April 25, 2004

THE REMARKABLE thing about censorship is how self-defeating it can be. L. Paul Bremer III censors a sensational newspaper in Iraq, Al-Hawza, for fear it will inspire an uprising, and in so doing he provokes an uprising. The Pentagon censors photos of caskets returning to Dover Air Force Base from Iraq, and in so doing provokes news organizations into wondering what it's trying to hide.

It was inevitable - wasn't it? - that someone would eventually obtain photos from Delaware, and thanks to the Internet they are now everywhere. An enterprising man named Russ Kick, who runs a Web site called The Memory Hole, got the pictures, not through skullduggery but through a Freedom of Information Act request. The Air Force now says that the release shouldn't have happened and that no more releases should be expected. That's called locking the barn door ...

But what are these photos that were so closely held by the government? Are they horrifying? Disrespectful? Unpatriotic? No. Are they politically damaging? Only among people who think that too many American soldiers are dying in a far-away war.

Honor is given to those who gave their lives: the flag neatly secured over the casket, the white gloves on the honor guard, the solemnity of the arrival. Photos don't betray that honor; they capture it, and convey it to the nation for which these men and women died.

Suppressing images of the coffins of the fallen suggests a - perhaps unconscious - shame on the part of those who gave the orders.

But now, in any case, the images are public - 361 of them. Another photo, published last week in The Seattle Times, was taken by a contractor in Kuwait who says she wanted to show how respectfully the dead are handled. She and her husband were promptly fired.

But secrets, once out, can't be made secret again. This suggests that it is time for the Pentagon to come to its senses and relent. Who gains when the dead are sneaked back into the country?

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