Balkinization  

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Calling Things by Their Right Names

Marty Lederman

Kudos to William Safire for his "On Language" column today, in which he writes, unequivocally, that "if the word torture, rooted in the Latin for 'twist,' means anything (and it means 'the deliberate infliction of excruciating physical or mental pain to punish or coerce'), then waterboarding is a means of torture."

Safire also pointedly ends his column with this quote from Darius Rejali, on why "waterboarding" has recently been coined to replace "water torture," the "water cure," and the "water treatment":
"There is a special vocabulary for torture. When people use tortures that are old, they rename them and alter them a wee bit. They invent slightly new words to mask the similarities. This creates an inside club, especially important in work where secrecy matters. Waterboarding is clearly a jailhouse joke. It refers to surfboarding" — a word found as early as 1929 — "they are attaching somebody to a board and helping them surf. Torturers create names that are funny to them."
Most important, and most striking, however, is Safire's lede, in which the language maven, our most prominent popular word dissector, refuses to mince words:
Some locutions begin as bland bureaucratic euphemisms to conceal great crimes. As their meanings become clear, these collocations gain an aura of horror. In the past century, final solution and ethnic cleansing were phrases that sent a chill through our lexicon. In this young century, the word in the news — though not yet in most dictionaries — that causes much wincing during debate is the verbal noun waterboarding.

Comments:

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, drives me up the wall faster than the media's use of euphemisms perscribed by the Bush Administration.

Waterboarding instead of water torture, special interrogation methods instead of torture, weapons of mass destruction instead of nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons, spin instead of outright lies...the list seems endless.

By allowing the administration to frame the descriptions, they timidly allow others to describe what's happening. This is a perversion of journalism at its very base, and needs to stop now.
 

Controlling the terminology works both ways: "Partial Birth Abortion" and "Assault Weapons" are both terms devised by those who want to outlaw them. On the other hand, the term "Campaign Finance Reform" was used by supporters, and won out over the more neutral "Campaign Finance Regulation." This probably contributed to the enactment of the regulations.
 

Human behavior is depressingly close to that of birds....those huge flocks that swarm in the fall...darting and diving almost in unison....thousands and thousands...following the one or two in front.

Maybe the marketplace of ideas does not assure that the best will emerge and prevail....momentarily or over time.....

Where is this all going?
 

The term waterbaording was used by the military in SERE training for years prior to the Bush Administration. Given that the CIA coercive interrogation regime was derived from SERE training, it should be unsurprising that CIA also borrowed the terms.

The fact that none of you (including Safire apparently) had heard of the term prior to its appearance in the NYT during the Bush Administration hardly means that it was invented by them.

As to the point of Safire's piece, I am unsure how the term "waterboarding" is supposed to be blander or more innocuous than prior terms for far worse practices such as the "water cure" or the "water treatment." If the Bush Administration intended the technique to be sold in public, I am sure some PR genius could have come up with a far better term.
 

"If the Bush Administration intended the technique to be sold in public, I am sure some PR genius could have come up with a far better term."

You're right. They prefer to torture without having it become public.
 

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, drives me up the wall faster than the media's use of euphemisms prescribed by the Bush Administration.

It's worse than just euphemisms. The NY Times today reports that Bush vetoed "a Congressional effort to limit the Central Intelligence Agency's latitude to subject terrorism suspects to harsh interrogation techniques."

That way of putting it is biased in favor of the Bush administration in three ways. First, the forms of torture that the bill would have prohibited are worse than "harsh." Second, some of the detainees who have been tortured have not been terrorism suspects, but have been people known to be innocent. Third, some of the people who have been tortured were not tortured for the sake of interrogation, but for the sake of torture.
 

How about calling it:

Up your nose with a rubber hose.

John Travolta, Welcome Back, Mr. Kotter.
 

I too was disgusted with the NY Times article.

The first sentence said that Bush "cemented his legacy for strong executive powers"

I have never hear torture described in such high-minded terms.

Next it said that in waterboarding, prisoners were "threatened with drowning"

Oh, merely "threatened"?

Later the article said that the veto "underscored his determination to preserve ...prerogatives his administration has claimed ... and to enshrine them into law"

Vetoing the additional ban on something that is already illegal under multiple laws and treaties has the effect of making it legal?
 

Paul Kramer's The New Yorker (2/25/08) article titled "The Water Cure" includes a picture taken in May of 1901 in the Philippines of the "water detail." This picture is more than 1,000 words. The article includes reference to a letter from a soldier who had served in Philippines describing the "water cure" that a prisoner would be subjected to: "Now, this is the way we give them the water cure. Lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot, then put a round stick in the mouth and pour a pail of water in the mouth and nose, and if they don't give up pour in another pail. They swell up like toads. I'll tell you it is a terrible torture." Another solder wrote that a prisoner's throat had been "held so he could not prevent swallowing the water, so that he had to allow the water to run into his stomach" following which the water was "forced out of him by pressing a foot on his stomach or else with [the soldiers'] hands."

HEIMLICH WATER CURE?
 

aussie lawyer said...

Vetoing the additional ban on something that is already illegal under multiple laws and treaties has the effect of making it legal?

Actually, Congress' long time knowledge and tacit approval of CIA coercive interrogation and recent attempts to either expressly outlaw waterboarding or to restrict the CIA to techniques authorized in the Army Interrogation Manual indicate that they do not believe the CIA program to be currently illegal.

The DOJ has repeatedly said it does not believe the program is unlawful.

The President's veto indicates that he is also of the same opinion.

The bottom line here is that one can reasonably and in good faith believe that waterboarding fits their personal definition of torture and ought to be illegal, but is not currently illegal under the vague and unworkable torture statute.
 

Our daily ranter continues with his version of the "Chinese Water Torture" - blah, blah, blah, blah, repeated ad nauseum. When will Balkinization finally give up? After all, our national sanity is at stake.
 

This comment has been removed by the author.
 

Baghdad, do you think I could waterboard you into admitting that you played a key role in the 9/11 attack?
 

The bottom line here is that one can reasonably and in good faith believe that waterboarding fits their personal definition of torture and ought to be illegal, but is not currently illegal under the vague and unworkable torture statute.

Nope. It just means that an Administration that pursues a strategy of pretending something is legal that is illegal, and is abetted by a cowardly opposing party, can get away with it.

In terms of black letter international human rights law-- incorporated into our law in the Convention Against Torture-- it is entirely clear and well established that waterboarding is torture. Whether Bart's ignorance on this issue comes from simple partisan dishonesty or the fact that he doesn't know anything about international human rights law, he is, nonetheless, ignorant. What is sad is that he definitively opines about things he knows nothing about.
 

Picked us at Laura Rozen's site:

No More. No Torture. No Exceptions.
 

Bart,

Nobody claimed that the term waterboarding was created by the Bush administration, so your criticism on this point is invalid. The only claim about the Bush administration is that they have been using this euphemism and the media have followed them in it.
 

SHAG FROM BROOKLINE SAYS:

Balkinization posts provide the names of their authors up front. But for the comments, the commenter's name (real or alias) is at the end. Some other Blogs that use Blogger provide the names of commenters up front. Wouln't it be more fair to have the commenters' names up front? Or should it be a guessing game as one scrolls only to discover trolls? We all have 24/7 limitations (although I don't have a day - or night - job in my semi-retirement). If I see the byline of Jonah Goldberg, for example, I know enough to save what little time I have left to read something meaningful. So putting the commenter's name up front here would permit some to scroll beyond the troll. Or is this a form of torture that Balkinization condones? Please, do not force us to read drek; give us the scroll option. I am taking my own advice by providing my identity (in alias form) up front, so that even a troll can scroll through. (I note that when leaving a comment, previous comments listed on that screen start with the commenters' names. So it should not be technically difficult to do so when one goes to the comments following the post.)
 

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