Glenn Greenwald has a few things to say about the euphemization of torture:
In today’s New York Times, William Glaberson describes a proposal being circulated by the Obama administration to enable Guantanamo detainees to be put to death upon a mere guilty plea, i.e., without the need for a full-blown trial. The article describes the purpose of the proposal this way:
The proposal would ease what has come to be recognized as the government’s difficult task of prosecuting men who have confessed to terrorism but whose cases present challenges. Much of the evidence against the men accused in the Sept. 11 case, as well as against other detainees, is believed to have come from confessions they gave during intense interrogations at secret C.I.A. prisons. In any proceeding, the reliability of those statements would be challenged, making trials difficult and drawing new political pressure over detainee treatment.
The primary reason to avoid trials upon a guilty plea is to prevent public disclosure of the details of the torture we inflicted on these detainees. Despite that, the word “torture” never once appears in this NYT article. Instead, according to the NYT, detainees in CIA black sites were merely subjected to “intense interrogations.” That’s all? Who opposes “intense interrogations”?
Over the years, we’ve heard a cyclical crescendo rising from the constant murmur about the “liberal media”, implying and sometimes explicitly accusing a conspiracy among journalists to wreck the Republican Party and the right wing of American politics.
Yet over and over, in an effort to be “neutral”, major media outlets, including newspapers of record, have given over not to political correctness, but what is described as “Bureaucratically Suitable” language. BS language is much like its cousin, PC, except that it is tailored to institutional and legalistic desires.
“Harsh treatment” is a BS term. So is “enhanced interrogation technique”. And, yes, the NYT’s latest, “intensive interrogations” is another. And, yes, these terms also have a PC aspect, since their primary effect is political.
Civilian deaths? Civilian casualties? No, no. The proper term is “collateral damage”. Sounds a whole lot nicer, more palatable, doesn’t it, than, say, “dead children”.
There are plenty of reasons to use BS language. To consider the torture chronicle, there were early questions about how we treated “detainees” (e.g., prisoners). So, yes, while there was some vagary, a phrase like “enhanced interrogation techniques” might be suitable. After all, we knew this wasn’t typical interrogation. And it wasn’t just a variation of techniques. There was something more to what was being done.
But once the details of what was happening began to emerge, it seems that all these euphemisms should be thrown out the window. Torture is torture. That’s what we call it when other nations do it. That’s what we call it when we prosecute people for doing it. But when it’s Americans performing these acts, some of them acknowledged for centuries as torture, now we need to invent a new term.
So let us ask about that conspiracy, then. Can the major press really be conspiring against Republicans when it bends over backwards to accommodate the euphemisms that not so much justify the wrongdoing, but intend to stave off the inevitable backlash? And in helping set that tone, establish these terms, has the press not contributed to President Obama’s efforts to continue some of these abhorrent policies?
Obama is a fluent politician. As long as the press continues to give Republicans, on the one hand, and Democratic centrists, to the other, a free pass with BS terminology like “intensive interrogation” or “enhanced interrogation techniques”, the president will have room to maneuver. Once Obama is cornered on the issue, he is likely to do the right thing. However, as we saw with the recent Guantanamo vote, people are frightened of mythical, theoretic possibilities. The discussion on that on even reached the point that Governor Mark Parkinson, of Kansas, went so far as to tell NPR that the maximum security prison at Fort Leavenworth is not secure enough to house terror suspects. That’s right, the only maximum security facility in the Department of Defense is not secure.
This is the sort of “logic” that dominates the current political discourse about terrorism suspects, torture, and war.
What has that to do with euphemism? Only that it describes something of the political climate in which Obama is attempting to operate. As one of many liberals disappointed and concerned by certain of the administration’s actions to date, the fact of the political climate is the only excuse the president has for his record on terrorism-related issues. One might even suggest that the terrorists have won by terrorizing us into incoherence.
So at some point, it becomes a matter for the people. Are we just fine with calling torture by other names? What will we say when it’s our people in foreign hands? Will “intensive interrogation” and “enhanced interrogation techniques” satisfy us? Will we say, “Oh, well, that’s alright then”?
I would hope not.
As children, Americans learn many myths of good and evil. Adolescence and adulthood reveals that despite these myths, we frequently find ourselves inching toward evil. And the choice becomes clear: either throw in with the evil or fight against it.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil,” said Edmund Burke, “is that good men do nothing.” We all will probably weary of this quote as it transforms into a chorus for the age. But it is yet a vital consideration in understanding the current political discourse.
If people—voters, citizens, consumers, define them how you want—vociferously reject the euphemization of torture, the various institutions will have to respond. And Obama, as noted, is a fluent politician. All it will take to get him to do the right thing is a clear opportunity. Right now, with people afraid of a myth of terrorists, it is difficult to maneuver toward what is good and just.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not James Bond. He is not Lex Luthor. He may have been a 9/11 “mastermind”, but how freakin’ hard is that when nobody is paying attention?
Richard Reid, John Walker Lindh, Zacarias Moussaoui, and Jose Padilla? What? Really? We’re afraid of these people? That these people pose any sort of viable threat to the United States is more an indictment of our poor preparation for terrorism than any feather for their caps. The Newburgh Four? A career thug, a petty gangster, a coke addict, and a schizophrenic? Really?
Are they really “terrorists”? Or perhaps we should, in the interest of being fair, refer to them simply as employing “enhanced political techniques”?
The media won’t do it. And it doesn’t matter who we elect right now, because the politicians won’t do it. Only the will of the people will steer the nation from the dangerous course it has set. And perhaps that means it’s time to be a little bit cruel.
No, we don’t have to be “understanding” anymore. The stakes are too high. DoD’s one and only maximum security facility isn’t secure? What? Seriously, what?! A schizophrenic is the face of terror? Grow up. Get real. “Enhanced interrogation techniques”? Look, if you’re not mature, intelligent, or honest enough to call torture what it is, then sit down and shut up. We’ve given the fearmongers their way, and things have only gotten worse. It’s time for people to stand up and call an idiot an idiot. This is ridiculous. It is disgraceful.
And, yes, people should be able to understand, as a basic proposition, that all these euphemisms are just that: pretty terminology intended to avoid the core issue. But, quite clearly, enough people don’t that the rest of us have to muck around in this rhetorical cesspool.
No wonder the torture advocates worry about flag pins and patriotism. They have nothing of substance to offer. And it’s time to make it clear that the rest of us are aware of just how empty the argument has gotten. It is time to look across the table and say, “Shut the hell up, you stupid twat!”
Who ever would have thought that the politics of torturing another human being was a feel-good issue?
Welcome to America. It’s the twenty-first century, and anything is possible.