Torture Still Qualified at NY Times

New York Times on the pending trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed ( 11/15/09–emphasis added):

Mr. Mohammed’s initial defiance toward his captors set off an interrogation plan that would turn him into the central figure in the roiling debate over the C.I.A’s interrogation methods. He was subjected 183 times to the near-drowning technique called waterboarding, treatment that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has called torture. But advocates of the C.I.A’s methods, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have said that the interrogation methods produced a trove of information that helped dismantle Al-Qaeda and disrupt potential terrorism attacks.

Apparently Holder’s views need to be balanced byDick Cheney’s.

More to the point, what Eric Holder thinks is torture is mostly irrelevant: If something is torture, then it should be called torture. The Times has failed on this question before; in 2004, the paper’s public editor Daniel Okrent wrote this response to a FAIR Action Alert (6/10/04):

But just as a terrorist is sometimes, in fact, a terrorist, torture is inescapably torture. The reader who moved me out of the muddled center on this did it with a simple question: “If the same things [that happened at Abu Ghraib] had been done to American prisoners by Iraqi authorities, would the Times have hesitated to use â┚¬Ã‹Å“tortureâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢ over and over again?”

Over the past five years, the paper has used the word to describe the actions of authorities in Iraq, China, Mexico, Turkey, Chad and elsewhere, including a precinct house in Brooklyn, in the Abner Louima case. In each case, I believe, there was a sense that the torturers were characterized, in part, by their otherness–other nationalities, other political systems, or in the Louima instance other, depraved moral codes.

In Iraq, the perpetrators of the prison horrors were our representatives–ordinary Americans whose behavior may have been altered by circumstances, but who in their origins and histories are as familiar to us as our neighbors and co-workers.

[New York Times standards editor Allan] Siegal, who notes that the Times has no policy on the use of “torture,” cautioned me in an e-mail that his sense of the word (and of “abuse”) was “impressionistic rather than researched,” but I buy what he ended up with: “Torture occurs when a prisoner is physically or psychologically maltreated during the process of interrogation, or as punishment for some activity or political position. Abuse occurs when the prisonerâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s jailers maltreat her or him separately from the interrogation process.”

Siegal also acknowledges that there’s a continuum that has to be measured. If, for instance, a man is kept hooded for an hour, is that in itself torture? What about five hours? What about 24? If the headline language has in fact been delicate, maybe that’s because the distinctions are delicate. But as good reporting brings us greater knowledge of what has gone in prisons and detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the distinctions become firm enough to be indisputable.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.