Tortured Matrimony

As has been noted, for over a half of a century major American newspapers referred to waterboarding as torture. They have recently stopped. Here's Bill Keller speaking for The Times:

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said the newspaper had written so much about the issue of waterboarding that "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."

In an e-mail message on Thursday, Mr. Keller said defenders of the practice of waterboarding, "including senior officials of the Bush administration," insisted that it did not constitute torture. "When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves," Mr. Keller wrote. "Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and human rights advocates as a form of torture. Nobody reading the Times's coverage could be ignorant of the extent of the practice (much of that from information we broke) or mistake it for something benign (we usually use the word 'brutal.')"

Cameron W. Barr defends the Washington Post:

"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."

Some years ago, I heard a linguist jokingly assert that the difference between languages and dialects, was that languages had armies. I am not convinced that this holds in every case. Nevertheless his point was that the labels we affix to things have a direct relationship to power. Throughout the 20th century, unpleasant regimes have made use of waterboarding. But they lacked the power of proximity, and thus could not cleanse their acts with the white words of "enhanced interrogation." If you're really going to the dark side, make sure to bring your flack.


Bill Keller and Cameron Barr note that they changed their minds after the term "torture" became the source of an argument. The substance of the argument is irrelevant to them, it was the mere presence of a dispute that gave them pause. One is reminded of a married couple, in which a spouse yields to an argument, not because they are convinced of some error, but because they no longer have the stomach for the fight. These moments are likely essential to a marriage. Romantic, and otherwise.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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