It used to be said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Today, a digital image can cause a million embarrassments.
The latest case in point involves photographs taken of U.S. troops in Afghanistan posing with body parts of dead Taliban attackers.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta correctly apologized last week after the Los Angeles Times published photos of members of the 82nd Airborne Division holding the severed legs of a suicide bomber and posing with the remains of three other insurgents, who reportedly blew themselves up before they could attack.
"This is war. I know that war is ugly and it's violent, and I know that young people sometimes caught up in the moment make some very foolish decisions," Panetta said. "I am not excusing that behavior, but neither do I want these images to bring further injury to our people or to our relationship with the Afghan people."
Panetta and others fear the photos will create a new round of anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan, like the reaction when videos of U.S. Marines urinating on Taliban corpses surfaced a few months ago.
While we understand our forces are under extreme stress in Afghanistan and might need a way to break some of the tension, these actions are not appropriate and certainly are not the image our nation and our military want to project to the world.
These cases highlight the downside of digital technology and the need for more and constant awareness.
Back in the olden days, when pictures required one to buy film and pay for processing, photographers thought before snapping the shutter. And then there was a time lag as they often waited until a roll of film was finished before it was processed and prints. This allowed time for reflection of whether the photos should be saved or shared.
Today, digital photo advances have changed everything. Cameras are smaller and more abundant. Nearly all cellphones now have a camera built in.
And being digital means it costs virtually nothing to snap images and as many as your storage medium can hold. And within minutes, if not seconds, those images can be uploaded to cyberspace, where they will remain probably forever with little control over who can access them.
In the most recent case, a member of the 82nd Airborne reportedly provided the photos to the Los Angeles Times.
Now those involved are facing scrutiny.
Pictures coming back to haunt people is not limited to the military.
On a regular basis, it seems someone in a public role winds up embarrassed or in trouble because of a photo that surfaces - even of events that happened on their own time. Sometimes, the people took the photos themselves, so they only have themselves to blame.
Other times, they might not even realize someone took a photo or posted it on the Internet, likely with only the best of intent. But the fallout should the image prove embarrassing can be the same. A moment's frivolity turns into lingering regret and shame.
We doubt the soldiers posing with Taliban body parts meant any harm and likely thought no one outside their group would ever see the images.
But that's not the way it works in a digital world. And that's a lesson everyone needs to keep in mind because once a digital image is taken, it's too late.