Scandal is the Issue

From Mark Danner at NYRB:

If we have learned anything this past decade it is that “the people,” that vaunted repository of public good—”the people always find out”—the people are willing and able to live with quite a lot. They read, watch television, grunt a pox on all their houses, and turn back to their dinners. Thanks to the efficiency of our age of scandal we now know as never before what the public is willing to live with. “Now you have shown independence, commendable independence,” Barack Obama said to John McCain in the third debate, “on some key issues—torture, for example.” Torture has metamorphosed, these past few years, from an execrable war crime to a “key issue.” From something forbidden by international treaty and condemned by domestic law to…something to be debated. Something one can stand on either side of. Something we can live with.

The story of how this happened is long and elaborate but one thing is clear: it has not happened for lack of revelation. The Abu Ghraib scandal broke in the spring of 2004. The images of Hooded Man, Leashed Man, Man Menaced by Dog—all quickly became “iconic,” the stuff of end-of-the-year news tableaux and faded murals on the walls of minor cities in the Middle East. This first and last occasion when torture became vivid, fertile scandal—when torture emerged, thanks to the photographs, as that most valuable of products: televisual scandal—came and went in the spring and summer of 2004, leaving a harvest of rapidly aging images and leaked documents. Those documents—many hundreds of pages, which told in great and precise detail the story of how United States officials, from the President on down, came in the wake of the September 11 attacks to order Americans to torture—were quickly published by journalists and writers, myself included, who no doubt expected that the investigative committees, the televised hearings, and the prison sentences would quickly follow.[2]

In the event, the investigations did come, a dozen or more of them, and their very proliferation was the means by which the story was converted from shocking crime into perpetual news, then minor story, and then, at last, “key issue.” But for a handful of hapless soldiers—the smallest of small fish —there were no real prosecutions, no images of high officials in handcuffs. The leakers, who had risked their careers to make the documents public, must have been profoundly disappointed. For it was they, as it happened, who had committed one of the era’s signal crimes: unguarded idealism. At Guantánamo, at the “dark sites,” at various venues around the world, known and unknown, torture continued, even as it was studied and passed by due legislative oversight into the law of the land. Only the courts seemed, intermittently, to have a different idea. And all the while the torture story was well reported, mostly in the newspapers—for after that initial rush of photographs, which quickly became cliché, there followed nothing juicy enough to raise the story to the golden level of the televisual—and it continued to be reported even as it made its way through the complicated and mysterious transformational process by which a war crime becomes a “key issue.”

Read the rest of “Frozen Scandalhere

via 3 quarks daily

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