Waterboard1-small

Doug Jehl, who's the Washington editor for the New York Times, explains today why his paper cannot use the word "torture" to describe "waterboarding" when no legal or political or cultural authority from the Spanish Inquisition until the Bush administration ever doubted for a moment that it was torture:

“I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?”

How about on the same basis that the museum that documents Khmer Rouge torture includes a room for the waterboard (see above)? Would Jehl hesitate for a minute in describing Khmer Rouge waterboarding as torture? So why does he have lower standards for the US than for Cambodia's genocidal regime? How about on the basis that the State Department uses the word torture when other countries use waterboarding and many of the other techniques used by Bush and Cheney:

In Jordan, for example, the State Department observes that “the most frequently alleged methods of torture are sleep deprivation, beatings, and extended solitary confinement.”  In State Department reports on other countries, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, forced standing, hypothermia, blindfolding, and deprivation of food and water are specifically referred to as torture.

How about a clear domestic legal precedent where the Supreme Court of Mississippi, in 1926 no less, reversed the murder conviction of an African-American man because it found that he had been waterboarded by a local sherrif, a procedure described as  "a specie of torture well known to the bench and bar of the country," and "barbarous." How about clear legal precedents in Texas that plainly find waterboarding torture and thereby illegal?

How about the many incidents when the US prosecuted waterboarders from other nations as torturers:

After World War II, the United States prosecuted and convicted a number of Japanese officers for torturing captured American servicemen by waterboarding.[54] Great Britain prosecuted another group of Japanese officers who had tortured British soldiers using this technique, and sentenced them to death.[55] Over a century ago, the United States prosecuted and convicted American military officers who used waterboarding against prisoners in the Philippines.[56]

In the face of this, are there any legal decisions, judgments or trials in the last five centuries in which waterboarding has not been deemed torture? None that I am aware of. And this is not surprising. If waterboarding someone 183 times is not torture, then nothing is torture.

The fact that the editors of the New York Times cannot reflect this core truth in its use of plain English is a scandal of journalistic cowardice, evasion and willful ignorance. It is entirely a function not of seeking the truth but of placating those in power and maintaining a fictitious illusion of "balance". The idea that the Bush administration's insistence for the first time in human history that waterboarding is legal and not torture - when it has itself used the torture technique - is to be weighed equally against the entire body of legal, historical and cultural evidence in deciding what to call torture is preposterous.

George Orwell, call your office. New York Times, grow some - and tell the truth. 

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.