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Open Access Dissertation

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First Advisor

Mary M. Garrett


This project looks at the Abu Ghraib Prisoner Abuse Scandal and the ways those figured in the notorious images were named as "bad apples" to explain the shocking scenes to a mainstream American collective as well as expands more traditional understandings of witnessing through the examination of this complex moment. Beyond the narrowly legal and political issues, the photographs from Abu Ghraib also raise questions about how images of atrocities are received, interpreted, and contested with this project rephrasing the question "what do we see when we look at the images from Abu Ghraib?" to that of "what did we witness?" In the case of Abu Ghraib, technology enabled the abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison to be documented, the result being the now infamous photos. However, these images quickly became a site of fierce debate: were we witnessing something anomalous or getting a glimpse of something deeply disturbing about America itself? Varying interpretations have prevailed, and the project explores three of these interpretations: that of Specialist Sabrina Harman, a primary witness attempting to "bear witness" in the classical sense of the term; the Taguba report, complied before the scandal and argues that the images merely captured the result of policies fostering an "anything goes" post-9/11 environment related to prisoner treatment; and the Schlesinger Report, commissioned by the Department of Defense, that became the "official" version whose interpretation is still held by many people. The predominant issue of the study asks, how was the Schlesinger Report able to recast events in this way, and why was it so quickly accepted? The rhetorical analysis unpacks the harnessing of visual rhetoric and discourse to reveal the deft construction of a plausible mainstream understanding of this highly disconcerting instance. By consequence, the naming the scenes captured in the notorious photographs as the work of "bad apples" rescued America's "exceptionalism" at the brink of it being critically called into question as the tethering of a "bad apples" moniker to the infamous pictures forestalled the potential of a national--and perhaps global--sociopolitical crisis, thereby emerging as the most viable alternative at that historical juncture.

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