I find myself referring to Hugh Rawson's ''Dictionary of Euphemisms And Other Doubletalk'' just about every day, given the all-consuming fog of war clouding minds and political debate since 9/11.
In his pre-war ''message to the Iraqi people,'' President Bush declared: ''the nightmare that Saddam Hussein has brought to your nation will soon be over...You deserve better than tyranny and corruption and torture chambers.''
Now, after the Senate passed legislation banning CIA torture, which really chaffed Cheney's derriere, we find out the CIA has a network of secret prisons in eastern Europe and Asia to ''interrogate'' terrorist suspects.
We also know the Bush administration doesn't consider those captured in the ''war on terror'' worthy of the Geneva Conventions, apparently because ''the evil ones'' don't wear uniforms or represent a recognized government, as if arguing the letter of the law trumps its spirit.
Hence, the emergence of the euphemism ''detainee.''
Have you noticed how our free and independent major media use the same bureaucratese, both in print and television?
Rawson's dictionary traces the word to a 1977 New York Times article about the death of South African apartheid resister, Steven Biko.
''Mr. Biko was the 45th political detainee to die in the hands of the security police,'' the Times reported.
What does it tell you when the word's origins come from South Africa's apartheid past and was used by the ''security'' police?
Another example of ''detainee'' use, Rawson notes, is when the U.S. military imprisoned 1,100 people during the 1983 invasion of Grenada - one of the great ''threats'' to our national security.
A State Department official at the time instructed us: ''They (Grenada prisoners) should be described as detainees.''
When it comes to ''detainees,'' President Bush said, ''we are leading this fight by example,'' all the while seeking a legal exemption on a CIA torture ban.
An ''example,'' indeed, especially in light of a Nov. 3 Human Rights Watch report in which a sergeant with the 82nd Airborne told his interviewer about their reputation in Iraq as ''murderous maniacs'' because torture ''took place almost daily.''
The detainees, one sergeant said, ''knew if they got detained by us before they went to Abu Ghraib then it would be hell to pay... . You couldn't even imagine...it was a like a game. You know, how far could you make this guy go before he passes out or just collapses on you.''
You may think the ''terrorists'' deserve it, but don't forget the Red Cross study, which reported that 90 percent of the ''detainees'' were not part of the Iraqi insurgency.
Appropriately, the National Council of Teachers of English 2004 Doublespeak Award went to the Bush administration, in part because ''Jay S. Bybee, head of the Office of Legal Counsel, advised that, in order to be considered torture, the pain inflicted on a prisoner 'must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death'.''
''Leaving aside the problem of how to quantitatively measure human pain in this way, the memo advised that international laws against torture 'may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogation' of (suspected terrorists).''
Don't be surprised if the plain-talking Bush administration doesn't start calling torture ''aversion therapy'' or ''behavior modification.''
It's not terrorist-sympathizing feel-goodism to recognize that this tortured logic is self-defeating in the all-important war for ''hearts and minds.'' Words shape our thoughts. So as long as we buy into these linguistic sleights-of-hand where prisoners of war are called ''detainees,'' dangling in a legal limbo, ''staying the course'' is the path to ''winning the war and losing the peace.''
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columnist.
© 2005 Cape Cod Times