The Camera Never Blinks
 
Sitting on my desk is a little Olympus digital camera. It takes great pictures, is smarter than I am and cost a couple of hundred dollars. It will even record 30 seconds of low-resolution video. For a few dollars more I can buy bigger memory and record several hundred pictures or a few minutes of video.

I can upload the snaps to my computer and, from there, onto the Internet.

 

The nasty photographs of Iraqi prisoner abuse and the horrible video of the beheading of Nicholas Berg could all have been recorded on my cheap little camera.

 

Since the American Civil War, the press, the military and individual soldiers have been capturing images of battle, comrades and prisoners. The clumsy daguerreotypes of the Civil War created the compelling pictures which made Ken Burns "The Civil War" so moving. Historian Niall Ferguson illustrated his striking analysis of World War One, The Pity of War, with the macabre trophy photographs taken by private soldiers in the mud of Flanders. Collections of soldiers' and pilots' World War II snapshots taken with Kodak's venerable Brownie camera or, from the other side, with Leica products, are sold for high prices on E-Bay. The true horror of the concentration camps was made starkly evident when the photographs of the stacks of spindly-legged corpses hit the pages of Life magazine. The war in Viet Nam may well have been ended by the shot of the little girl running naked from her village and the shot of the South Vietnamese National Police Chief with his pistol at the head of an alleged Viet Cong. Gulf War One, with the gun sight videos and the green glow of the night vision equipped cameras looked like a badly designed video game. It was difficult to believe people were actually in the gracefully imploding black and white blockhouses.

 

For much of the world, pictures still hold their pre-digital truth. In the Arab press, the subtleties of Photoshop and the miracles of simple cropping, are reserved for allegations that it was not really Saddam in the spider hole. And, as the editors of England's Daily Mirror are finding out to their dismay, it is astonishingly easy to fake photographs, digital or conventional.

 

Seeing a photograph is not, contrary to naïve opinion, the same as seeing something with one's own eyes. A hundredth of a second of reality deprives that reality of any context. Even unedited, unspun, a still photograph tells a compelling but not a complete story.

 

The whole story of the abuse at Abu Ghraib will have to be put together from the testimony of the abusers and the abused. It may be as it is depicted in the photographs. It may be worse. It may turn out that there was, in fact, a tacit approval of the abuse from the officers in command. And it may be that worse abuse, real torture rather than humiliation and psychological games, occurred off camera.

 

The beheading of Berg, on the other hand, is complete in itself. Here there is no room for spin or investigation. There is no context which can make the deed more horrific or somehow justified. Here the camera did not blink as it recorded the slaughter of a man for propaganda purposes. Like the execution of Daniel Pearl, Berg's beheading was, from beginning to end, the use of a man's life as a prop in a particularly evil political play.

 

The answer to the Berg execution needs to be as dramatic and as absolute as the video itself. The perpetrators must be hunted down and either captured or killed. If captured, after a fair judicial process, the perpetrators must be subject to the full force of Iraqi law.

 

Precisely the same thing must happen to the morons who shot the photographs in Abu Ghraib. Recognizing, of course, that these men and women, so far as we know, did not kill or, in any serious sense of the term, torture, anyone.

 

Each process must be transparent and each must deal with the essential evil which underlies the images.

 

The Al Qaeda murderers took care to have their digital camera in position for the Pearl and Berg executions. But the technology that underlies those cameras could and should be used to prevent the abuse which occurred at Abu Ghraib.

 

In North America video surveillance is ubiquitous. Use an ATM your on camera, go to a mall or a bank or, in some cities, a street corner and you are likely to have your picture taken.

 

The day is coming when virtually every frontline soldier -- and many of the smart munitions -- will be sending live video images back up the chain of command. Policemen in the United States routinely have dash mounted video cameras recording their arrests.

 

The technology of surveillance has become astonishingly cheap. A few hundred security cameras and the wiring, hardware and software to hook them up would be no more than a few hundred thousand dollars. So, why were the soldiers of Abu Ghraib not on tape?

 

Positioning security cameras throughout the prison at Abu Ghraib -- and every other detention facility in Iraq and elsewhere -- would ensure two things. First that the guards would know they were being watched. In itself this would tend to reduce the potential for any sort of abuse, sanctioned or unsanctioned. Second, it would protect those guards and their officers from the torrent of false allegations which the current situation will give rise to.

 

It is a cruel pity that surveillance measures seem not to have been in place at Abu Ghraib; but it would be simply feckless not to install a complete, full coverage system immediately


 
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