A Power Equal to a Thousand Words
Editor’s Note: As President Barack Obama and his administration continue to make concessions to Republicans in a quixotic bid for bipartisanship, possibly their most troubling decision has been the perpetuation of a war-crimes cover-up.
In this guest essay, filmmaker David Kasper reflects on Obama’s concealment of photographic evidence and on the power of images to convey hard truths:
It may be that President Obama and those who surround him are fighting a losing battle in their effort to conceal and leave behind us the crimes of the Bush era.
Obama’s advisers insist that any public attention to the Bush abuses will only anger the Republicans and make it harder for Obama to accomplish his political agenda.
Obama's desire to "look forward and not backward” has turned into a full-scale effort at concealment and cover-up of Bush war crimes by whatever means available. But the momentum for investigation and prosecution may have grown beyond their ability to stop it.
There are revelations about to become public despite efforts to keep them hidden and stall their release, including an explosive CIA Inspector General’s report on detainee abuse that has been kept under wraps since 2004.
The report documents abuses so grievous that Attorney General Eric Holder says he will name a special prosecutor. But it is widely feared that he will put “blinders” on the prosecutor to ensure that only low-level interrogators are prosecuted, letting the creators and implementers of the torture policy walk free.
In a Freedom of Information Act suit brought by the ACLU, dozens of photos of detainee abuse and torture were ordered released by a federal court in September of last year. Rather than release the photos, Obama’s Justice Department has appealed to the Supreme Court to keep them secret.
It is said that the Nazi officials who were on trial at Nuremberg following World War II lost their arrogance once films of the concentration camp horrors were shown in open court.
I can remember vividly in 1969, when my cinema professor at the University of Southern California, Arthur Knight, showed the Nazi concentration camp films to his class. None of us had seen anything like it before, and I haven’t seen anything comparable since.
Any attempt to describe the carnage falls far short of actually seeing it.
Professor Knight made a point of exposing all of his beginning students to these films as a way of demonstrating the power of imagery. The Nazi horrors could have been more easily obscured and forgotten if not for the undeniability and shocking reality of the films and photos.
The Rodney King beating would have been just another item on the LA police blotter, had it not been captured on video for the public to see with their own eyes. Most of us would not know of a place called Abu Ghraib, if Army Reservist Joe Darby hadn’t decided to turn in the photos of detainee abuse that he discovered at the prison.
Is this part of the reason why the Obama administration is so intent on stopping photos of the Bush torture program from being released? Is it because they don’t want us to think about it, or even know or about it?
As Obama’s CIA Director Leon Panetta recently said, “It’s time to move on.” In other words, the less we know about it, and the quicker we forget about it, the better.
It's one thing to obstruct the prosecution of war crimes for whatever political ends. It is quite another to keep the crimes themselves from even being known, which is exactly what Obama is doing.
David Kasper is Executive Director of the Empowerment Project, a non-profit media center and documentary production group in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. As a filmmaker, he has been involved in hundreds of film and video projects over the past 30 years. He is best known for his 1992 Oscar-winning documentary "The Panama Deception."
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