A couple of days after the news of the beheading of American hostage Paul Johnson by his Al Qaeda captors, an e-mail correspondent of mine sent a file attachment containing three photos of Johnson's severed head. The text of his e-mail said: "Clearly this is the moral equivalent of putting women's underwear on a man's face or depriving him of sleep."
I didn't open the attached file, partly because I had already seen the grisly photos: Blogger and journalist Andrew Sullivan had helpfully put up a link on his website, explaining that "it is important to look at our enemy squarely." (He added that the TV networks "absolutely should" show these pictures.) My correspondent's argument was a familiar one as well, made on Internet message boards and blogs, on talk shows, and even in the press.
Many supporters of the war are incensed by what they regard as biased media coverage. Why, they ask, do we see numerous articles about the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison—complete with disturbing photos of sexual and physical abuse—and far less reporting on the atrocities of the Al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgents, or on newly uncovered videos of horrific torture in Saddam Hussein's prisons?
It's entirely possible, even likely, that some in the media are exploiting the Abu Ghraib scandal to bash the Bush administration and discredit the war effort. But there are legitimate reasons for the continuing coverage as well.
First, the prison abuse scandal and the larger issue of the possible use of torture by the US military are the focus of a continuing investigation that surely merits reporting.
Second, the conduct of American troops and of the US government should be of special concern to Americans. I would even say that we have cause for some double standards: That is, we should hold ourselves and our soldiers to higher standards than the terrorists, or dictators and their henchmen. In that sense, perhaps the image of a grinning US servicewoman dragging a naked Iraqi prisoner on a leash should shock us more than an image of Saddam's thugs chopping off a man's hand—because that servicewoman represents us, and because we expect better from her. We don't expect any better from Saddam's thugs.
Besides, comments about "putting women's underwear on a man's face" don't begin to capture the scope of what happened at Abu Ghraib. There are pictures of naked prisoners being terrorized by large snarling dogs. There are reports of men being sodomized with objects or tortured with electric shocks, and of women being sexually assaulted. And, despite dismissive remarks that at least all the Abu Ghraib prisoners still have their heads attached to their shoulders, there are dead bodies as well: A number of Iraqis have died in US custody under highly suspicious circumstances.
Let's leave aside for now the issue of whether it's morally permissible to torture a terrorist to obtain information that may save thousands of lives. Most of the maltreated prisoners, it seems clear, were either wrongly detained innocents or petty criminals with no connection to terrorism.
Yes, there is rank hypocrisy in the way this scandal is being exploited by anti-American propagandists worldwide—by Arab regimes that routinely practice torture, and by European progressives who have little to say about, for instance, Russian atrocities in Chechnya. But there is nothing wrong with the American media holding the US government and military accountable. That is one of the basic functions of the press in a democracy.
As for the question of whether the media should air graphic images of enemy atrocities, let us not sacrifice basic decency to politics. (Remember, the worst of the Abu Ghraib photos and videos have not been released, either.) For the most part, what drives people to look at these images is morbid voyeurism. We don't need to see a severed head to know that beheading a helpless and innocent hostage is an act of horrific barbarism.
Finally, let us not make the mistake of asserting that the perpetrators of these deeds are "animals," or "are not human." Alas, history is full of evidence that human nature includes the capacity for abominable cruelty. (Only a century ago, some Americans gleefully posed for photographs next to the corpses of lynched black men.)
The risk of barbarism is particularly high when one has dehumanized the enemy, as the Islamo-fascist terrorists have done. Let us not go down that perilous road.