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January 26, 2005

It’s All A Little Sketchy

In the NYTimes last weekend, Frank Rich vented frustrated over how the press and public had  lost interest in the prisoner abuse scandal. (“On Television, Torture Takes a Holiday’”–  link.)  What set him off, I believe, was the fact that the Prince Harry story got so many people up in arms, while the Charles Graner trial and conviction passed virtually unnoticed. 

Rich was offering no apologies for the sadistic bad boy at the center of the Abu Ghraib debacle.    Rich’s complaint, however, was that despite the best intentions of the defense team to implicate the policy Graner was carrying out, and draw attention to the higher ups who set Graner in motion, the effort fell on deaf ears.

Beyond bemoaning the issue, I commend Rich for considering why the story disappeared — even if he offered too many ideas for any one to really stick.  One theory (which particularly involves interests here at the BAG) is that the trial didn’t play because there weren’t enough good pictures.  As Rich writes:

There were no cameras at Specialist Graner’s trial itself. What happened in the courtroom would thus have to be explained with words – possibly more than a few sentences of words – and that doesn’t cut it on commercial television. It takes a televised judicial circus in the grand O. J. Simpson tradition or a huge crew of supporting players eager (or available) for their 15 minutes of TV fame to create a mediathon.

Looking into this theory, I went hunting around for images of the trial.  What I mostly found were mundane shots of Graner and his legal team entering and leaving the courtroom.  Beyond that, what was mostly available were court room drawings. 

This first rendering is from the AP:

 English Doc 2004-08 24 Xin 0508012401577311203613

The next three drawings are respectively: the trial counsel (Capt. John McCabe); the Judge (Col. James Pohl), and Graner.  (These images were generated by the Multinational Force.)

 Courtmartial Images Mccabe

 Courtmartial Images Pohl

 Courtmartial Images Graner

Not too sexy, huh?  (Given the exposure these images received, perhaps we really are as conditioned as Rich asserts.)

However, Rich offered another (visually-oriented) theory why the abuse scandal had fallen off the radar.  He suggested that the abuse pictures conjured the image of defeat, and that American’s don’t want to confront the possibility these images could form the predominant impression of the war in the minds of the Iraqis.

What I thought Rich would mention, but didn’t, was “the other abuse story” that failed to circulate (at least, in the U.S.) last week.  In contrast to the Graner trial, this story seemed to fit Rich’s point even better (if not too well).  The story I’m referring to was the disclosure in England of their own prisoner abuse scandal. (“British Leaders Seek to Contain Damage From Iraq Abuse Photos” — link.)  In an instance of history repeating itself, it appeared that British soldiers had abused Iraqi prisoners near Basra in May 2003, and had also been “digitally apprehended.”

Although Rich is matter-of-fact about people wanting nothing to do with the abuse scandal, I just find it hard to believe.  On the other hand, I was going through news photos all week, and I never came upon these English snapshots.  On top of that, after reading Rich’s piece, a vague recollection came to me.  It seemed that I actually might have seen one of these image in a newspaper that week.  As much as I tried, though, I couldn’t remember which or when.

But then, I may have intended not to remember it.

 Us.Yimg.Com P Ap 20050118 Capt.Lon81401181908.Germany Britain Iraq Abuse Lon814

(image 1:  AP via; image 2,3 &4: Multi-National Corps-Iraq – link; image 5: AP Photo/British Court Martial)

  • nebulous

    Judging by the lack of comments on this post, it’s uncomfortable for most people to talk about openly.
    Anyone familiar with Milgram,
    and the Stanford prison experiment understand the behavior of people in positions of authority and subordination. Why don’t our government’s highest lawmakers seem to be aware of this?
    It’s striking how easy it is for the pro-life wing to fall silent when it comes to discussions about war and torture.
    But these are the only questions that matter during a Bush Presidency. Who are we going to kill, for what reasons, and how many? And the killing won’t recede until decent people in large enough numbers find a way to make their goals of common decency mainstream.
    The disempowerment that is pervading the collective psyche comes from feeling that human nature as it is and has been makes it unlikely for even tiny paradigm shifts to occur. That and the fact that every indicator points towards
    increasingly incomprehensible levels of death.
    9/11 generated a wave of worldwide villagehood for several days, till the buzzkill megaphone shat upon our sense of shared compassion. Forgiveness between the people of different nations is a threat to the established powers, who rely on a dehumanized caricature of the enemy to focus national pride and righteous vengeance.
    The Tsunami seemed like another opportunity to wake up and embrace a better, more sane approach to our problems. An acknowledgement to the god of nature and her forced meditation on impermanence. Yes, we get it once again, we will try to remember this time.
    I have no hope for the future, but that is only because I have an aversion to hope. Hope tends to distract attention away from the immediately necessary work. What will be happening in the future, as in the now: we will all be sojourning through a strange land for a cosmic blink, defining the universe through our individual actions, driven by various desires and ambitions.
    And the only thing keeping the world from destroying itself is the mysterious spirit which peers out through every pair of eyes.

  • nebulous

    But I could be wrong.

  • Michael Shaw


    I see no need for qualification. Your original comment is both inspired and inspiring. Afterall, what kind of a world do we live in where killing is taken for granted? Part of my motivation for this site is to restore more immediate “sense” to acts that have become so abstracted and estranged.

    Your image of the “buzzkill” megaphone made me think of a political art installation called “The Red Megaphone.” It represents the idea that the people might have some kind of equivalent way of being heard. Here are a few links to see it:

    Red Megaphone 1, Red Megaphone 2

  • jr

    Bunch of whining Libgressives; don’t you know that ‘freedom’s on the march?’ Ask any Bush apologist; the end will always justify the means, and being the worst President in history is ‘hard work;’ except he makes it look so damn easy.

  • Just Some Liberal Cynic

    I’m neither artist nor art critic…but seems to me that even as courtroom art goes, these drawings are pretty crude. The two profile views look like the kind of thing students sketch absent-mindedly during boring lectures. Something seems skewed in the perspective of the 3/4 view of the witness and detail in the glowering judge makes the rest of the first scene look like an after-thought. Could it be that the quality of these drawings serve as the medium for the message: “You don’t really want to know about all this stuff. It’s not tidy, it’s uninteresting and lacks any real substance.”

  • bob crane

    To state the obvious, a crucial consideration to the waves of attention, then muffling of the torture scandals is the nature of our current heightened nationalism. As with the rising tide of car flags over the six months following 11 Sep and then more recently (say past 8 months or so) of the rising tide of car ribbons, the torture scandals would naturally cause the reverse effect.
    Attention to and criticism of the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the other US (and British) facilities in use for the ‘War on Terror’ has, if not factual, an appearance of criticism of our enlisted soldiers in toto. The current tact of the military (via the administration and DoD – I suppose) to place the blame, not on the policies which enabled them and their superiors who either were neglegent in caring for the soldiers (allowing these youngsters the open reign to pursue brutality like this is equally hurtful and tragic to their own psyches and lives – not to mention future consequences for our own captured solders) and inmates, or ordered (or implied) the perpetration of these atrocities but on the perpetrators themselves. This facilitates, condones and naturally helps to elicit a natural association with attention of these crimes with criticism of the enlisted personnel themselves.
    As far as my own opinion goes this helps to enable a defense and continuation of these policies. Unfortunate, but how I see it, quite effective.

  • Francis Deblauwe

    An argument in favor of the “lack of visuals” theory: have you noticed how the British Museum report on the damage caused by the Coalition military camp at the archaeological site of Babylon (for the original media report, see The Guardian, Jan. 15) has, esp. in the US, had hardly any follow-up in the media? After all, you can’t easily/safely go over there to film. It also suffered from all the hoopla surrounding the inauguration—by the way, why a 2nd inauguration? in most countries, if a president is re-elected, he just goes on and that’s it, his old oath of office is still valid. On my The 2003- Iraq War & Archaeology site (tracking this issue for almost 2 years now) you can read all about Babylon and more.

  • joe foster

    just like the military to cut and run on a soldier. Specialist Grainer was the bad apple? Right, when I was in the military privates and specialists made the decisions in regards to policy and tactics. And senior NCO’s and officers abided by the decisions made by the privates. right.. shit rolls down hill and Grainer was at the bottom of the hill.

  • Michael Shaw


    Your dedication on behalf of these antiquities is truly impressive.

  • Francis Deblauwe

    Thanks, Michael. Too bad a lot of images I hyperlink-and-pull on my web site all too quickly disappear from the web or migrate behind pay-only walls. Still, I am all too aware of their power not to include them as much as possible even if they have a short shelf-life. So far, I have only had one photo agency claiming copyright and asking me to take down a few linked images. Have you seen my Satire & Humor page? It’s been slim pickings as of late: I guess humor and Iraq don’t go together very well no more…

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