IRAQ, Spring 2003 - Through a news camera, we follow American troops down concrete stairs, and into almost empty rooms filled with sand, rust, wires, and un-interpretable machines. In the words of the President, the war had been "won." Now, we are traveling with the victors down into the Abu Ghraib prison to see proof through the camera of the horrors of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
After this clip ends, Abu Ghraib will remain largely beyond any camera's reach for many months, an underground night that will erupt again on in a flash filled with wires, rust, bodies, dogs, and blood. On April 28, 2004, this flash will carry torture and the U.S. military together into the headlines in what will be called 'the Abu Ghraib scandal.'
And yet April 28th, 2004, was, in fact, not the day that the American public or the world at large first heard about the torture of prisoners taken into custody during the United States' 'Global War on Terror.' Months before, news agencies reported on the treatment of 'detainees' at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and shown the world the suggestive but mysterious images of hooded and shackled 'detainees.' Interrogation techniques including sensory and sleep deprivation and exposure to the elements had already been mentioned in news reports. The practice of indefinite detention without trial had already been explained by many US officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush. Rumsfeld had even announced the beginning of investigations into abuses at Abu Ghraib.
However, April 28th, 2004 was the day that 60 Minutes II broadcast as yet unreleased photographs, which documented a series of violent acts committed by American troops at Abu Ghraib prison. Violence that, until then, had been forgettable became unavoidable. There it was in the photographs: at some point, somewhere these things must have occurred in front of a camera. The photographs did not reveal how this had happened, or even exactly what had happened, instead they opened onto some horror that could not remain unexplained. These images seemed to prove that some kind of violence had occurred, and yet much of the specific nature of that violence remained inscrutable. Yes, many viewers may have known immediately they were looking at torture, but the time, nature, and reason for its occurrence remained obscure. Thus, it was through this inscrutable self-evidence that these images called to the viewer both for an acknowledgement and an explanation.
"It is the photographs that gives one the vivid realization of what actually took place. Words don't do it. The words that there were abuses, that it was cruel, that it was inhumane -- all of which is true -- that it was blatant, you read that and it's one thing. You see the photographs and you get a sense of it and you cannot help but be outraged," Rumsfeld made this statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee during their investigation into the torture at Abu Ghraib. (Washington Post 2004) Rumsfeld himself understands immediately that the photographs functioned fundamentally differently than any other form of representation. Looking at the images 'you cannot help but be outraged,' you must be outraged, to not be outraged would be inhuman. This sentiment was reflected not only by Rumsfeld, but by everyone from the new casters on 60 Minutes II to Susan Sontag. There were certainly a few exceptions. After seeing the photographs the conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh declared, of the soldiers, "Hasn't anyone heard of emotional release?" (Sontag 2004) However, even those who, like Limbaugh, denied that these photographs represented abuses felt the need to respond to them, it was necessary that they explain what they had seen.
What's more, neither Rumsfeld nor Limbaugh attempt to deny that these photographs show something happening; it is only a question of determining both what that thing is and how to evaluate it. As the Abu Ghraib scandal has developed, these photographs have become interpreted and reinterpreted a countless number of times. However, each of these constantly shifting interpretations contended with something like the 'raw fact' that the photographs display something that exists, whatever that thing may be. It is in this fluctuation between the photograph as the self-evident depiction of a fact and the photograph as undecidable that the viewer is ensnared in an impossible aporetic responsibility for what she sees. The viewer is held accountable by an image that seems to depict a real event, while at the same time being unable to determine what has actually occurred. Looking at a photograph, the viewer is responsible but to an event that remains largely undetermined, and the viewer is held in this responsibility by the photograph's assertion of something like truth, reality, or evidence.
Roland Barthes argues that the photograph does not refer to, "the optionally real thing to which an image refers, but the necessarily real thing that was placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph." (Barthes 1981:76) "I can never deny that the thing has been there," Barthes continues. (Barthes 1981:76) Perhaps we can deny that the thing has been there by claiming that some sort of fakery has occurred. Yet in many ways claiming that a photograph is fake is tantamount to claiming that it is not a photograph. As we will soon see, the process whereby a photograph is created is central to the way it comes to function. Fakery is nothing but the interruption of this process. However, in the Abu Ghraib case, fakery has not been much of a question. The photographs have from the first been seen as evidence of something. The question is always: what is it that the photographs depict. And regardless of the continued ambiguity of these images, the photographs have constantly provoked fear and respect. It seems a 'real' event is being pointed to, even if no one knows exactly what that event is. The photographs point, but they do not elaborate, we see something like proof, but the context and the narrative are still lacking and waiting to be provided by someone like Dan Rather, President Bush, or Mark Danner.
The first official report on the Abu Ghraib abuses was completed in January 2004, more than four months prior the public release of the photographs. The report had been commissioned two weeks before, in response to complaints by prisoners and staff, and most importantly the circulation of images of abuse among staff at the prison. (Danner 2004:277) However, despite being perhaps the main catalyst behind the report, the images were not included in the final document. Noting this lack of images, the New Yorker's Seymour M. Hersh quotes the report's author Major General Antonio M. Taguba's statement that the images were not included because of their "extremely sensitive nature." (Hersh 2004) This is particularly interesting because also included in the report is an extremely detailed and graphic list of exactly what abuses took place. Taguba describes guards, "[p]lacing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee's neck and having a female soldier pose for a pictureÉForcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotapedÉPositioning a naked detainee on a MRE Box, with a sandbag on his head and attaching wires to his fingers, toes and penis to simulate electric torture." (Danner 2004: 292) Although this report was not at first made public, we must remember that it appeared before any wide circulation of the photographs either in public or official circles and would serve as many readers first introduction to the events. Clearly, these descriptions can be horrifying and painful in and of themselves. Taguba has not attempted to shield the reader from the impact of the violence that had occurred at Abu Ghraib.
It is not the detail of the incidents that Taguba is frightened of exposing, and that in turn causes him to describe the images as 'sensitive.' In fact, if we look at some of the photographs of the acts Taguba refers to, oftentimes we are given less detail. Taguba is not afraid of being shocking or causing distress, rather he understands the gaze of the camera as being fundamentally different from his written description of the event. Somehow, as Barthes suggests, an image emerging from a camera is understood here to have a different and more necessary tie to the events in front of the lens when it was produced. In order to understand more concretely what this tie is, it will be helpful to return to Taguba's report. Hersh only quotes a short phrase in a much longer sentence in which Taguba states the reasons he has for not including the (as yet unreleased) videos and photographs in his report. The entire sentence is as follows:
Due to the extremely sensitive nature of these photographs and videos, the ongoing CID investigation, and the potential for the criminal prosecution of several suspects, the photographic evidence is not included in the body of my investigation. (Danner 2004:292)
Here we see an explicit connection between the photographs and evidence. The photographs are 'sensitive,' not because they are terrible to behold, but because they have a special legal status as evidence, that is different than that of Taguba's written descriptions of the events. In other words, merely telling us what has occurred at Abu Ghraib, an account that is built predominantly from the testimony of prisoners and staff, victims, perpetrators and bystanders, only gives us a set of information whose validity remains unsubstantiated. The images, however, are seen to provide evidence that this information is true. Taguba believes the photographs act as proof rather than mere description.
So why is it that these mechanical images are believed to be able to carry this power? There are several things that we have discovered so far from reading Taguba. Firstly, that he is not afraid of the formal qualities of the mechanical image. He is not afraid of its ability to show us something in exacting detail. Instead, we see that Taguba is afraid of the photograph's ability to act as evidence and carry some legal and political power. Finally, it is possible to understand from these two facts, that whatever allows the photograph to act as evidence exceeds its ability to provide us with visual detail.
Perhaps then, it is wise to begin to elaborate this frightening evidentiary power Taguba sees in the photograph somewhere beyond or prior to its visual appearance to us. Andre Bazin did exactly this in attempting to understand the unique nature of the photographic image. He argues that no other image, whatever its appearance, can function in the same way as a photograph.
"No matter how skillful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image. Again the essential factor in the transition from the baroque to photography is not the perfecting of a physical process (photography will long remain the inferior of painting in the reproduction of color); rather does it lie in a psychological fact, to wit, in completely satisfying our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part. The solution is not to be found in the result achieved but in the way of achieving it." (Bazin 1981:237)
Bazin argues that photography is defined by the manner in which it is created, particularly by the mechanical non-human nature of this process. The creation of the photograph seems beyond the shadow of the human hand and mind in the glare of a world seen through a machine. Although Bazin does not specifically mention the camera in this passage, it is towards this machine that he is pointing our attention. The camera functions as an alternative mode of seeing and recording that is beyond the human subject. Having been created by a machine, the photograph is seen as having a closer, more necessary connection to what it depicts.
The photograph, for Barthes, Bazin, and Taguba, is somehow uniquely tied to the event that it presents. Barthes identifies the photograph as something that shows us what was necessarily there, and Bazin supplies us with the implicit reasoning behind Barthes statement. Finally, Taguba's fear not only reflects a Barthesian reaction to photography, but also reveals the potential political implications of this reaction. Moreover, the reactions of everyone from Taguba to Hersh demonstrate the persistence of the mode of viewing and evaluating photographs identified and elaborated by both Barthes and Bazin among many others.
For each one of them, images that emerge from the camera are contrasted with images that arise from or within human consciousness. Further, it is the absence of human consciousness that provides photography with its unique status. Sigfried Kracauer makes this connection much more explicitly. (Kracauer 1995:51) While the appearance of an artwork or a memory image are always symbols for some other thing, Kracauer argues, the meaning of a photographic image is its appearance. "[I]n the artwork the meaning of the object takes on spatial appearance, whereas in photography the spatial appearance of an object is its meaning." (Kracauer 1995:52) Kracauer describes the photograph as a kind of pure appearance. What Kracauer seems to be suggesting is that in a photograph, what we see is what we get. It is an appearance without innate reference to any larger narratives or networks of meaning. By itself, the photograph, for Kracauer, refers solely to the previous visual event that it records.
In an artwork, and also in a memory, the image we see arises from a consciousness interpreting and describing what it has seen. Kracauer argues that these memory-made images, no matter how 'literal' or 'objective' their creators may attempt to be, are always only thought and meaning made visual. In the photograph there is no pre-existing thought or meaning to be made visual. The visual appearance predates any meanings it may engender. And it is by predating meaning and interpretation that the photographic appearance come to be not an 'optionally real thing' but a 'necessarily real thing.' By contrast, an interpretation emerges not only from what it interprets, but from the consciousness of the interpreter. In some important way the photographic image emerges without the assistance of any interpreting consciousness, as an effect of the event itself. Or at least, this is what all of these people we have discussed seem to believe.
But how does this belief in the photograph as a not-yet-interpreted appearance affect its ability to hold us responsible? Responsibility here and throughout this paper is characterized by a reaction on behalf of the viewer that attempts to come to grips with what is shown. Not simply a response, responsibility entails engaging with what one sees as if it is not simply an infinitely distant thing, but something held in an inescapable relation to one's self and one's world. To become responsible for what one sees is to place that pictured event into one's world as something that must be dealt with. Moreover, as Jacques Derrida points out, taking responsibility is not a simple action that one completes in order to afterward declare oneself to be responsible; one can never simply have a 'good conscience'. (Derrida 1996:24-25) It is instead an aporia in which every decision that one makes, every action that one takes in the name of responsibility is also irresponsible. That is to say, following Derrida, to be responsible to one is to be irresponsible to another, to take the responsibility of making a timely decision is to cut short one's responsibility to consider that decision, to be responsible to one law or ethic is to be irresponsible to another. Thus, responsibility is a constant struggle, a constantly unfolding attempt, that can never end, and never be satisfied. So how are we to characterize the particular never-ending responsibility we have towards what we see in the photographic image, this appearance that predates its interpretation?
Barthes identifies the photograph's ability to appear before its interpretation as what makes possible its ability to hold the viewer responsible, interestingly, it is for exactly this same reason that Barthes remains skeptical about the effectiveness of what he terms 'shock-photos.' "The thing is," Barthes states, "as we confront [these 'shock-photos'] we are each time violently dispossessed of our own freedom to judge the fact: another has groaned for us, thought for us, judged for us." (Barthes 1999:32) In many 'shock-photos' Barthes sees the photographer's own desire to impart some specific meaning onto the image as a way of blocking the viewer's confrontation with the 'raw fact' of what has happened. The viewer in this case is not shocked but merely understands the image as being a sign for 'shock.' Such a photograph is then little different than the word 'shock' itself; it signifies shock but is not in itself shocking. For Barthes the well-meaning photographer is covering over, and reducing the power of the medium itself. When the photographer steps back, when an image appears that is not entirely coded by some message, then we are confronted with something else, some fact, some horror that exceeds any intention of the photographer. It is in these images where, "the fact surprised stands forth in its obstinacy, in its literalness," (Barthes 1999:34) rather than those images self-consciously composed to be shocking, that Barthes sees the potential for a photograph to hold the viewer responsible. In such photographs the viewer must grapple with this fact and attempt to understand it, without being given any 'predigested' answer by the photographer or anyone else. In other words it is only insofar as a photograph functions as an appearance that predates its interpretation that it is capable of holding the viewer responsible.
'An appearance that predates its interpretation' - this characterization of photography places the viewer in an aporia of photographic responsibility. The viewer is presented an image that, because it is not a mere interpretation of events, appears to present evidence of what has actually occurred. At the same time, the viewer is presented an image that, because it is not an interpretation of events, gives no tools to the viewer to allow her to interpret it.
'An appearance that predates its interpretation' - this characterization of photography could almost be a characterization of another seemingly less mechanical phenomena, trauma, and more specifically traumatic memory. Ulrich Baer has tried to follow the implications of this resonance between photography and trauma. In his investigation, Baer is also constantly concerned with questions of responsibility, and through this analogy between photography and trauma Baer attempts to open up a space for responsibility in relation to the photograph. A responsibility less focused on the photograph's ability to act as evidence, and rather grounded in its resistance to interpretation. Like the traumatic memory, for Baer the photograph will always call us to integrate and interpret it while continually resisting any integration.
A traumatic memory, writes Cathy Caruth, is remembered as, "absolutely literal, unassimilable to associative chains of meaning." (Caruth 1995:5) It returns to us not as a part of the ongoing story of our lives, but as an interruption, a thing that is not made sense of. A traumatic memory is an event recorded without the accompaniment of the consciousness of the person who undergoes the event, and yet somehow what is remembered is more real because of this lack of consciousness. "Traumatic experience, beyond the psychological dimension of suffering it entails, suggests a certain paradox: that the most direct seeing of a violent event may occur as an absolute inability to know itÉthat immediacy, paradoxically, may take the form of belatedness." (Caruth 1996:92) The traumatic is so 'real,' because of consciousness' lack of access to it. The traumatic only has this character of 'reality' insofar as it remains inaccessible. Further, to overcome this trauma and to integrate this sight into a narrative of one's conscious memory is not to finally gain access to what is 'real' but to lose that character of 'reality' all together. The traumatized person records an event without being present to experience it, and it is this absence of consciousness, this absence of any integration, that provides for the 'reality' of what is recorded during the trauma.
Baer argues that the photographic image is like trauma in its ability to record without integrating that record into a narrative or memory. "Because trauma blocks routine mental processes from converting an experience into memory or forgetting, it parallels the defining structure of photography, which also traps an event during its occurrence while blocking its transformation into memory." (Baer 2004:9) A victim of trauma goes through an event without properly experiencing it. He merely records impressions without integrating them into the story of his memory. The resulting traumatic 'memories' remain mere mechanical recordings of what has occurred that have not been made sense of. The camera looks on a scene and records what occurs there without placing it within a narrative, without explaining it or putting it into context. The camera's images are mere recordings not yet integrated into a consciousness. It is a machine that allows for the recording of an event without a consciousness around to make sense of it beforehand. When I look at a photograph I feel as if it, "come[s] to touch me like the delayed rays of a star," because it does not come to me through the consciousness of another, placed in the story of the past, but as a traumatic memory, something from the past experienced again, right now, for the very first time. (Barthes 1981:80-81) It is this feeling, Baer asserts, that we are experiencing when we look at a photograph.
The Abu Ghraib photographs appeared as an eruption. They came, Baer would argue, as an experience laid before us that has not yet been experienced until now, just as we are seeing it. In these photographs, we witness seemingly inexplicable acts as if they are occurring now, again right before us for the very first time, appearing as a break in our coherent narratives. The first image from 'the Abu Ghraib scandal' to appear before the public has now been dubbed 'The Hooded Man.' A man, his arms outstretched, a hood over his head, and a long black cloth over his body, wires dangle from him as he stands on top of some box. Before this image appeared for the first time on 60 Minutes II, Rather introduced the show telling the viewers that photographs have emerged showing "soldiers abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners at a prison near Baghdad." (60 Minutes II 2004) Finally, Rather warns the viewers that these, "pictures are difficult to look at." (60 Minutes II 2004) The viewer is given some context, and a warning, but none of this accounts for the photograph that then appears on the screen. Who is he or she? What are those wires? Is this person in danger? But before things become too dire for the viewer, and this image becomes truly traumatic, Dan Rather steps in. The anchor explains, "He was told that if he fell off the box he would be electrocuted." (60 Minutes II 2004) Now the viewer knows something, a terrible thing, but some definite thing.
This whole sequence illustrates the aporetic function of the photograph that Baer, Kracauer, Bazin and Barthes all touch upon. The photographs are shown first, almost without comment, before the show really begins. They are given priority, and indeed they are the entire reason for the show. These images provide the evidence that turns mere reports of abuse into confirmed torture. And yet at the same time left on their own they remain inexplicable, terrifying documents of something-we-know-not-what. They require Rather's interjection to make them intelligible, to make them evidence of something particular. Just as Baer argues, the images appear as traumatic memories, experiences not yet integrated into a coherent narrative. Appearing in this way, the photographs seem literal, truthful, evidentiary, and yet, for the same reasons they are confusing, uninterpreted, and resistant to any single interpretation. They both hold the viewer accountable for what they show and call on the viewer to interpret and integrate what it is that they depict.
We will see how both these functions of uninterpretability and self-evidence make possible and deny the responsibility of the viewer. On the one hand, the photograph demands a response from the viewer, a response that is both an acknowledgment that something has happened and an attempt to integrate the photograph into a narrative and determine exactly what has happened. On the other hand, the photograph often defers responsibility from the viewer, both by asserting itself as a self-evident 'fact' and by remaining seemingly inexplicable.
The Abu Ghraib photographs appeared on the television screen, the computer screen, and the newspaper; as a rupture and constituted an initial call to responsibility. In the days and months after the photographs became public, every person shown committing abuse in the images has been charged with a crime. Questions have been raised as to where, when and why the U.S. government tortures detainees. And, just recently President Bush was forced to back down, and support a bill that would explicitly limit interrogation techniques that U.S. agents may use on prisoners. (Schmitt 2005) The Abu Ghraib photographs have undoubtedly called many to, in some way, take responsibility for what they depict. The raw, uninterpreted, and self-evident 'fact' presented in these photographs both pointed to some necessarily real thing that could not be ignored, and demanded an interpretation and an explanation.
And yet, the call of the Abu Ghraib photographs only reached so far. Connections between the policies of the Bush administration, the memos written by Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, and Jay S. Bybee, and the torture at Abu Ghraib have largely been forgotten or denied by both the government and much of the press. The highest ranking official to be held accountable for what appeared in the photographs was Brigadier General Janis L. Karpinski, who, although not charged with a crime was disciplined, demoted, and relieved of her duty. And yet, she was penalized for not effectively enacting the policies of the U.S. government and military. Both in disciplining Karpinski and in the trials of the soldiers shown in the photographs the guilt placed on these individuals came as an implicit pardon for those in higher positions. And the photographs have assisted in this process through that same ability to present seemingly raw, uninterpreted, and self-evident 'facts'.
It is exactly this phenomenon that Mark Danner points to in his article "The Secret Road To Abu Ghraib." (Danner 2004:26-49) In this article he illustrates the way in which government officials have repeatedly pointed to the "outlandish" or "grotesque" character of the images as a way of limiting their implications. He quotes the opening lines of the Schlesinger report, the second official report filed concerning abuse at Abu Ghraib, which states that what is seen in the photographs were "acts of brutality and purposeless sadism," implying that they are incapable of being connected to a large narrative. (Danner 2004:28) Interestingly, Danner connects this strategy with an attempt to claim that, "the abuses at Abu Ghraib were nothing more than the photographs." (Danner 2004:41) In other words, this attempt to render the images unreadable is also connected with an attempt, "to focus on the photographs," to the exclusion of their context. (Danner 2004:40) This strategy figures the images as raw facts that, like traumatic memories, appear beyond any integration into a larger narrative. However, in this case, rather than calling to be explained the photographs are presented as absolutely resistant to any explanation.
By attempting to freeze the viewer in the horror and shock of these seemingly self-evident photographs this strategy appears to maintain the ability of the photographs to hold the viewer responsible. Yet this strategy achieves the opposite effect, the horror itself, rather than forcing the viewer to grapple with what they see, serves as a traumatic endpoint for all interpretation and responsibility. The administration, and the military have used the horrible 'fact itself' of these traumatic images as a barrier to all interpretation and all decision.
The uninterpreted, self-evidence of the photographic image is not a simple call to responsibility. It is an inescapable bind that the viewer finds himself in. The aporia of photographic responsibility can perhaps be restated: the photographic image calls the viewer to responsibility through the same qualities that deny the responsibility of the viewer. It is the self-evident image that proves that something has occurred, and it is the self-evident image that closes down any further response. It is the uninterpreted image that calls for interpretation and integration, and it is the uninterpreted image that claims to be ultimately unspeakable and incapable of interpretation and integration. The image that predates its interpretation opens both the possibility and the impossibility of becoming responsible for the 'real event' it depicts.
In the Abu Ghraib scandal we have seen the endless movement of this aporia. The photographs were taken as trophies by unembarrassed soldiers proud to show off their torture to their friends. However, just like all the best shock-photos, they exceeded the intentions of the photographers who made them and appeared to the world as something wholly different. The images became a shock, that was simultaneously an indictment of the acts they portrayed. "Because," as Baer tells us, "photographic images show more than what and how the photographer sees, they offer a crucial vantage point from which to unmask the perpetrator's perspective." (Baer 2004:177) Of course, they are only able to do this by appearing like traumatic memories, as images that are not yet integrated into any coherent narrative or linear memory, images that are literal representation of what took place, unfettered by the workings of some consciousness. Thus, they simultaneously seem to refer to the, "necessarily real thing in front of the camera" and to be "unassimilable to associative chains of meaning." (Barthes 1981:76; Caruth 1995:5) As such self-evident, uninterpreted facts the Abu Ghraib photographs served as damning evidence against those shown in the photographs. But just as the images condemned these 'aberrant' soldiers they began to be used to pardon those with loftier position. The 'facts' depicted in these images ceased to be a call to responsibility and became rather a traumatic endpoint for all response. The soldier's actions, shown and proved by the photographs, became as cropped in space and time as the images themselves. Now, in late 2005, as attempts are being made to connect the torture of Abu Ghraib with the policies of the U.S. government these images serve both sides of the debate. The Abu Ghraib images have become something in between a scrap of evidence, a recurrent trauma, and a floating signifier for an uncounted number of conflicting causes. At every turn these images have caught its viewers between the uninterpreted, self-evident fact and the contingent, decisive interpretation, and neither side can escape the other.
This aporia of photographic responsibility, like many of those Derridean aporias with which it resonates, does not prevent action nor does it level to absolute equivalence all action. Rather, this aporia constitutes every attempt by the viewer to take responsibility, even as it illustrates how these attempts are undermined. Facing those images from Abu Ghraib for the first time who would claim that one could take responsibility completely and fully for what one has just seen? Who would claim in the face of those violent images whose self-evidence cannot be denied and whose depths always remain uninterpreted that responsibility is simply, merely, possible?
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