The Rules of (Citizen) Engagement: Lessons from Abu Ghraib to Wikileaks

Jennifer Braudaway

By Jennifer Braudaway In 2008, Errol Morris released a documentary film exploring the relationship between the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and the photographic images which made them famous. The film, which included extensive interviews with soldiers involved in the abuses, was called Standard Operating Procedure, and the moral of the story was that: a) images can be both revealing and concealing, and b) the immoral events of Abu Ghraib were not isolated incidents perpetrated by a few bad apples, but a standard element of war. The Abu Ghraib abuses offer a useful lens with which to view the Wikileaks video Collateral Murder (below), that was released last week to heated public reaction. Like the Abu Ghraib photographs, the Wikileaks video comprised a bona fide media event, depicting seemingly callous, trigger-happy American Apache pilots gunning down 12 Iraqi civilians, who appeared to pose no threat. We live in a culture that vehemently celebrates the American soldier, so I am reluctant to dissuade others from criticizing the soldiers’ actions in the video; that kind of criticism is legitimate, responsible, and sorely needed in a society that has adopted the glittering generality “support our troops!” as its bipartisan battle cry. Innocent people were killed or wounded, including journalists and children, and that fact should not be carelessly chalked up to the fog of war. However, much of the commentary surrounding the video has unfortunately been focused on its more sensational aspects, including the Wikileaks organization itself; and the indictment of individual soldiers plays into that rhetoric. It’s much easier to identify the atrocities of war as isolated events perpetrated by particular personalities, than to see them for what they are - normal, everyday parts of war. As Glenn Greenwald notes in his column at "This incident is commonplace, not unusual, because it's what war is and it's what has been happening in our wars throughout the decade. We just don't usually see it, and this time we did. That -- and the fact that Reuters journalists were killed and it thus generated more pressure than normal -- are the only things that make it unusual." Media events like the Wikileaks video and the photographs from Abu Ghraib allow us to witness the horrors of war, but in their sensationalized and/or poorly contextualized form, they can also allow us to think of them as merely events, not standard operating procedure. Indeed, part of the problem is the quality of our mainstream media coverage. Perhaps if we saw more of these types of “events,” we would be less inclined to think of them as isolated. But that withstanding, it is the quality of context that we give this type of coverage, that helps determine the quality of public discourse and engagement. The lessons learned from Abu Ghraib are unfortunately not the lessons that should have been learned; what happened was the public found a scapegoat in the soldiers, the Department of Defense maintained the incident as an exception to the rule, and the public soon forgot. And while President Obama was pressured to set a closing date for Guantanamo Bay Prison, little was said about his expansion of Bagram Air Base where similar reports of prisoner abuses and tortures have occurred. In other words, very little in the way of institutional change was achieved by the Abu Ghraib media event, and in light of this, one must wonder what will come as a result of the Wikileaks video. There is a thin line between the unconstructive practice of transferring blame from the individual to the institution, and using specific events to focus attention on larger social and institutional problems. The news media in particular have a responsibility to carefully navigate this line with the understanding that context is one of the primary ways journalists provide value to the public discourse. If media are to engage the public in the issues that are most important – such as the real, ongoing nature of the wars we are involved in – then they must not rely on isolated images from the frontlines to tell the story. Journalists must tell the story themselves.

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Jennifer Braudaway is a Winter 2010 Web intern.
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