Rebranding torture

Rebranding torture March 10, 2008

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.

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