Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Calling Torture Torture

Digby's recently covered The New York Times' decision to call torture torture, Marcy Wheeler's summary of the issue, and possible reasons for the Times' shift.

It's worth remembering that The New York Times and many other outlets have been consistently pressed on their reluctance to use the term "torture" since news of U.S. torture first broke. A 2010 media study by Harvard students showed that, since the 1930s, major U.S. media outlets consistently called waterboarding torture when other countries did it, but changed their approach after 9/11, news about U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib broke and the subject became more widely discussed. The study's conclusion:

The classification of waterboarding is not unclear; the current debate cannot be divorced from its historical roots. The status quo ante was that waterboarding is torture, in American law, international law, and in the newspapers’ own words. Had the papers not changed their coverage, it would still have been called torture. By straying from that established norm, the newspapers imply disagreement with it, despite their claims to the contrary. In the context of their decades-long practice, the newspapers’ sudden equivocation on waterboarding can hardly be termed neutral.

Brian Stelter at The New York Times quoted some of the study as well as other criticism (to his credit), and also ran the response from then-executive editor Bill Keller. At Harper's, Scott Horton offered a scathing assessment:

The man who authored the New York Times’s doublespeak standards on torture, Bill Keller, responded recently to the Harvard University study of his paper’s use of the word “torture” with respect to specific techniques, including waterboarding, by saying:

I think this Kennedy School study — by focusing on whether we have embraced the politically correct term of art in our news stories — is somewhat misleading and tendentious.

Got that? It’s “misleading,” “tendentious,” and “politically correct” to point out that the newspaper of record uses “torture” to describe specific practices when used by governments other than the United States, but does not use the word when the same practices are used by the United States. In fact, of course, it is Keller who is being “politically correct.” He made plain in his comments to Brian Stelter that the Times decided not to apply the term torture to waterboarding because Vice President Cheney insisted that it was not torture. This is not merely being politically correct; it is being politically subordinate. This is particularly clear when we examine the work of a prominent Times reporter in the field: Bill Keller (hat tip: NYTPicker). Reporting on police brutality in the field from South Africa and the Soviet Union in the eighties, Keller had no compunction about using the word “torture.” Here’s a snippet from his reporting on Soviet police brutality that won him a Pulitzer Prize–describing the mistreatment of a factory worker in Petrozavodsk (Karelia):

A factory worker, according to the report, was kicked so severely that doctors had to remove a ruptured spleen. The medical report said doctors had found three pints of clotted blood in the abdomen.

Keller called this “torture,” and indeed it was. Soviet authorities insisted at the time that the conduct, while abusive, was not torture, yet Keller didn’t see fit even to bother his readers with their denials. Another major difference between the Soviet torture incidents and the more recent American ones is that the Soviet incidents, also covered in reform-oriented Soviet journals like Ogonëk and by the courageous Arkady Vaksberg in Literaturnaya Gazeta, were investigated by the office of the procurator general, with the investigations leading to dismissal and prosecution of the law enforcement officials involved. The idea that American officials of the Bush era who were involved in torture would be punished or prosecuted is, of course, simply unthinkable.

Bill Keller’s political correctness couldn’t be more clear cut. Aggressive interrogation tactics applied by a regime like the Soviet Union or South Africa in the eighties are “torture,” even though their officials insist they are not. But aggressive interrogation tactics applied by the Bush Administration cannot be called “torture” even if they are even more brutal, because that would offend Dick Cheney. This is precisely the sort of political manipulation of language that George Orwell warned against in “Politics and the English Language.”

Considering the crap that was flying publicly during the heyday of the Bush administration, when any pushback could earn an attack on the questioner's patriotism ("watch what they say, watch what they do" ), it's likely it was even worse behind closed doors. (Examples abound in Barton Gellman's excellent book Angler and Jane Mayer's The Dark Side; read them if you haven't.) After all, Bill Keller also chose to hold a story on the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic spying at the urging of the Bush administration (who wanted the story killed outright). When it came to torture, Bush officials surely did a full court press on The New York Times and other outlets, insisting (in some combination) that what they ordered wasn't torture, and/or that it was necessary, and/or the people who did it were patriots, and/or that the media were disloyal traitors and would be aiding the terrorists if they didn't toe the line. It's easy to imagine some hesitation from the top editors. Still, they had standards and history to drawn on, to help them decide between essentially two competing interpretations:

1. Magically, now that members of the Bush administration – Americans – were ordering it, waterboarding and other forms of torture were no longer torture.

2. The Bush administration was seeking to avoid accountability for wrongdoing that could include war crimes; this demanded further investigation.

(Hanlon's razor comes to mind, as does the value of a good bullshit detector.)

A later piece by Horton, "The Importance of Being Judgmental," covered that NPR, The Washington Post and most other U.S. media outlets took the same approach toward the word "torture." As Horton observed, "In this case, suspension of judgment was not neutrality. It was substituting euphemisms for the direct words that the English language furnishes."

Greg Sargent also wrote a good piece about this issue at the time (partially quoted by Stelter):

The Times' explanation is that once Bush officials started arguing that waterboarding wasn't torture, the only way to avoid taking sides was to stop using the word. But here's the problem: Not using the word also constitutes taking a side: That of the Bush administration.

That's because this debate wasn't merely a semantic one. It was occurring in a legal context.

The administration's critics pointed out that the decision to approve waterboarding was illegal under international law designating it torture. The Bush administration argued that waterboarding isn't torture in order to argue that it isn't illegal.

The decision to refrain from calling waterboarding "torture" is tantamount to siding with the Bush administration's claim that the act it acknowledged doing is not illegal under any statute. No one is saying the Times should have adopted the role of judge and jury and proclaimed the Bush administration officially guilty. Rather, the point is that by dropping use of the word "torture," it took the Bush position -- against those who argued that the act Bush officials sanctioned is already agreed upon as illegal under the law.

Think of it this way: We all agree that pickpocketing constitutes "theft." A pickpocket doesn't get to come along and argue: "No, what I did isn't theft, it's merely pickpocketing, and therefore it isn't illegal." Any newspaper that played along with a pickpocket's demand to stop using the word "theft" would be taking the pickpocket's side, not occupying any middle ground. There is no middle ground here.

The semantic battles are symptomatic of a deeper disengagement. Since the beginning of the torture "debate," I've been continually struck by how torture apologists and proponents refuse to engage honestly with the evidence. They've all but ignored The Red Cross Torture Report, the "Taguba Report," the Senate Armed Services Report and other accounts. As I've written before, torture apologists offer a set of descending denials: We did not torture; waterboarding (and the other things we did) are not torture; even if it was torture, it was legal; even it was illegal, it was necessary; even it was not necessary, it was not our fault. They will talk endlessly about Jack Bauer, ticking time bombs, and theoretical threats, but not about the very real torture and abuse of Mahar Arar, Binyam Mohamed and Dilawar Dilawar, among others. The crucial role of torture in selling the war in Iraq is also ignored. Some reporters and outlets have doggedly covered these subjects, but these issues haven't been popular with the Beltway establishment and most mainstream outlets. It's not as if they've been pushing for a more full investigation – mostly, they've sought to shut such efforts down. (Probably, as with the lead-up to the Iraq War, shame and culpability play a role in the lack of attention.) As usual, I'll say: the more you seriously study the subject of torture, the more likely you are to oppose it. And the more you seriously study the Bush administration's torture program, the less likely you are to accept the arguments of "good faith." (It's not as if they weren't warned at multiple stages.)

Releasing the summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee's torture report would be good, and releasing the whole report would be even better, preferably with minimal redactions (those that are actually necessary versus redactions due to ass-covering and embarrassment). There was a time South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was discussed as a possible model for investigating the U.S. torture program, but there's little desire for that from the Department of Justice, the Obama administration, or the mainstream Beltway press. (There's certainly no interest from the Cheney family, the rest of the Bush administration, or their allies.) Probably the most hopeful notion comes from one of Brad DeLong's readers, back in 2012:

I would urge people to think of accountability as a generational project -- this is how it has worked out in Chile, Argentina, South Africa... the thing that can be done now is create opportunities for more participants to tell their stories, put on record what was done and who did it and how, so that the record gets fuller rather than thinner over time.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

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