Politics & Policy

Seeing, and Believing

The torture tapes the media are ignoring.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier this month, National Review Online obtained a four-minute video of Saddam-era torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Many of us here who discussed the matter are ourselves unable to watch the whole video. Some could not get beyond the furious, ecstatic chanting of torturers as they raised swords, celebrating their own dementia in the depths of a man-made hell. What to do with the video was a matter of debate here. On principle this is newsworthy–and weighing heavily on our deliberations was the fact that a group of United States senators held a press conference on June 2 during which they showed the horrific video and near no one covered it–in fact, to this date, I am aware of no mainstream news organization other than the New York Post yesterday–in an opinion column–that has even mentioned that this new, Department of Defense-provided, video exists and has been shown on the Hill. We also considered this: Some Westerners, including some who did not support the war in Iraq, frankly may not understand the evil that was the Saddam Hussein regime. You watch–or try to–the four-minute video and you see the unbearable evil that was–and that is no more because of the sacrifice of American and Coalition blood.

It’s too easy for Americans to forget what we are fighting against. The Daniel Pearl murder, the Nick Berg video, these visuals do remind us in ways mere wire stories, reporting pieces, and commentary can’t. In the case of the Pearl and Berg videos, NRO itself never provided links to the videos or the videos themselves. In that same vein, we are not introducing this Abu Ghraib video to public access. Though I can’t imagine more powerful images, they’re also of the sort no civilized man wants another to have to see. We will not be the ones who show them to you. The decision we came to was to report this news–the existence of this horrid tape–graphically, but without showing the actual video. It’s awful enough to read about.

It’s my hope that Nick Schulz’s piece will be a catalyst for more news stories on the nature of the regime that was in Iraq–the regime that American and Coalition blood have brought to an end.

You’ll notice too, that Schulz would have preferred you have a link to the video with his piece–I understand why. I want every American to know it exists and what is on it–which is why we asked Schulz to describe it to you. But I, for one, cannot be the conduit for bringing the actual footage in front of your eyes.

I urge you to read Nick Schulz’s piece, and write to your evening-news program or cable-news station of choice, your newspaper of record, or your favorite columnist: Ask them why this video hasn’t warranted a mention.

Kathryn Jean Lopez, Editor, National Review Online

“You don’t appreciate what happened in that prison until you see it.”–Aaron Brown, CNN News

Several weeks back, NRO’s Jonah Goldberg suggested the press should have practiced self-censorship and refrained from showing the pictures and videos of Iraqi prisoner abuse by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. CNN anchor Aaron Brown thought Goldberg’s notion mistaken and argued that major media outlets were correct to show footage of the abuse: “You don’t appreciate what happened in that prison,” Brown said, “until you see it.”

And whatever the merits of Goldberg’s argument, who, at this point, can doubt the veracity of Brown’s assertion? No mere rhetorical description of the humiliation that took place can match the emotional wallop of seeing what some demented U.S. soldiers did there.

But we’re currently undergoing our first significant test of what might be called journalism’s “Aaron Brown doctrine.” Two weeks ago, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators held a press conference at which they played a video of ritual prisoner torture by Saddam Hussein’s regime. As of this writing, the only mainstream media outlet that has mentioned it is the New York Post, in an opinion column by Deborah Orin. None of the 24-hour news networks, not America’s paper of record, etc., has deemed it newsworthy to reveal the details (or existence) of this video, much less elected to show clips or stills.

“So what?” you might be saying, “Everyone already knew Saddam’s goons tortured people. President Bush frequently talked about torture and rape rooms in his speeches both before and after the invasion. As such, seeing whatever actions there might be carried out by Baathists on video isn’t ‘news.’”

If you’re like me, you couldn’t begin to tally how many stories you’ve read or newscasts you’ve seen that at least made mention of the brutality of Saddam’s regime. You’ve read about the mass graves. You know stories of Saddam’s sons, Qusay and Uday, and their relish for barbarism. And you’ve heard allegations of murder, mutilation, savagery, and terror so often at this point that there’s a ‘been there, done that’ quality that now envelops such stories. Saddam’s torture chambers? Yawn.

I was not at the press conference, held by Sens. Santorum, Lieberman, and Sessions, but have since that time been able to see the video, a version of which is in NRO’s possession. And CNN’s Brown is on to something.

Under journalism’s Brown doctrine, seeing is believing. Indeed, it’s more than that. Seeing is “appreciating” and understanding. And, at least at some level, he’s right. It is not possible to grasp the indescribably monstrous horror, the Satanic villainy, the unrivaled evil of Saddam’s regime “until you see it.”


According to Senate sources, this four-minute video, comprised of several clips, came to be after several verbal and written inquires were made to the Defense Department at the start of 2004. It is an edited version of several different tapes, totaling between one and two hours, discovered after the regime’s collapse. The translations of the words heard on the tape were provided by the Department of Defense.

“You don’t appreciate what happened in that prison until you see it.”

The first film clip opens with the camera showing a man standing in a bland, mostly empty room. The camera pans down to show his right hand. Folded rugs are visible in the background. The clip jumps to footage of scrub-clad “surgeons” with rubber surgical gloves severing the man’s hand at the wrist. First the skin is peeled away with surgical knives and tweezers; ligaments, tendons, muscle, and bone underneath are exposed. Then the gloved hands wielding the knives begin to slice, shredding through the sinews, slashing muscle, breaking bone, until the hand is ultimately detached and plopped onto a green cloth, as yellow, pulpy tissue spills forth.

“You don’t appreciate what happened in that prison until you see it.”

The next clip opens amid Saddam Fedayeen–Fedayeen means “those willing to die for Saddam”–chanting loudly: “With blood and spirit we will redeem you Saddam.” The Fedayeen stand barking and clapping in a courtyard. A blindfolded prisoner, forced to his knees and held in position has his arm outstretched before him along a low concrete wall. A masked member of the Fedayeen raises high a three-foot-long blade and ferociously slams down on the man’s hand, slicing through his fingertips. The victim is wailing, howling, screaming in agony.

The swordsman-torturer, not sufficiently satisfied with his first effort, raises the sword again and drives down once more on the man’s immobile hand. This time he severs the fingers closer to the knuckles as blood spurts cartoonishly from his hand spilling over and down the concrete slab. The victim emits a wail I have never heard–could never imagine hearing–from a grown man, this time louder, harder than the first.

The camera then turns to the assembled Fedayeen as they continue rhythmically chanting.

“You don’t appreciate what happened in that prison until you see it.”

In the third clip, a prisoner sits on the ground, his arm tied with white cloth, strips to a wooden board resting on a gray concrete slab. A man stands before him with a sword, this blade is wider than the last. He, too, strikes down on the man’s hand, severing it from his right arm as the prisoner recoils in pain. The camera then quickly darts to the man’s hand resting on the dusty ground several feet away as it was launched a considerable distance from the prisoner due to the force of the torturer’s chop.

“You don’t appreciate what happened in that prison until you see it.”

When Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion was released, several critics harped on the scenes where Jesus is flogged mercilessly by Roman soldiers. The brutality was so extreme, critics charged, the depiction bordered on parody–it was not a credible rendering of what could have happened to Jesus.

In the fourth clip in the Saddam torture film, it’s clear Gibson’s cinematic vision of just how depraved men can be was not divorced from reality.

A tall prisoner, stripped to the waist and blindfolded has his arms tied before him to a white pole, his bare back exposed. Black-clad Saddam Fedayeen surround him, jackal-like, as one begins to pound on his back with a black rubber whip. With the man screaming, his scourged back arching backward, shoulders and arms frantically struggling to block the blows, one of the Fedayeen torturers is heard to say “no situation more honorable than truth over falsehood.” Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! The prisoner’s knees buckle as he crumbles into a hump on the ground from the blows, crying out in pain. Another Fedayeen grabs his hands and pulls him up the pole to receive further lashes.

“You don’t appreciate what happened in that prison until you see it.”

“In the name of Allah the merciful,” intones the beret-topped loyalist to Saddam’s “secular” regime in the next segment. He introduces to the viewer and the assembled butcher squad to another prisoner. The loyalist-narrator reads from Koran, Sura 2:179: “And there is a saving of life for you in the Law of Equality in punishment. O men of understanding, that you may become the pious.”

“The Fedayeen, Saddin Ezzedin al-Arousi,” he goes on, “was charged with a special mission in which he betrayed his duty in the mission. The head of the Fedayeen has ordered the following: He is expelled from Fedayeen work and his arms are to be broken in front of his unit. Tarik Juman will personally undertake the breaking of his arms. Thank you.”

The camera jumps to al-Arousi sitting with one arm tied behind him as his right arm is extended out to his side. His right elbow rests on a cinderblock and his right fist is supported by another cinderblock. Nothing supports his forearm in between. While a Fedayeen holds the prisoner’s elbow in place, Tarik Juman crashes a three-inch-thick pipe down on his old compatriot’s forearm, bending the forearm in a ‘V’ shape and shattering the bones within. This procedure is repeated for his left arm as well.

“You don’t appreciate what happened in that prison until you see it.”

In another clip a hooded and blindfolded prisoner is led to a room where he is forced to kneel, hands tied behind his back. Another man sits before the prisoner with thick metal tweezers and a scalpel. With his left hand he grabs the tip of the prisoner’s tongue with the tweezers and pulls it forward from his head. With the scalpel in his other hand he slices through the prisoner’s tongue, cutting it out of his mouth and then dropping it on the floor.

This ritual is repeated for more prisoners who are lined up, squatting in a row like parts on an assembly line waiting for processing, sitting ducks surrounded by dozens of men bearing witness to a Baathist tongue lashing.

“You don’t appreciate what happened in that prison until you see it.”

In the final clip we see a blindfolded prisoner being led to his fate as the assembled men around him sing “Happy Birthday, long live the leader, eternal gift to the people.” Again with arms tied behind his back he is shoved to the ground, bent over stuffed burlap sacks. A black-clad Fedayeen loosens the prisoner’s shirt exposing his back and neck, while another stands two feet from him holding a long silver blade at its curved handle. He raises his arms and strikes, hacking the prisoner’s head from his body, tumbling it to the ground. He picks up the severed head by the hair and places it ceremoniously on the dead man’s back as the camera pans in closer and closer and you can make out the victim’s now lifeless and bloodied face.

Doubts No Longer

I was unable to sit through these clips at first, having to turn away several times. And I am not a person who is, generally speaking, squeamish about these sorts of things, having seen the clips and stills of the beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl, and watched the video of the butchering of Nicholas Berg. But this was something for which I was manifestly unprepared. These film clips reveal–and help one to “appreciate”–the fullness of the inhuman, soulless horror of Saddam’s regime. They reveal the character and moral constitution of the foe Coalition forces must reckon with on a daily basis. And, perhaps most importantly, they cast anew the question of the moral rightness of the effort to end this regime.

I must confess that in recent weeks I had begun to harbor some doubts about a war I had supported. And I was not the only war supporter to begin second-guessing recently. We doubting Thomases had been perhaps most perplexed at President Bush, steadfast in the wake of mounting Coalition deaths, the Abu Ghraib scandal, and other bad news. Did this man not see what we were seeing?

There is no doubt that he had. But President Bush–along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has also remained resolute despite withering and unfair criticism at home–had also seen things that we had not. Seeing this footage helps one better understand the mindset of President Bush and of his stalwart British ally and explains their resolve in the face of tremendous difficulties and setbacks. Seeing these films and ones like them out there, will, I believe, make any fence sitter shed his doubts about the appropriateness of destroying Saddam’s regime. If anything, they make one wonder, almost shamefully, how and why it took the civilized world–or at least part of that world–as long as it did to rise up against it.

Should You See It?

My own view is that every adult should demand to see these videos. Had the photos and videos of American abuse at Abu Ghraib not been released, I might feel differently. But a few things, reported by the major media, lead me to the conclusion that the press has an obligation to report on these tapes, and has a further obligation to release at least some portions of them, in some way.

The first was a report from the Associated Press picked up by several media outlets. The report says that a prisoner who had been at Abu Ghraib under both Saddam’s regime and after CPA took control of Iraq “prefers Saddam’s torture to U.S. abuse.” I’ve no doubt the reporter found someone who claims this. But seeing actual footage of treatment of prisoners in Saddam’s prison system puts such a report in a substantially different context.

The other story, also reported widely, was of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s comments after the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted in which he said, “Who would prefer that Saddam’s torture chambers still be open? Shamefully, we now learn that Saddam’s torture chambers reopened under new management: U.S. management.” Again, seeing these videos helps to better contextualize such an assertion.

Lastly, writing in Slate magazine, Christopher Hitchens tells us to “get ready. It is going to get much worse. The graphic [Abu Ghraib] videos and photographs that have so far been shown only to Congress are, I have been persuaded by someone who has seen them, not likely to remain secret for very long…. There will probably be a slight difficulty about showing these scenes in prime time, but they will emerge, never fear.” I’ve no doubt the videos and stills of Americans torturing captives still unseen by the public are wretched and that the potential damage that can be done if they are broadcast would be immense. And now that the media have run with the first round of photos and videos, it will be difficult for them to justify not showing another, this time more horrid, round.

But if they do, it will be hard for the media to defend their decision to continue to ignore the Saddam torture video. My meager descriptive powers are insufficient to relay the miserable reality of what is captured on film. As CNN’s Brown said of a different story, you don’t appreciate it until you see it.

A former documentary and television producer, Nick Schulz is editor of TechCentralStation.com.


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