President Obama seems to be struggling about whether or not to make public a series of photographs depicting Americans engaged in torture.
The President is taking heat from all sides on this one. His initial position to release the photos was consistent with his insistence on government transparency and public accountability. He changed his mind after conferring with military leaders who worried that the inflammatory photos could compromise the safety of our troops still engaged abroad. This is a tough issue for me because I have a deep sense of the political power of photographs and have seen them used both for and against progressive causes.
Perhaps the most powerful torture photograph in our nation’s history is the image of the lynched and brutalized Emmett Till. Till was a 14-year-old Chicago boy who went to Mississippi to visit family in the summer of 1955. There he was accused of whistling at a white woman. For that supposed infraction he was dragged from his family’s home, brutally tortured, murdered, and discarded like trash. In many ways Till’s story was more ordinary than exceptional, because black men, women, and children had been victimized and tortured by their fellow Americans for decades. Jim Crow’s vicious, racial code was policed by vigilantes given carte blanche to impose the death penalty when they saw fit.
What made Till’s murder unique was the decision to publish the photographs of his mangled body. Till’s mother did something so courageous that it still inspires awe. She held an open casket funeral for her son and allowed Jet magazine to publish photographs of his brutalized body. There was controversy at the time about her decision, but, those photographs of the mutilated boy galvanized a nascent movement for equal rights and launched the contemporary Civil Rights Movement.