In the Mirror of Abu Ghraib

Philipgourevitch_15 In this week’s TPM Book Club, a discussion of Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure. Gourevitch:

A hundred years ago in Boston, the Congo Reform Association published a pamphlet by Mark Twain called “King Leopold’s Soliloquy, A Defense of His Congo Rule.” The text takes the form of a monologue by the Belgian monarch, as he reads through a stack of protest literature, describing crimes perpetrated by his colonial agents against his Congolese subjects: torture, abduction, enslavement, starvation, mutilation, extermination. “Blister the meddlesome missionaries!” the king fulminates. “They seem to be always around, always spying, always eye-witnessing the happenings; and everything they see they commit to paper.” But, even as he rails, Leopold comforts himself with the boast that he has never come across a critic (however truthful) whom he could not discredit, stifle, or convert by the application of force or cash. Then he comes upon a pamphlet that contains photographs of mutilated Congolese, and he quakes before the evidence of this “most powerful enemy” – “the incorruptible Kodak”:

The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn’t bribe… the pictures get sneaked around everywhere, in spite of all we can do to ferret them out and suppress them. Ten thousand pulpits and ten thousand presses are saying the good word for me all the time and placidly and convincingly denying the mutilations. Then that trivial little Kodak, that a child can carry in its pocket, gets up, uttering never a word, and knocks them dumb!

But even as he frets about the dangers of photography, and sees himself exposed in the grisly images of his mutilated subjects, the old Belgian discovers the true consolation of the political criminal. After all, he tells himself, the world’s response to the pictures will surely be to shudder and turn away. With that thought he bucks himself up, defiant as ever. “Why certainly,” he says. “That is my protection… I know the human race.”

Shuddering and turning away. We did it again at Abu Ghraib.