Politics & Media
Jun 24, 2009, 09:49AM

Helen Thomas, Still Kicking Ass

On the "Neda video" and Obama's decision to not release U.S. torture photos. 

The single most significant event in shaping worldwide revulsion towards the violence of the Iranian government has been the video of the young Iranian woman bleeding to death, the so-called "Neda video."  Like so many iconic visual images before it -- from My Lai, fire hoses and dogs unleashed at civil rights protesters, Abu Ghraib -- that single image has done more than the tens of thousands of words to dramatize the violence and underscore the brutality of the state response.  
For the last question at his press conference yesterday, Obama was asked by CNN's Suzanne Malveaux about his reaction to that video and to reports that Iranians are refraining from protesting due to fear of such violence.  As Obama was answering -- attesting to how "heartbreaking" he found the video; how "anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust" about the violence; and paying homage to "certain international norms of freedom of speech, freedom of expression" -- Helen Thomas, who hadn't been called on, interrupted to ask Obama to reconcile those statements about the Iranian images with his efforts at home to suppress America's own torture photos ("Then why won't you allow the photos --").
The President quickly cut her off with these remarks:
THE PRESIDENT: Hold on a second, Helen. That's a different question. (Laughter.)
The White House Press corps loves to laugh condescendingly at Helen Thomas because, tenaciously insisting that our sermons to others be applied to our own Government, she acts like a real reporter (exactly as -- according to Politico's Josh Gerstein -- White House reporters "could be seen rolling their eyes and shifting in their seats" when Obama called on The Huffington Post's Nico Pitney, who has done some of the most tireless work on Iran, gave voice to actual Iranians, and posed one of the toughest questions at the Press Conference).  The premise of Thomas' question was compelling and (contrary to Obama's dismissal) directly relevant to Obama's answers:  how is it possible for Obama to pay dramatic tribute to the "heartbreaking" impact of that Neda video in bringing to light the injustices of the Iranian Government's conduct while simultaneously suppressing images that do the same with regard to our own Government's conduct?
The reason Thomas' point matters so much is potently highlighted by a new poll from The Washington Post/ABC News released today -- not only the responses, but even more so, the question itself (click to enlarge image):
Half of the American citizenry is now explicitly pro-torture (and the question even specified that the torture would be used not against Terrorists, but "terrorist suspects").  Just think about what that says about how coarsened and barbaric our populace is and what types of abuses that entrenched mentality is certain to spawn in the future, particularly in the event of another terrorist attack.  But even more meaningful is the question itself -- it's now normal and standard for pollsters to include among the various questions about garden-variety political controversies (health care, tax and spending policies, clean energy approaches) a question about whether one believes the U.S. Government should torture people (are you for or against government torture?)  That's how normalized torture has become, how completely eroded the taboo is in the United States.
It would be one thing for the Obama administration to argue that there is no value in releasing torture photos specifically, and in investigating and imposing accountability for past abuses generally, if there were consensus among Americans that torture is wrong, barbaric and -- as Ronald Reagan put it (hypocritically but still emphatically) -- "an abhorrent practice" justifiable by "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever."   But we have the opposite of that consensus:  we have an ongoing debate over torture that is fluid, vibrant and far from settled, with half the population embracing the twisted and morally depraved pro-torture position.  For that reason, to suppress evidence of what our torture actually looks like and the brutality it entails -- particularly graphic evidence -- is to make it easier for that pro-torture position to thrive, just as it would have been easier for the Iranian Government to slaughter protesters with impunity if they had succeeded in suppressing the images of what they were doing (it was this same dynamic that led the Israeli Army to defy its own Supreme Court and forcibly block reporters and photographers from entering Gaza and which caused the embedded American press to suppress images of the massive civilian deaths which their protectors, the U.S. military, was causing in Iraq). 
Americans are able to perceive torture clinically and in the abstract when they're able to endorse it without seeing its effects.  They're able to delude themselves that the extreme abuses at Abu Ghraib were unauthorized aberrations -- rather than the inevitable by-products of the policies they support -- because the photos showing that those abuses were systematically applied at American detention facilities around the world are being suppressed.  It's almost certainly true that few pro-torture Americans are aware that the policies they support -- and that were approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government -- have led to numerous detainee deaths, because investigations into such matters are being blocked; court proceedings impeded; and media discussions confined almost exclusively to questions about "water in nostrils."  If Americans want to endorse government torture, they should not be allowed to avert their gaze from what they're causing and be spared the facts and details of what is done.
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On a related note, the critique I wrote of the NPR Ombudsman's defense of their decision not to use the word "torture" has been discussed in numerous places.  There has also been an outburst of angry (though highly substantive and civil) criticisms from NPR listeners in the comment section of her column.  As a result, we're in the process of inviting the Ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, to appear with me on Salon Radio to discuss her rationale.  Ostensibly, the Ombudsman is not meant to be a spokesperson for NPR but a voice of NPR listeners.  I would hope, then, that she'd be willing to engage and discuss the reaction which her column triggered (at the very least in her column, though even better, in an interactive discussion).  I will post updates of any responses we receive to the invitation extended to her.

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