Among the news media's many failings, none may be more pernicious than the persistent confusion between fairness and moral indifference.
Regular readers of Regarding Media may recall that the late Edward R. Murrow delivered about the best possible judgment on this confusion's impact, when he decried a faux notion of journalistic fairness that is willing to concede "the word of Judas equal weight with that of Jesus."
It's the kind of he-said-she-said news coverage that would have reported the Sermon on the Mount this way: "On a mountainside in Galilee today, a popular young rabbi argued that 'the meek shall inherit the earth.' Other religious authorities, however, pointed out that if God did not want the rich to fleece the poor, he would not have allowed them to behave like sheep."
This week, Americans were treated to their latest rehearsal of this phony fairness in the coverage of U.S. Atty. Gen.-designate Michael B. Mukasey's attempts to win Senate confirmation. President George W. Bush hopes to replace the haplessly sycophantic Alberto Gonzales with the former federal judge from New York, but the nomination is in trouble because Mukasey refuses to tell members of the Senate's Judiciary Committee whether he believes waterboarding is torture and, therefore, illegal.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are insistent that any discussion of the issue is precluded by the exigencies of national security and the war on terror. Cut to the core of their real argument, however, and it boils down to the naked assertion that whatever the president says is legal is legal -- including torture, which isn't torture, if the president says it isn't.
As the Washington Post, which has done more than any other news outlet to bring to light this administration's construction of a secret gulag where torture is routine, reported this week: "Waterboarding generally involves strapping a prisoner to a board, covering his face or mouth with a cloth, and pouring water over his face to create the sensation of drowning, human rights groups say. The practice dates at least to the Spanish Inquisition and has been prosecuted as torture in U.S. military courts since the Spanish-American War. The State Department has condemned its use in other countries.
"Officials have said the Bush administration authorized the use of waterboarding on at least three prisoners kept in secret detention by the CIA after the Justice Department said it was legal, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed."
The Post might have added that after World War II, the United States prosecuted Japanese officers who had presided over waterboarding as war criminals.
So what we have here is a president and vice president who want to install as the country's chief law enforcement official a man who refuses to flatly say that the United States of America should not torture people. Putting aside the surreal question of how our elected officials ever equivocated themselves into a debate over whether to torture, the descent of most of the press into comfortable euphemism this week has been a stomach-turning experience.
The New York Times, for example, reported that Mukasey's confirmation is "in doubt over his refusal to state a clear legal position on a classified Central Intelligence Agency program to interrogate terrorism suspects . . ." Yet nothing about this impasse has anything real to do with classification or intelligence work; it has everything to do with whether we now wish to place our nation among those that ignore basic human rights and elemental moral decency as a matter of state policy. Meanwhile, this newspaper and others repeatedly described waterboarding as a "harsh technique" or as a "coercive measure." It is neither of those things. It is torture, and the refusal to make that point each and every time this repugnant practice comes up is a form of rhetorical squeamishness indistinguishable from moral cowardice.
Strangely enough, this week's clearest statement of what the fight in Washington is really all about didn't appear in any newspaper or broadcast news outlet, but on an Internet site ( www.smallwarsjournal.com) popular with unconventional warfare and intelligence professionals. The author is Malcolm W. Nance, a veteran special operations consultant to various U.S. intelligence agencies and a master instructor in the U.S. Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program in San Diego. Nance also is an experienced Arabic-speaking interrogator. He wrote that one of the things he did when helping to develop the program that trains navy fliers and others on how to stand up to torture was to visit Cambodia:
"Before arriving for my assignment at SERE, I traveled . . . to visit the torture camps of the Khmer Rouge. . . . I wanted to know how real torturers and terror camp guards would behave and learn how to resist them from survivors of such horrors. . . . It was in the S-21 death camp known as Tuol Sleng in downtown Phnom Penh, where I found a perfectly intact inclined water board. Next to it was the painting on how it was used. . . .
"On a Mekong River trip, I met a 60-year-old man, happy to be alive and a cheerful travel companion, who survived the genocide and torture. He spoke openly about it and gave me a valuable lesson. . . . In torture, he confessed to being a hermaphrodite, a CIA spy, a Buddhist Monk, a Catholic Bishop and the son of the king of Cambodia. He was actually just a schoolteacher whose crime was that he once spoke French. He remembered 'the Barrel' version of waterboarding quite well. Head first until the water filled the lungs, then you talk."
Nance has no time for euphemisms and no doubt that waterboarding is anything other than torture: "Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word. Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim's face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.
"Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration -- usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right, it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again."
That's what really is at issue in the Mukasey confirmation hearing. When the media characterize it as a political struggle between the White House and congressional Democrats or as a complex debate over national security in a post Sept. 11 world -- two convenient dodges -- they aren't being realistic or fair. What the media really are doing is engaging in a sophisticated fan dance -- a convenient act of concealment.
What's really at stake is whether this country will continue to stand with the framers of our Constitution and our authentic moral traditions or whether we now will allow Bush and Cheney to put us shoulder to shoulder with Pol Pot.
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times