My name, apparently, has been besmirched again. And so has yours, if you’re an American citizen. 198 more times, at least, once for each of the abuse photos released yesterday by the Department of Defense. This is part of the logic underpinning the ACLU’s long struggle for the release of a large cache of photos documenting the mistreatment of prisoners by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. The common refrain is that Americans are entitled to know what kinds of harms have been perpetrated in our common name. In turn, this implies that the photos have been released on my behalf.
And I don’t want that. I have been arguing for years, in various ways, that Americans do not own these photographs, have no substantive entitlement to see them, no matter how incensed they might be by the content. If anyone has a claim over these images, it is the people who are pictured within them. Absent any indication that those people authorized the online release of these images, I don’t feel I have a right to see them.
This places me in a predicament. I don’t have a right to see them, but I do feel an ethical (and intellectual) urgency to make a claim against this form of transparency, and in order to know what I’m talking about, I need to look. And I have, and so exercised the same sort of sovereign authority – howsoever remotely – to exercise my interests, and felt obligations, over the rights of the detainees. The choice not to look might be a principled one, but it doesn’t do anything to redress the harm either of the abuse itself or of the release of the photos. In this way, by establishing looking and not-looking as functionally equivalent, the release of the photos nullifies them at the site of their reception, short-circuiting any politics of spectatorship.