Andrew Sullivan has for years rightly blasted the New York Times for refusing to use the word ‘torture’ when describing what the Bush administration did to detainees. Now Bill Keller of the Times attempts to defend that reluctance. I say ‘attempts’ because he fails miserably. Bizarrely, he admits that it clearly was torture even though they have refused to call it that:
Why, in 2013, is it front-page news that the Bush Administration engaged in “torture?” It took a nonpartisan panel two years and 577 pages to establish that the torment inflicted on prisoners under the rubric of “enhanced interrogation” was unequivocally torture. Didn’t we already know that?
Well yes, we did. So why has the Times refused to call it torture? His weak attempt to defend it:
Talk about false equivalence. The obvious difference is that the definition of terrorism is based upon intent; if an act of violence and mayhem is done for the purpose of making a political point, to express outrage (particularly at a government) or to create a sense of panic, we generally call it terrorism (as opposed to, say, a serial killer, who may kill just as many people but does so for private rather than public reasons). Since we do not yet know who set off the bombs or why they did it, we have no idea if it should be called terrorism or not. I suspect we will find out soon.
Now that I reside in the opinion zone, I use the word “torture” without hesitation, but I still believe that editors in the news pages should be a little slow to preempt the judgment of readers, or to use language that carries a suggestion of political posture. Does the nonpartisan report made public today mean that what is “torture” in the Opinion pages can now be “torture” in the news pages? Has the noun shed some of its partisan freight? Watch that space.
Like “torture,” “terror” is a word with both common and formal meanings. It has legal as well as moral weight. It is not just an attribute but a definition. While bypassing “torture” tends to offend the left, failing to hit the “terror” button is viewed on the right as evidence of spinelessness, if not sympathy for the devil. Refer to Hamas or Hezbollah or the Taliban without appending the word “terrorist” and you are, in the eyes of some, an apologist by default.
That simply isn’t the case with torture. There is zero question that waterboarding is torture and a war crime. We know that because we have tried and convicted the agents of other governments for doing it many times. And our own government has called nearly everything we did to detainees torture when it has been done by other governments. And the Times has also called those things torture when committed by other governments. I would argue that not being consistent in this regard, treating it differently when done by our government than when it is done by others, is quite obviously adopting a “suggestion of political posture.”