Rebranding torture

From The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers, “Veto of Bill on C.I.A. Tactics Affirms Bush’s Legacy“:

Bush vetoed a bill that would have explicitly prohibited the agency from using interrogation methods like waterboarding, a technique in which restrained prisoners are threatened with drowning and that has been the subject of intense criticism at home and abroad. Many such techniques are prohibited by the military and law enforcement agencies. …

The bill Mr. Bush vetoed would have limited all American interrogators to techniques allowed in the Army field manual on interrogation, which prohibits physical force against prisoners.

The debate has left the C.I.A. at odds with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies, whose officials have testified that harsh interrogation methods are either unnecessary or counterproductive. The agency’s director, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, issued a statement to employees after Mr. Bush’s veto defending the program as legal, saying that the Army field manual did not “exhaust the universe of lawful interrogation techniques.”

Myers’ article suggests that the war of words over torture is being won by President Bush and Gen. Hayden and other torture advocates. They’ve succeeded in introducing the newspeak necessary to make the unthinkable thinkable, and to ensure that opponents of torture — of God damned torture — are perceived as soft, weak and flaccid. Just look at Myers’ opening paragraph:

President Bush on Saturday further cemented his legacy of fighting for strong executive powers, using his veto to shut down a Congressional effort to limit the Central Intelligence Agency’s latitude to subject terrorism suspects to harsh interrogation techniques.

Myers isn’t reporting there, he’s writing a resume and trying to jam in as many power words as he can to project strength. I doubt he realizes this. He probably just thinks he’s simply reporting the facts of the matter — you know, just printing what he’s been told. How could that be wrong?

As a result of this newspeak, Myers uses a phrase common to most such articles, even though it didn’t exist just a few years ago, referring to “interrogation methods like waterboarding.”

“Waterboarding” is the new, re-branded name for what used to be called “water torture.” You can see why the new term was necessary for proponents of the technique who wanted to argue that it’s something other than torture.

Torture itself has been rebranded, of course, as “harsh interrogation techniques.”

This sort of rebranding is only possible with the cooperation of journalists like Myers and his editors. Something like the following conversation has been happening in newsrooms across America:

REPORTER: The president vetoed Congress’ ban on torture.

EDITOR: We can’t call it “torture.”

REPORTER: Why not?

EDITOR: Because the government says that torture isn’t torture.

REPORTER: But these are established terms — legal terms set down in the Geneva …

EDITOR: It’s controversial.

REPORTER: It was ratified as American law in 1955.

EDITOR: Yeah, well, now it’s controversial. And we try to avoid controversy. So we don’t say “torture” anymore.

REPORTER: So what do we say?

EDITOR: The government wants us to say “harsh interrogation techniques.”

REPORTER: But isn’t that controversial too? I mean, if some people still want to call torture “torture,” then isn’t calling it something else also controv …

EDITOR: The government has asked us to call it that. We do what the government wants. That way, no controversy.

REPORTER: So if the government comes out and tells us that the rack isn’t torture, we would just stop referring …

EDITOR: Stretchboarding.

REPORTER: What?

EDITOR: We don’t refer to it as “the rack” anymore. The government has asked us to call it “stretchboarding.” Saying “the rack” would be controversial.

Makes me so proud to be a part of the free press.

Rebranding torture as “harsh interrogation techniques” doesn’t alter the fundamental fact that such harsh techniques do nothing to keep a free people safe. They are useful for one and only one purpose, the purpose for which they were designed: extracting false confessions.

The torture debate is thus in an even more extreme category than the debate over other civil liberties which the Bush administration has argued are incompatible with keeping America safe. The standard rationale for convincing the complacent and timid to go along with such limitations on their rights and freedoms is always to say, “Hey, if you’re innocent, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” But innocence is, by definition, no protection against those eager and willing to extract false confessions. When arguing against the need for warrants for wiretapping, the Bush administration has suggested that we must change our laws to make us less free but more safe. When arguing that they should be allowed to ignore the prohibition against torture with impunity, the Bush administration is suggesting that we must change our laws to make us less free and less safe.

I really, really do not understand why that is viewed by anyone as a compelling argument.

Update: Media Bloodhound has more to say on Myers’ NY Times article.

  • http://jesurgislac.wordpress.com Jesurgislac

    I don’t think we’re disagreeing about anything but the precise placing of a line which only a court can assign.
    I agree.
    Sorry, I forgot it’s Thursday. Take that, you Scot!
    Awa’ an’ bile yer heid, ya Sassenach bauchle!

  • http://profile.typekey.com/T_Karney/ pecunium

    LMM: Being a member of the US military, I have to disagree with your assessments of moral culpability.
    The soldier is in a difficult place. Unlawful orders are to be refused, but one is not required to get oneself killed to do that. Refusing an order in a combat zone can lead to summary (i.e., on the spot) execution.
    When one joins a terrorist organisation, terrorism is the end goal. It’s not when one joins an army.
    Given the nature of armies (and the social conceit that soldiers are idiots, dupes and fools) we place a greater burden on officers to prevent systemic abuses. When a General sets a policy, colonels pass it to captains who pass it to sergeants, who pass it to privates.
    The guys at the bottom has a reasonable (though not perfect expectation) that such orders have been reviewed, and found legal, by those above them.
    I’m an interrogator. My soldiers will never get an order to torture. I’ve told all of them that torture is out, and that if I find out they did torture, I’m turning them in.
    If a captain tells them to do it, at some later point; I expect them to turn him in.
    I think it says terrible things about us (as a nation) that we aren’t doing what we can to see to it that systemic abuses aren’t recognised as such. Holding the people who wrote the orders to, at least, the same standard as those who carried them out, seems like the least justice we can demand.
    Ursula: The footsoldier isn’t exempt. His culpability is attenuated. This was true, even for Germany. Not many of the rank and file saw prison, much less the hangman, for what they did in the war.
    Rosina: The showing of the instruments was defined as the first torture.
    As to the question what is/isn’t torture; speaking as a professional… some is grey, but torture is, at the feathered edge of beginnig, is a crime of intent, and the brushing of body parts, with the intent to cause grave discomfort, is; probably, torture.

  • ako

    I can totally imagine a story of a guy imprisoned by Nazis or the KGB or whatever, who want him to talk, and do nothing else than lock him up and give him delicious chocolate cake.
    This reminds me of something I read somewhere about cults and food habits; they tend to feed their members a diet consisting almost exclusively carbs and sugar. Because it leaves people low on energy, with brief euphoric rushes that are readily controlled by the cult leader.
    Messing with someone’s food intake can do really weird things to them.
    And I am probably being a bit old fashioned in thinking that where a man commits a non-invasive sexual assault (like flashing or frotting) the ‘threat’ of actual physical/sexual assault is more tangible than if a woman commits the same acts against a man.
    I’d say this depends substantially. Under normal circumstances (like being groped on the subway), I’d say that’s true. If the man is cuffed to a chair by foreign interrogators, not knowing how far they’ll go and what they’re willing to do to get what they want from him, and a woman who’s supported and defended by several armed men decides to rub her breasts against him, not so much.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Praline

    How’s this for a working definition of torture: deliberately subjecting a person to unbearable distress, for the purposes of breaking their spirit. ‘Distress’ covers a lot of things – pain, fear, ‘discomfort’, injury or threat of injury, extremes of temperature, humiliation, fatigue, isolation, starvation, disorientation, sensory overload… The main point about torture is that, as Caravelle says, whatever it subjects somebody to, it’s deliberately planned as something they can’t stand.
    And that’s all about context. It’s also about compulsion. To quote David Sedaris:
    The long list of situational phobias includes the fears of being bound, beaten, locked into an enclosed area, and smeared with human waste. Their inclusion mystifies me, as it suggests that these fears might be considered in any way unreasonable. I asked myself, Who wants to be handcuffed adn covered in human feces? And then, without even opening my address book, I thought of three people right off the bat. This frightened me, but apparently it’s my own private phobia. I found no listing for those who fear they know too many masochists.
    If the torture apologists get hold of a passage like that, can’t you just see them using it to prove that binding and beating someone aren’t really torture, but a practice actually sought out by some people? And after all, what’s a rack? Some contortionists deliberately dislocate joints as part of their act! Red hot irons? Well, some people deliberately seek out decorative brands; it’s kind of like a tattoo in some circles! Killing someone without a trial? Well, some people want to die, think of suicides!
    Bah.

  • http://mikailborg.livejournal.com/ MikhailBorg

    How’s this for a working definition of torture: deliberately subjecting a person to unbearable distress, for the purposes of breaking their spirit. ‘Distress’ covers a lot of things – pain, fear, ‘discomfort’, injury or threat of injury, extremes of temperature, humiliation, fatigue, isolation, starvation, disorientation, sensory overload… The main point about torture is that, as Caravelle says, whatever it subjects somebody to, it’s deliberately planned as something they can’t stand.
    In the BDSM lifestyle, all these things happen all the time between consensual participants looking for extreme physical and mental experiences. Here is what sets this aside from torture: these experiences are agreed to in advance by people who understand what they are getting into. The safety of the participants is stressed, and either (or any) of the participants is expected to end the scenario as soon someone is in jeopardy (or indeed, if it’s just not as interesting as it was supposed to be).
    The tools and techniques may bear a superficial resemblance to torture, but again, being locked in a car and pushed off a cliff bears a superficial resemblance to riding a roller coaster. They are, nevertheless, not the same thing at all.
    (There are, some people in the BDSM community who are so extreeeme! that they feel the above emphasis on safety and relative sanity is too restrictive to provide the experience they desire. Sometimes, they get away with that. Other times, they end up in smug stories in the newspapers.)

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Praline

    Oh, I agree. That’s why context is so important in defining torture. If you take away context, you could probably rationalise any kind of torture, because somebody, somewhere, is probably doing just about anything you can think of right as I type. That’s the logical end to which such an argumentative strategy tends: if somebody somewhere would undergo the experience willingly in a different context, then it isn’t torture if you do it in Guantanamo. – hence, if you look at how various human behaviour is, pretty much nothing is torture. At which point, it’s time to reconsider your principles, because you can only end up arguing that there’s no such thing as torture, which is plainly b… um, horsefeathers.

  • Tonio

    The main point about torture is that, as Caravelle says, whatever it subjects somebody to, it’s deliberately planned as something they can’t stand.
    I would agree. I suspect that before the Bush Administration, most Americans probably thought of torture as purely physical maltreatment. They may not have thought about the objective of breaking someone’s spirit.

  • Chris

    @Praline: that reminds me of something I saw on Sadly, No (don’t know where to find it now, thence the fuzziness), where a conservative blogger claimed that waterboarding isn’t torture. The reason? It had been demonstrated on volunteers (who could of course interrupt it whenever they wanted to), and one volunteer had come back freely to see if he could stand being subjected to it longer than before, managing…
    … all of twelve seconds.

  • Chris

    @Tonio: I can of course not speak for most Americans or (most [any nationality]), but psychological/emotional torture has been an established concept for a few decades at the very least.

  • Tonio

    psychological/emotional torture has been an established concept for a few decades at the very least.
    True for legal and political experts. But what about the general population?


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