Thursday, February 14, 2008

Torture is torture, except when it's news

The issue of word manipulation in politics and media is really Glenn Greenwald's claimed territory, but I can't let this week go by without commenting on it. Why? Because I heard a short news clip from the BBC about the six Guantanamo prisoners who have finally been charged with some sort of crime. And the broadcaster did something that made me want to break things: he said that one suspect's confession was under question because it had been gained using "the controversial waterboarding technique," a phrase that news media have universally decided is an acceptable way to refer to torture.

By not calling waterboarding torture, news media around the world are complicit in the US government's flagrant violations of the Geneva Conventions and the ease with which they discard their humanity. By not simply saying straight out that acts such as waterboarding are wrong and evil, news media are pushing a pervasive doublethink on populations around the world. This is where we get our information--if the BBC doesn't call it torture, it must be at least debatable, if not perfectly okay, to partly drown people in order to make them say things. Must be okay, then, to deprive them of sleep, give them electric shocks, kick them, pull their hair, herd them into camps designed to cut them off from families, cultures, and societies, and then gas them. What the hell is the difference?

We're all familiar with the idea of doublethink and how it has infiltrated our news outlets and common culture. We're also familiar with the tricks politicians use to make their atrocious positions more acceptable. We all know, here on a blog devoted to language use, that words can be used to manipulate and trick and redefine how we think. Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is "energy exploration." The Refuge itself is made more vague by calling it ANWR. Coal gained from blowing up pristine mountains and leveling them is a source of "clean energy." Global warming is now "climate change" (although I think that one backfired a little bit). And torture is a "vital interrogation tool."

It is unacceptable that news media play along with these tricks, just to keep the Bush administration happy. Pollution is pollution. Coal mining is filthy and destructive. Compassionate conservativism means absolutely nothing. And torture is torture.

The administration claims, as we all know, that they need permission to use these techniques to preserve our national security. What sort of security are we talking about? Our simple physical existence? What kind of physical security do you have if you've sold your soul to the devil (sorry for the melodrama)? What could possibly be more important to our national security than preserving our humanity?


Ollock said...

About "climate change"; I was under the impression that that term was actually chosen by environmental advocates because "global warming" often leads people to believe that there's supposed to be some gradual, universal warming trend, while in reality the change in average global temperatures has drastically different effects in different areas (including actually making some areas colder).

As far as these words are concerned. I agree that waterboarding is a torture technique and should be framed as such. And also, what makes it reprehensible to me is that, from what I have been able to learn about torture so far, it doesn't, in fact, work. So not only is it morally reprehensible (in your view and mine) in that it harms another human being, it also isn't a practical and valid way to get information. That's the story we need on the news -- if evidence suggests that torture isn't likely to get reliable information, than any argument that it is being done for the "greater good" in order to stop attacks can be thrown out.

John Cowan said...

"When an argument goes from principle to expediency, trust neither half."

Torture would be wrong even if it worked fine. Back in the 17th century, England had no torture, while the Netherlands had it. However, one could be put to torture only for crimes, and on evidence, that would justify conviction and hanging in England. So if you could survive the torture and say nothing, you could escape death.

Did that make the torture justifiable?

Ollock said...

I wasn't saying that the "ends justifies the means" argument was necessarily sound -- merely that they are easily thrown out by evidence that the means is ineffective in achieving the end.

I'm a relativist, but I would not condone torture in any case. It is psychologically damaging, and I don't think anything desirable to either party can come of it.

Introvert Girl said...

I could be wrong about the climate change thing, but I heard an interview with the guy who manipulates Bush's words (don't know what his position was called--not a speechwriter) on Fresh Air last year or the year before, and am pretty sure he took credit for rebranding global warming. He was also responsible for "energy exploration" and "Clear Skies Initiative" and naming some education initiatives.

I'm not sure how to give input on your conversation about the expediency of torture. With an issue like this, I simply can't enter the mindset. It's just so twisted and wrong. Trying to step back and look at it from a values proposition, I can only say that, to me, any act that lessens your humanity isn't worth doing, no matter how many lives are saved. Of course, if the lives of my children were at stake I might think differently, but that's a selfish protect-my-loved-ones stance and doesn't necessarily apply to the argument.

Jeff W said...

The person you're referring to, IG, is Frank Luntz; the NPR show was this edition of Fresh Air [9 Jan 2007].

At 12:36 in the interview, Luntz says: "People react to global warming in a slightly different way than climate change. Climate change is less—it creates less hysteria. Global warming is more intense, it's more emotional,it's, quite frankly, more impactful. Climate change is more thoughtful, more reasonable. Global warming causes people to divide. Climate change says 'let's deal with the issue and let's see if we can come to an agreement'."

Ellen Goodman noted, in 2005, the use of the term here: "The climate is equally apparent in the struggle over what the Bush administration calls "climate change" -- and everyone else calls global warming. " The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) uses the term "climate change" for human-caused change so. apparently, it is now more or less synonymous with "global warming." (It seems like the term "anthropogenic global warming" might now be the preferred term for climate change skeptics, possibly because of its wonkiness.)

(Frank Luntz, BTW, in that interview, says that Orwellian means "to speak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers something happening, and to do so without any perjorative whatsoever." Just one guess as to which adjective fits that description.)

I find this interview painful to listen to, not so much because of Luntz's duplicity but because of his utter conviction. It's truly scary.

With regard to the word torture, I have a related issue with the various descriptions of waterboarding as "simulated" or "controlled" drowning or some other hedging term. Waterboarding, of course, is drowning.

Karen M said...

Waterboarding should be known as yanking someone back from the depths of drowning, after you've caused them to drown in the first place. That would be far more accurate, and easily understood by anyone over the age of 10.

There is something deeply ironic to me that one of the meanings of torture has to do with language itself:
"to distort or pervert (language, meaning, etc.)"

Of course, the GWB maladministration made a practice of torturing the language even before they put torture into practice as a method of "interrogation." Sheesh!

Clear Skies, Healthy Forests, every one of their initiatives begins by torturing meaning.

Enhanced interrogation technique? Enhanced for whom?

A great post, I'Girl! Thank you!

Frankly, my dear, ... said...

Torture works fine as long as your goal is to get someone to say whatever it is that you want them to say. For extracting operational intelligence, not so much. Hence torture is a favorite of those who intend to use the torturee's confession as evidence at his trial.

Gordon said...

Torture also works well (as does disappearing) to intimidate a populace and squash dissent.