Monday, July 5, 2010

Tortured Semantics

"On United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the United States reaffirms its commitment to the worldwide elimination of torture. Freedom from torture is an inalienable human right, and we are committed to building a world where human rights are respected and protected by the rule of law.

The United States is continuing to work to expand freedom and democracy throughout the world. We will seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, and we will help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way. Throughout the world, there are many who have been seeking to have their voices heard, to stand up for their right to freedom, and to break the chains of tyranny. Too many of those courageous women and men are paying a terrible price for their brave acts of dissent. Many have been detained, arrested, thrown in prison, and subjected to torture by regimes that fail to understand that their habits of control will not serve them well in the long-term. America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies. All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
- Presidential statement of George W. Bush released by the White House, June 26, 2005.

"We do not torture." - George w. Bush, November 7, 2005.

Students at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy released a study last week on the media's reporting of waterboarding over the last century (PDF). From it they conclude it appears the media was complicit with the Bush administration by not calling waterboarding torture.

Let's face it, when the administration's legal counsel says no law prevents the president from crushing the testicles of a child of a suspect, newspaper editors are placed in tough position. Do they make the president and his administration look as extreme as the position(s) they take? And when that legal counsel is determined to be guilty of poor judgment only, should they characterize this finding as endorsing the use of torture or do they use a more acceptable euphemism?

Justice Department lawyers showed "poor judgment" but did not commit professional misconduct when they authorized CIA interrogators to use waterboarding and other harsh tactics at the height of the U.S. war on terrorism, an internal review released Friday found.

From the study's abstract:

From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002‐2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture. In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator.

The media response to the study has been just as tortured as their reporting of waterboarding. One of my favorite responses:

Asked for comment on Thursday, Cameron W. Barr, the national security editor for The Washington Post, wrote in an e-mail message, “After the use of the term ‘torture’ became contentious, we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration.

“But we often cited others describing waterboarding as torture in stories that mentioned the technique,” Mr. Barr wrote. “We gave prominence to stories reporting official determinations that waterboarding or other techniques constituted torture.”

So rather than take the "contentious" position that waterboarding is torture, the reportage should state that there are official determinations that it constitutes torture. A new form of "just sayin'".

Let's take this example from the New York Times, April 19, 2009.

C.I.A. interrogators used waterboarding, the near-drowning technique that top Obama administration officials have described as illegal torture, 266 times on two key prisoners from Al Qaeda, far more than had been previously reported.

Only top Obama administration officials describe waterboarding as an illegal torture when it's clearly a violation of international law?

Back in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1994.

From Article 2:

1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.

2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

From Article 3:

1. No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

From Article 7:

1. The State Party in the territory under whose jurisdiction a person alleged to have committed any offence referred to in article 4 is found shall in the cases contemplated in article 5, if it does not extradite him, submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution.

Priding ourselves on being a nation of laws and knowing that "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever" may be used to permit torture, what is the reaction of our media and the current administration to this admission of guilt a month ago?

"Yeah, we water-boarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed," Bush said of the terrorist who master-minded the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. He said that event shaped his presidency and convinced him the nation was in a war against terror.

"I'd do it again to save lives."
- George W. Bush, June 2, 2010

(Crickets chirping)

Don't you know? We do not torture.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just had a long argument with someone who believes that circumcision (male) is in fact torture. I stumbled upon your blog as well as this article:

It is about the importance of the semantics of the word torture.

I personally believe a large part of deeming an action ethically and morally wrong lies in the intent of the person performing the action. We could say torture is so many things seeing as many dictionaries define it merely as causing pain (which ignores the emotional response and moral obligations of conceding to the definition).