The Neda Video, Torture, and the Truth-Revealing Power of Images

The single most significant event in shaping worldwide revulsion
towards the violence of the Iranian government has been the video of
the young Iranian woman bleeding to death, the so-called "Neda video."
Like so many iconic visual images before it -- from My Lai, fire hoses
and dogs unleashed at civil rights protesters, Abu Ghraib -- that
single image has done more than the tens of thousands of words to
dramatize the violence and underscore the brutality of the state

The single most significant event in shaping worldwide revulsion
towards the violence of the Iranian government has been the video of
the young Iranian woman bleeding to death, the so-called "Neda video."
Like so many iconic visual images before it -- from My Lai, fire hoses
and dogs unleashed at civil rights protesters, Abu Ghraib -- that
single image has done more than the tens of thousands of words to
dramatize the violence and underscore the brutality of the state

For the last question at his press conference yesterday,
Obama was asked by CNN's Suzanne Malveaux about his reaction to that
video and to reports that Iranians are refraining from protesting due
to fear of such violence. As Obama was answering -- attesting to how
"heartbreaking" he found the video; how "anybody who sees it knows that
there's something fundamentally unjust" about the violence; and paying
homage to "certain international norms of freedom of speech, freedom of
expression" -- Helen Thomas, who hadn't been called on, interrupted to
ask Obama to reconcile those statements about the Iranian images with
his efforts at home to suppress America's own torture photos ("Then why
won't you allow the photos --").

The President quickly cut her off with these remarks:

THE PRESIDENT: Hold on a second, Helen. That's a different question. (Laughter.)

White House Press corps loves to laugh condescendingly at Helen Thomas
because, tenaciously insisting that our sermons to others be applied to
our own Government, she acts like a real reporter (exactly as -- according to Politico's Josh Gerstein -- White House reporters "could be seen rolling their eyes and shifting in their seats" when Obama called on The Huffington Post's
Nico Pitney, who has done some of the most tireless work on Iran, gave
voice to actual Iranians, and posed one of the toughest questions at
the Press Conference). The premise of Thomas' question was compelling
and (contrary to Obama's dismissal) directly relevant to Obama's
answers: how is it possible for Obama to pay dramatic tribute to the
"heartbreaking" impact of that Neda video in bringing to light the
injustices of the Iranian Government's conduct while simultaneously
suppressing images that do the same with regard to our own Government's

The reason Thomas' point matters so much is potently highlighted by a new poll from The Washington Post/ABC News released today -- not only the responses, but even more so, the question itself (click to enlarge image):

of the American citizenry is now explicitly pro-torture (and the
question even specified that the torture would be used not against
Terrorists, but "terrorist suspects"). Just think
about what that says about how coarsened and barbaric our populace is
and what types of abuses that entrenched mentality is certain to spawn
in the future, particularly in the event of another terrorist attack.
But even more meaningful is the question itself -- it's now normal and
standard for pollsters to include among the various questions about
garden-variety political controversies (health care, tax and spending
policies, clean energy approaches) a question about whether one believes the U.S. Government should torture people (are you for or against government torture?) That's how normalized torture has become, how completely eroded the taboo is in the United States.

would be one thing for the Obama administration to argue that there is
no value in releasing torture photos specifically, and in investigating
and imposing accountability for past abuses generally, if there were
consensus among Americans that torture is wrong, barbaric and -- as Ronald Reagan put it (hypocritically but still emphatically) -- "an abhorrent practice" justifiable by "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever."
But we have the opposite of that consensus: we have an ongoing debate
over torture that is fluid, vibrant and far from settled, with half the
population embracing the twisted and morally depraved pro-torture
position. For that reason, to suppress evidence of what our torture
actually looks like and the brutality it entails -- particularly
graphic evidence -- is to make it easier for that pro-torture position
to thrive, just as it would have been easier for the Iranian Government
to slaughter protesters with impunity if they had succeeded in
suppressing the images of what they were doing (it was this same
dynamic that led the Israeli Army to defy its own Supreme Court and forcibly block reporters and photographers from entering Gaza and which caused the embedded American press to suppress images of the massive civilian deaths which their protectors, the U.S. military, was causing in Iraq).

are able to perceive torture clinically and in the abstract when
they're able to endorse it without seeing its effects. They're able to
delude themselves that the extreme abuses at Abu Ghraib were
unauthorized aberrations -- rather than the inevitable by-products of
the policies they support -- because the photos showing that those
abuses were systematically applied at American detention facilities
around the world are being suppressed. It's almost certainly true that
few pro-torture Americans are aware that the policies they support --
and that were approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government --
have led to numerous detainee deaths, because investigations into such
matters are being blocked; court proceedings impeded; and media
discussions confined almost exclusively to questions about "water in
nostrils." If Americans want to endorse government torture, they
should not be allowed to avert their gaze from what they're causing and
be spared the facts and details of what is done.

* * * * *

On a related note, the critique I wrote of the NPR Ombudsman's defense of their decision not to use the word "torture" has been discussed in numerous places. There has also been an outburst of angry (though highly substantive and civil) criticisms from NPR listeners in the comment section of her column. As a result, we're in the process of inviting the Ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, to appear with me on Salon Radio
to discuss her rationale. Ostensibly, the Ombudsman is not meant to be
a spokesperson for NPR but a voice of NPR listeners. I would hope,
then, that she'd be willing to engage and discuss the reaction which
her column triggered (at the very least in her column, though even
better, in an interactive discussion). I will post updates of any
responses we receive to the invitation extended to her.

UPDATE: The media-manufactured (and, as always, right-wing-fueled) pseudo-controversy over Obama's "pre-coordinated" selection of Huffington Post's
Pitney to ask a question is revealingly inane for many obvious
reasons: Pitney's question was one of the most adversarial Obama was
asked, and the establishment media reaction clearly stems from
resentment over their perceived status being undermined by allowing The Huffington Post
and, more to the point, an actual Iranian (rather than a self-anointed
reporter-spokesperson for Iranians) to ask the President a question.

equally revealing is their self-glorifying and delusional belief that
only establishment media reporters are sufficiently Serious to be
entitled to ask the President questions -- even as they fill Press
Conferences with petty, vapid questions and otherwise endlessly reveal
themselves to be substance-free and frivolous. Along those lines, The Washington Postclaimed that "budgetary constraints" played a role in the firing of actually serious journalist Dan Froomkin, yet The Post spends money to produce and promote things like the below-posted video
from "reporters" Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza that has to be seen to
be believed. Be forewarned: many will consider the video too petty to
bother posting and virtually everyone will find it painfully irritating
to watch. I agree with those assessments, but there is still something
about it -- the oozing smugness, the view of politics as a juvenile
game, the desperation to be above it all and too sophisticated to care,
the total lack of self-awareness in failing to realize how
embarrassingly unfunny it is -- that makes it a tour de force in illustrating what and who so much of the Washington media really are:

were told by NPR that the Ombudsman is out of the office this week and
her office will get back to us by Monday with a response.
Additionally, someone from the Ombudsman's office also just left the
following note in the still-growing comment section to her column:

Dear Listeners;

Shepard is out of the office this week. I work closely with her and
have been keeping up with all of your comments. Rest assured that when
she returns she will respond to you.

In the meantime, I
wanted to let you know that there is someone on the other end reading
and receiving your phone calls and emails.


Anna Tauzin

Office of the Ombudsman

feedback and pressure are obviously having some effect. I hope it
continues; I would look forward to the opportunity to discuss Shepard's
column with her in an interview.

UPDATE III: Bridging Update I and Update II: the Post's Dana Milbank was, completely unsurprisingly, one of the leaders in objecting to the Huffington Post/Pitney question. He's probably best advised to stick to Post-funded vaudeville videos. The Nation's Ari Melber has an excellent analysis of the petulant, self-absorped objections giving rise to the latest media chatter about this empty little scandal of the day.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 Salon