Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Photos: The Problem with the WOT Writ Small

With significant caveats, I am actually sympathetic to President Obama's point about releasing more photos illustrating abuse of US-held detainees:

Publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals. In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.
The first caveat is the assumption that Obama's factual assertion is true, that the photos in question would add nothing significant to the public record. His claim collapses if, in fact, the unreleased photos would reveal new information as to kind or extent of the abuses.

But his is rather shaky logic, is it not? If there's truly nothing new to be learned from the photos, it's difficult to understand how the photos' release would "inflame anti-American opinion" above extant levels. Nothing new implies nothing new to foment outrage, does it not?

Another caveat is that the continued classification of the photos is not indefinite -- that there is some foreseeable time when the principles of openness and accountability outweigh the wartime principle of minimizing the enemy's propaganda benefits. I want there to be a realistic some day when these photos will be released and the full truth made known, however sordid.

As I imagine the US situation in 1945 and ask whether I would advise President Roosevelt to maximally disclose the details of the bombing of Dresden, the bombings of Tokyo, and the internment of the Japanese-Americans; and I anticipate the counterargument that this would only further the Axis cause in a war whose outcome was still in doubt, I have to concede that there's something to the counterargument.

But note how this is inseparable from the question of clearly defining the war itself. If we are facing, in the war on terror, or "the so-called war on terror" (or whatever label you prefer) the prospect of an undefined victory against a hazily-defined enemy, then there can be no assurance that the principle of openness can ever prevail.

A state of poorly-defined, unbounded, ad hoc war becomes too easily a state of perpetual war in which the logic and principles of war forever outweigh the logic and principles of open society. And this is unacceptable.

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