The Semantics of Torture (and How It Tortures American Journalism)

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The Guardian/UK

The Semantics of Torture (and How It Tortures American Journalism)

'Enhanced interrogation techniques' is a euphemism. Why is the US media refusing to call torture by its true name?

by
John McQuaid

The US media's most esteemed institutions - the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and TV network news divisions among them - have a small but significant problem with the English language. They are unable to call torture by its true name.

By any common-sense standard, the abusive interrogation techniques employed by the CIA to elicit information from terrorist suspects - including waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, forced standing and confinement in a box - are torture. Employed individually or in combination, they were intended to break prisoners and achieve total submission. Some were adapted from methods used by the Chinese during the Korean war. Anyone who doubts this should pause, strip away the irrelevant subtexts of 24 or "they had it coming" and ask themselves: What if my loved one were waterboarded?

Yet major media outlets have taken a bizarrely agnostic position on this question. They routinely refer to those techniques as "enhanced" or "harsh" interrogation. The word "torture" remains off-limits. Why?

The Obama administration has labelled the techniques torture and banned them. But because Dick Cheney and other former Bush officials and their allies in the Republican party resolutely maintain that they are not torture, the media, bound to traditions of balance and fairness, feels it must play the issue down the middle. That means employing euphemisms as the ugly revelations pour forth that inch closer to the T-word - yet never quite reach it.

The New York Times, for example, has done some groundbreaking reporting on the Bush administration's torture policies. Lately, though, NYT staff seem to have devoted nearly as much time debating what to call torture as reporting on it. Recently, the New York Times's public editor Clark Hoyt devoted an entire column to the extensive internal discussions that led to a subtle shift in Times style: the coercive interrogations the CIA performed on Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others are no longer called "harsh", but "brutal".

According to Hoyt, Times reporters and editors finely calibrated the meanings and implications of using "harsh" versus "brutal":

"Harsh sounded like the way I talked to my kids when they were teenagers and told them I was going to take the car keys away," said [managing editor Jill] Abramson, who consulted with several legal experts and talked it over with Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief. Abramson and Baquet agreed that "brutal" was a better word.

Such attention to language is sensitive, nuanced and admirable. But in this case absurd.

These discussions presume there is an unresolved public debate over whether waterboarding, et al are torture. But the debate is an Orwellian trap: Cheney and his allies claim that torture is useful in defending American interests and lives, but US and international law ban torture. So to protect its citizens the US must torture but call it something else. Thus the famous George Bush line: "We do not torture."

By failing to call torture by its true name, the New York Times and other media outlets lend legitimacy to this rhetorical scam.

This is a test of the basic values of journalism. The US media fancies itself a cynical bunch, taking nothing politicians say at face value, untangling the knot of interests that shape all political decisions: money, opportunism, self-preservation. They'd do well to apply that approach here: A group of ex-public officials - whose record of honesty and credibility on national security matters is already in considerable doubt - insists that torture is not torture. Even if they're sincere in their assertions that "enhanced interrogations" are key to defeating terrorism, self-interest is also a key motivation for this stance. They don't want to be pariahs prosecuted for war crimes.

Still, this is a tough issue for the media. I know some of those involved in these internal debates and sympathise. Calling torture torture strongly implies someone has committed a crime, which may have legal implications. Post reporter Paul Kane recently said in an online chat that his bosses fear a libel suit. Douglas Jehl, a New York Times editor, put it this way: "This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgement rendered?"

Yet the NYT later demonstrated the sophistry of this question in its own news pages, publishing the obituary of a Korean war veteran who had endured treatment very similar to the CIA's "brutal interrogations" the hands of the Chinese. The paper called it "torture" - absent any legal judgements against 1950s-era Maoist jailers.

But the main reason for the media's skittishness is politics. As Hoyt explained, if you start calling torture torture, a lot of people will get mad at you and accuse you of liberal bias. The traditional media are supposed to referee political fights, not take sides, and the perception of bias (sometimes real, sometimes imagined) has already driven away a large chunk of the population during a time when readers and viewers are migrating to other sources of information.

This has made media outlets permanently jittery about attacks from the right, seeking refuge in the dubious assumption that if the US government did it, it must have legitimacy. Worse, some have moved on from mere temporising to a kind of institutional embrace. This week the Philadelphia Inquirer debuted a monthly column by John Yoo, author of several of the dubious legal memos authorising abusive interrogations.

It's time for the media to re-examine the assumptions that led it into this trap. The left/right balancing that traditional media outlets undertake is contingent on the existence of a broad political and social consensus that hasn't existed for 40 years. And the perception-of-bias issue must be weighed against a newspaper's basic obligation to tell its readers the truth, and to not filter information using euphemisms coined to obscure it.

By dancing endlessly around the question of whether "brutal" equals "torture", media outlets only damage their own credibility.

John McQuaid is a Washington-based journalist, specialising in science and the environment.

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