Words and Images

The question of the power of words versus the power of visual images is on my mind this week as I work through this section describing the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah at the secret CIA dungeon in Thailand. Ninety of the 92 videotapes the CIA destroyed in 2005 recorded that interrogation, which took place from April though August on 2002 and culminated in 83 sessions of waterboarding. Just knowing those tapes existed exerts a subtle pressure on the imagination. Now, when you read a description of Zubaydah being swung around by a collar and slammed against a wall, your mind's eye is sometimes drawn to a wider, surveillance-camera angle: he's naked, you remember.

Last week, the Center for Constitutional Rights won a court order disclosing that the government has videotapes of the interrogation of Mohammed al Qahtani. The minute-by-minute log of that 7-week interrogation in Guantánamo in late 2002 and early 2003 is essential reading to have any understanding, for example, of what “sleep deprivation” means. But it must be an altogether different experience to watch videotape of something like this:

Interrogators began telling detainee how ungrateful and grumpy he was. In order to escalate the detainee's emotions, a mask was made from an MRE box with a smiley face on it and placed on the detainee's head for a few moments. A latex glove was inflated and labeled the “sissy slap” glove. This glove was touched to the detainee's face periodically after explaining the terminology to him. The mask was placed back on the detainee's head. While wearing the mask, the team began dance instruction with the detainee. The detainee became agitated and began shouting.

Whether anyone outside of government ever sees this video of course remains to be seen. The Supreme Court is in the process of deciding whether it will hear the government's appeal of a federal court ruling ordering the release of perhaps hundreds more photographs depicting abuse of detainees in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration insists that releasing the photos would fan anti-Americanism and extremism, endangering U.S. troops in the region. Last week, House and Senate conferees moved toward endorsing that position, approving language for the defense appropriations bill that included an amendment sponsored by Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham allowing the Secretary of Defense to determine what images the public can see. The House will likely pass the bill later today, with the Senate likely passing it within the next in the next couple of weeks.

As we learned when photos of the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib were leaked to the press in 2004, images of torture and abuse do provoke powerful reactions. What we're reacting to, though, is the treatment, not the images. No amount of erasure or concealment can undo the fact that the treatment occurred – and that, in these cases, it was witnessed and recorded.

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