In Box

Image Problem

The photographs showing abused and naked Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison have confirmed some foreign audiences’ worst fears about the United States. Yet America has been here before. Recall how, in 1963, world opinion decried the photographs of police dogs attacking civil rights supporters in Birmingham, Alabama. Mary Dudziak, a University of Southern California ...

The photographs showing abused and naked Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison have confirmed some foreign audiences’ worst fears about the United States. Yet America has been here before. Recall how, in 1963, world opinion decried the photographs of police dogs attacking civil rights supporters in Birmingham, Alabama.

Mary Dudziak, a University of Southern California law professor and author of Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, points out that both events took place when the "image of the United States mattered to U.S. national security." In each case, the revelations antagonized key groups the U.S. government sought to woo: citizens of the newly independent postcolonial nations in 1963 and Muslims around the world today.

In the early years of the Cold War, the United States responded to outrage over discrimination against African Americans by pointing to human rights abuses in other countries — particularly the Soviet Union. This approach proved ineffective, Dudziak explains, much as emphasizing human rights abuses in Arab nations does today.

Eventually, however, the United States was able to highlight the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to show the world how democracies achieve progress.

Washington could choose a similar route today, starting with televising the court-martials of the accused. Such an action, Dudziak argues, would demonstrate the "importance of the rule of law, defendants’ rights, the criminal justice process, and democratic accountability." Perhaps a deed can be worth a thousand pictures.

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