Cover

COLLATERAL IMAGE

With the Iraq prison abuse scandal, two disparate theatres—war and showbizhave been thrown into grotesque juxtaposition,

BRIAN D. JOHNSON May 24 2004
Cover

COLLATERAL IMAGE

With the Iraq prison abuse scandal, two disparate theatres—war and showbizhave been thrown into grotesque juxtaposition,

BRIAN D. JOHNSON May 24 2004

COLLATERAL IMAGE

With the Iraq prison abuse scandal, two disparate theatres—war and showbizhave been thrown into grotesque juxtaposition,

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

SO FAR THIS YEAR, the biggest controversies in American pop culture have raged around two events of the flesh: an epic depiction of torture in The Passion of the Christ and a fleeting exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast at the Super Bowl. Both gave rise to fierce debates about what’s pornographic, and permissible, in the name of art. In American political culture, meanwhile, as the body count climbed in Iraq, a president staked his future on what’s permissible, and forgivable, in the name of freedom. You’d like to think that these two theatres—show business and war—would be unrelated. But with the Iraq prison abuse scandal, they’ve been thrown into grotesque juxtaposition.

In a Barcelona hotel room, en route to the Cannes festival, I found myself riveted to Donald Rumsfeld’s Senate performance on CNN. Talk about method acting. With astonishing candour, the U.S. defense secretary talked about how he’d read reports of Americans torturing and humiliating their prisoners, but actually seeing the photos elevated his alarm to a code red of concern. The pictures, he said, were “radioactive.”

Here was the man in charge of the world’s largest military machine, a force responsible for untold civilian deaths in the past year, freely admitting that the “appearance” of an atrocity was of graver consequence than the atrocity itself—that insult mattered more than injury. In political terms, of course, Rumsfeld was right. Slaughtered civilians—in Iraq, Sudan or Tibet—register as ciphers in the eye of the media. They’re not a story, just an unfortunate by-product of war. What Rumsfeld spelled out with jarring clarity is that the collateral image has a more devastating impact than what’s euphemistically called collateral damage. His choice of metaphor is telling—with the words “radioactive” and “firestorm,” he expressed his frustration with the power of uncontainable optics. The military war is conventional; the optics war is nuclear. And the hidden weapon of mass destruction that triggered this firestorm was the simple point-and-shoot camera.

Whether the atrocities were renegade acts or part of an orchestrated policy, the urge to photograph them seems a grotesque caricature of colonial tourism. Which is not to say that worse things haven’t happened in the dungeons of various dictatorships. What makes this abuse unprecedented is how freely—how democratically—it was documented, as a sadistic twist on home entertainment by Americans abroad.

From Richard Nixon to Paris Hilton, people show a strange compulsion to record their own scandalous behaviour. Digital photography and video have created a world of self-surveillance. And like the Internet, this web of voyeurism is uncontrollable. After all the care the Pentagon took to manage Iraq coverage through embedded journalists, its own ranks have vaporized the mirage. Bush has tried hard to portray his war as clean and righteous, a surgical assault on terrorist cancer. But war is always dirty. And now it appears positively pornographic, mixing sex and torture in images that can only cause the cancer to metastasize: with the videotaped beheading of a U.S. contractor, the enemy has actually upped the ante. Some suggest the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib, relic of Saddam Hussein’s regime, be demolished, just as Saddam’s statue was toppled—as if images of atrocity could be ritually erased by a spectacle of annihilation.

The pornography of war and the war on pornography at home can be seen as two sides of the same moral currency, stamped with the same fig leaf of pixilation. In America, a righteous love of freedom is tempered by a puritanical suspicion of sex. You can take the kids to see The Passion’s stomach-churning scenes of torture, but a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s breast might scar them for life. While the movies portray vigilante violence as the highest form of heroism, sexual transgression lurks as America’s dark menace. It was the stain that brought down Bill Clinton. Now it’s the bogeyman that stalks the White House of George W. Bush, who’s seeing the naked terror of his war, as snapshots from hell, coming back to haunt him. liH