Counterterrorism and the English Language

The New York Times is finally calling torture by its name. Why did it wait so long?
Alex Torrenegra/Flickr

The announcement that the New York Times will now refer to Bush Administration torture by its proper name is welcome news, tempered only by Executive Editor Dean Baquet's unfortunate attempt to rationalize the old policy. "When the first revelations emerged a decade ago, the situation was murky," he wrote. "The details about what the CIA did in its interrogation rooms were vague. The word 'torture' had a specialized legal meaning as well as a plain-English one. While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of 'torture.'"

But every torturing government insists that its interrogations are not, in fact, illegal torture. To survey powerful actors with clear conflicts of interest and then defer to their characterizations betrays a newspaper's charge: to determine the truth and state it plainly for the public. The Times failed to do that on torture long after the CIA's interrogation techniques ceased to be murky. "Over time, the landscape has shifted," Baquet wrote. "Far more is now understood, such as that the C.I.A. inflicted the suffocation technique called waterboarding 183 times on a single detainee and that other techniques, such as locking a prisoner in a claustrophobic box, prolonged sleep deprivation and shackling people’s bodies into painful positions, were routinely employed in an effort to break their wills."

All that has been known for years! 

Then Baquet wrote:

Meanwhile, the Justice Department, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, has made clear that it will not prosecute in connection with the interrogation program. The result is that today, the debate is focused less on whether the methods violated a statute or treaty provision and more on whether they worked—that is, whether they generated useful information that the government could not otherwise have obtained from prisoners. In that context, the disputed legal meaning of the word “torture” is secondary to the common meaning: the intentional infliction of pain to make someone talk.

This seems perilously close to declaring that whether torture is the most accurate way to describe waterboarding depends on whether any Bush Administration officials remain in jeopardy of being prosecuted and imprisoned for it. Forcing water into a bound, blindfolded man's lungs to induce physical drowning 183 times is torture, whether Dick Cheney is being feted at a macabre Commentary roast or fitted for an orange jumpsuit at the International Criminal Court. It is torture by the plain English definition as well as by relevant legal definitions.*

The Times failed to call torture by its rightful name because it failed as an institution. The exact nature of the failure is only known to people within the organization. Perhaps its relationship to the Washington establishment was such that it could not bring itself to use plain language when U.S. leaders committed war crimes. Maybe its editors mistakenly believed that striving for objectivity required them to back off any claim contested by a powerful ideological or political faction, an act of preserving "The View From Nowhere" at the expense of the truth.

There are other possibilities. 

A more forthright explanation of what went wrong might not serve the institutional interests of the Times. But I suspect it would help us to think through the other euphemisms and propagandistic jargon that American journalists have employed during the War on Terrorism, often out of sheer familiarity. I've caught myself referring to prisoners as "detainees" and to drone strikes that kill men of unknown identities or innocent women and children as "targeted killings" (though I've seen through attempts to call drone killings "surgical").  

I've caught myself using the phrase "The War on Terror," and talking about what's been "redacted" in documents rather than what's censored, hidden, or suppressed. 

The NSA engages in mass surveillance knowing full well that the communications of Americans will be collected and stored, then calls that "incidental." And did you notice, when the Obama Administration waged war against Moammar Ghaddafy's Libya, that many in the press called it a "kinetic military action"?

At this point in American history we're all well aware that war corrupts language, and that corrupted language can bleed into our thoughts. George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" is a widely read, nearly 70-year-old classic. Yet even our best newspapers, the Times among them, still go astray, and in our less attentive moments it's easy, at least for me, to go right along with them.

Baquet's announcement on the use of "torture" is an important course correction. The newspaper deserves credit for a long overdue reform. But if we're to do better when confronted with a corruption of language, we'll need to understand why past failures were able to persist for so long.


*And note that the Times doesn't let technical legal jargon trump normal usage in other instances.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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