torture by U.S. forces in Iraq, na?ve questions of "how did this happen" ignore the obvious: the torture of captives by American soldiers is nothing new. Americans like to believe they are different from other peoples of the world, that torture is something that American's just don't do, and that something must have gone terribly wrong in Iraq that led to the existence of such damning photographs.

Americans are right on only the final point. The something that did go wrong in Iraq is the development of the digital camera. The main difference between this war and those of earlier days is not the level of abuse, but the existence of ample photographic evidence that the abuses occurred. Over the past several years, there has been a technological explosion of high quality, low-cost digital cameras that have made imaging devices ubiquitous. Digital photo sensors are now commonly found inside cell phones, in electronic organizers, with laptop computers, and as tiny dedicated cameras that fit in a shirt pocket.

Although small cameras existed as recently as the Vietnam era, the film cameras of that age did not lend themselves to morally questionable images. Amateur film photographers must rely on professional processing by strangers. This intermediate step provides a powerful deterrent to taking pictures of abuses. Can the stranger developing the film be trusted? But with digital imaging, all such inhibitions disappear.

The added ability to quickly delete digital photos has changed the culture of picture taking into a shoot first and ask questions later mindset -- especially by younger Americans in the age groups of Army reservists serving at Abu Ghraib prison. This casual attitude is somewhat ironic, given the speed and ease with which digital pictures are duplicated and transmitted. Sharing a private photo with a friend seems perfectly safe. But if that friend shares it with another friend, and so on, eventually, damning evidence will find its way into the hands of someone willing to report it.

This is the real difference between what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and what happened with American-held POWs in Vietnam, Korea and the Second World War: torture in these wars just wasn't captured by a wafer of silicon. Those who refuse to accept this reality put themselves in the position of denying every one of the ample allegations of prisoner abuse in those conflicts.1,2

Without photographic evidence of the torture of prisoners in these earlier wars, initial reports were probably very easy for officials to deny, and caused little emotional impact. Consider the total lack of outrage resulting from the January announcement of an investigation into prisoner abuses by the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. It was not until photos were shown on 60 Minutes II that the public became interested. Without the pictures, the scandal never would have appeared.

If anything good has come out of this episode, it is that Americans have been forced to realize that their country's armed forces are not immune from the temptation to torture, therefore requiring rigorous oversight by superior officers, elected officials, the press, and a skeptical public. Since the military has almost certainly instituted a strict prohibition against unofficial photography within the prison system -- likely including the banning of any image or sound recording device -- this opportunity is unique, and must not be wasted.

Americans are right to believe that their country is different, even if their people are not. The abuses documented in Iraq, while inexcusable, do not approach the level of brutality of Saddam's era, or even that of many of the world's more authoritarian regimes. Now that the scandal has reached the public consciousness, there will be an investigation, and there will be changes in policy. The probable result is that American soldiers will never again take photos like those at Abu Ghraib. The reason, with any luck, will be that torture -- and not just digital cameras -- will have been banned from the system.


1. Associated Press, History Full of POW Mistreatment, May 6, 2004

2. Palm Beach Post, Maltreating the Powerless: An Analysis of POW Abuse, May 9, 2004