Saturday, February 18, 2006

Free Speech and Truth

Amid the hoopla of the Danish political cartoons caricaturing the prophet Mohammad, with all of the shrieking from the American Right about freedom of the press and "those hypocritical Muslims print anti-Semitic cartoons, so there, neiner, neiner," comes the resounding thud of Abu Ghraib. I think Joan Walsh, Salon's editor in chief, hits the nail on the head rather well:
There's something essentially wrong about equating the Mohammed cartoons and the Abu Ghraib photos, anyway. The former are Op-Ed pieces commissioned by editors; the latter are images of actual events. We can and do condemn the hate and violence the cartoons provoked. But as Americans we are directly complicit in the violence that took place at a prison run by the American military. It is our story in a way that Danish cartoons can never be.
The Right in America is squealing like a stuck pig over Salon's publication of these pictures, yet are these images not demonstrating the same lesson as the cartoons, that free speech means speech that may infuriate you, that may cause you pain, but which you are not allowed to suppress? Oh, but it's different when the offensive images in question document crimes against humanity, and are not just juvenile nose-thumbing. Then we can't do it becuse it makes our side look bad.

And when our side has done something bad? Gah, that sentence leaves a foul taste in my mouth. And when agents of our government document their acts of torture and general brutality on helpless individuals? Walsh again:
As Walter Shapiro argued so movingly in his piece explaining why we ran the photos, the point is not merely that Americans tortured these prisoners in our custody; the point is that our military personnel went to such great lengths to capture the humiliation on camera.
The truly terrifying part of Abu Ghraib is that, to this day, far too many Americans think the wrong is in showing the pictures, not the torture itself. They don't like free speech that isn't polite, that makes for awkward pauses in the conversation. They are fine with the idea that children were raped, adults murdered, people of all kinds beaten, shocked, burned, shot, and mutilated. We can see that in the stupid grins of the soldiers in the photos. They just don't want their perversion mentioned where the neighbors can hear.

Free speech that inflames the "Arab Street" and makes scary pictures to be shown on domestic TV to show what beasts those furriners be is OK. Free speech that documents systematic violation of human rights, scary pictures of what US citizens are capable of doing to innocents when given the right incentives by their leaders, that is unpatriotic.

Thus, the cynicism of the Right, and of American apologists generally. "Free speech" is just another propaganda tool to them, something to wave around to avoid the real McCoy. Despite court orders, the Cheney administration continues to try to suppress the truth of what happened at Abu Ghraib. Free speech occasionally (actually fairly often) results in the stupidity of the Danish political cartoons - crude jibes at others for the purpose of pissing those people off. But the need for free speech is to serve truth, to get into those situations where the powerful and arrogant are doing what they should not, and to lay bare thier perfidy.

The truth has always been out there, however. Abu Ghraib was inevitable from the start. Almost three years ago, I wrote this:
You chicken hawks have put my soldiers in an impossible situation. You horribly miscalculated the Iraqis. You have sent too small a force to deal with a guerilla war situation, forcing them to conduct battles in urban areas where civilians are going to be killed. You have left them under-manned in the middle of an incredibly inhospitable environment. You have set them up not for failure but for atrocity.
It was always already there. And that is a truth that will not go away.


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