06/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What's Wrong with This Picture?

"A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both." -- James Madison

President Barack Obama yesterday changed his mind about releasing to the public hundreds of photographs that apparently document abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan by American military personnel between 2001 and 2005. Mr. Obama apparently changed his mind after he was reportedly warned by top Pentagon officials that publication of these images might inflame anti-American sentiment in the region and therefore endanger American soldiers.

The President is right that the dissemination of these photographs might inflame anti-American opinion and possibly put our soldiers at greater risk. But he is wrong to focus on that risk rather than on the importance of these images to public debate in the United States - debate that is at the very core of our self-governing society.

We value free speech not because it is harmless, but because it is essential. The free-wheeling dissemination of ideas, images, and information causes all sorts of harm. The old adage that "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me," is dead wrong. Speech can offend, injure reputation, fan prejudice or passion, and ignite violence.

Critical discussion of the war in Iraq turned the American people against the war and therefore made it more difficult for our military leaders to achieve their goals. Certainly, criticism of the war in Iraq - including the criticism voiced so powerfully by then-Senator Obama, encouraged and emboldened the insurgents in Iraq and increased the danger to American soldiers, as many conservatives charged at the time. Did Mr. Obama silence himself? Of course not. Because he understood that public debate about even the most controversial and inflammatory public issues is the very lifeblood of American democracy.

If we were to take seriously President Obama's view that the government should not release information to the American public if doing so might increase the risk to American soldiers, then surely the government would also be right not to disclose to the American people that (a) American military personnel tortured enemy detainees; (b) American soldiers massacred innocent civilians; (c) American soldiers were defeated in a fierce battle and suffered huge losses; and (d) the American military is using outdated equipment that does not adequately protect our soldiers.

Mr. Obama might argue that all that is at issue here are mere pictures. The American people already know (sort of) about the abuses themselves. The value of these images to robust public debate, he might argue, is therefore relatively slight. Of course, the same can be said about the harm from release of the photos.

But the more important point is that visual images matter a lot in public discourse. Think, for example, about the response of the American people to such events as the Holocaust, the Mai Lai massacre, the use of fire hoses and riot police against peaceful civil rights demonstrators in the American South, and the photographs of Abu Ghraib. Without the reinforcing impact of those images, those events would never have had the effect they did on the American public. Here is another misleading adage: "What you don't know can't hurt you."

President Obama is wrong on this issue, and he is wrong in a big way.