Aug 1 2005

Torturing Language

Definitions, defenses and dirty work

US prisoner threatened by dog at Abu Ghraib

US prisoner at Abu Ghraib.

In the past year and a half, the Bush administration has engaged in elaborate rhetorical gymnastics when addressing the use and authorization of torture by American forces and leaders. Under increasing fire for its conduct of the war in Iraq, the scandal of Abu Ghraib and the alarming implications of defenses such as the August 2002 Bybee memo (which stated that “physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death”), various administration spokespeople have publicly disavowed torture. At the same time, they have refused to classify as torture even techniques that any reasonable person would find abhorrent (and that the United States, in fact, deems torture when practiced by other countries), suggesting a definition so expansive and loose as to place few limits on interrogators.

Many in the media have followed suit, enabling the administration’s justifications by suggesting or following exceedingly narrow definitions of torture. In fact, some reporters and commentators have even gone beyond the administration, making—implicitly or explicitly—claims that even Bush and his spokespeople would not voice publicly: that torture is sometimes justifiable, that international or traditional sanctions against torture are absurd and that opposition to torture is pitiful and potentially dangerous.

It is important to note that not all in the media have spoken with one voice on this subject; indeed, dissenting perspectives have been expressed by figures on both the right and the left. Yet many commentators across the political spectrum have engaged in coverage of torture that is uncritical, misleading and morally vacant. At times, the media’s acrobatics have involved leaps of logic and disjointed, irrational argumentative feats.

What’s in a word?

Just as administration figures such as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have vehemently claimed to reject torture while declining to renounce certain outrageous practices, so too have the media wavered about condemning severe acts that any reasonable person would deem torture and that, indeed, have long been opposed as such by the United States when used by other nations.

Describing allegations of torture in a lawsuit against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld brought by the ACLU and Human Rights First on behalf of United States detainees, Fox News’ John Gibson (Big Story With John Gibson, 3/2/05) asked judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano, “They say Rumsfeld allowed stress positions, 20-hour interrogations, the removal of clothing, the use of dogs, isolation and sensory deprivation. Where is torture in there?” Although Napolitano noted that the suit mentions “inserting foreign objects in body cavities” and “beatings,” he did not address the other acts that Gibson mentioned. Thus he left unchallenged Gibson’s implication that these practices do not rise to the level of torture, despite the fact that the U.S. government considers many of these acts to be torture when used by other nations (Washington Post, 3/1/05).

Other media spokespeople have been similarly reluctant to label extreme acts torture. Consider, for example, NPR’s framing of the opinion of Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who has defended the use of what he calls “torture warrants” that would allow certain “rough interrogation” techniques short of “lethal torture” (L.A. Times, 6/13/04; Baltimore Sun, 5/28/04). Morning Edition (3/15/05) featured Dershowitz asking: “When you torture somebody to death . . . everybody would acknowledge that’s torture. But placing a sterilized needle under somebody’s fingernails for 15 minutes, causing excruciating pain but no permanent physical damage, is that torture?”

While there’s an obvious answer to Dershowitz—yes, it’s a technique commonly used by torturers and condemned as such by human rights  groups around the world—reporter Jackie Northam simply moved on to another facet of the topic, leaving Dershowitz’s remark as an open question.

After describing the horrific practice of “water-boarding”—forcing a strapped-down victim under water to the point of drowning—the Wall Street Journal editorial page (1/6/05) asked, “Is that ‘torture’? It is pushing the boundary of tolerable behavior, but . . . is it immoral, or unjustified, in the cause of preventing another mass casualty attack on U.S. soil?” According to the Journal (6/11/04), even what happened at Abu Ghraib was not torture but rather an instance of “abuses,” suggesting a definition with very few boundaries.

On another Morning Edition report (5/7/04), NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly vacillated on whether what she, too, euphemistically called “the abuses at Abu Ghraib” should be deemed torture: “The Geneva Conventions . . . forbid torture. But . . . guards at Abu Ghraib were not briefed on them. . . . Even if they had been, though, the conventions offer only broad guidance.” What Kelly apparently found confusingly general was the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which defines the act as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” as part of interrogation or punishment—which clearly would encompass the atrocities at Abu Ghraib.

Serving tea and crumpets

In various cases, the media’s coverage of torture has not merely supported the Bush administration’s professed policies, but has gone beyond them. Administration spokespeople, although at times critical of established standards regulating behavior during times of war, have generally maintained that the United States honors certain traditional, global norms. Gonzales, for example, maintained during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believed our “obligations include . . . honoring Geneva Conventions whenever they apply.”

Many in the media, though, have discarded such outward restraint, deriding traditional and/or internationally sanctioned definitions of torture as unreasonable or ridiculous. Following the Geneva Conventions in the hopes that other nations will do likewise, Diana West mused in the Washington Times (5/14/04), would mean that “in other words, we’ll serve tea and crumpets, and they’ll serve tea and crumpets.”

The Boston Herald (12/1/04) ridiculed the report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that forms of torture were used at
Guantánamo Bay such as “exposure to loud and persistent noise” and the disclosure to interrogators of “detainees’ mental health and vulnerabilities” by “medical staff.” Attempting to mock the latter, the editorial eschewed logic in favor of a bewildering query: “Who would you rather involve if you were being ‘tortured,’ Uday Hussein or a highly trained health-care worker?”

On Special Report With Brit Hume (12/1/04), Fox commentator Mort Kondracke scoffed at the ICRC’s criticisms:

We’re leaving them out in the cold some of the time . . . dressing them in the wrong clothes. . . .  I mean, this is just ridiculous. . . . It’s not that cold in Guantánamo Bay. You know, that’s Cuba. It’s pretty warm down there.

Contributing editor Heather MacDonald of the City Journal was similarly derisive (City Journal, Winter/05; Weekly Standard, 1/24/05), listing various practices opponents want to ban: “providing a detainee an incentive for cooperation—such as . . . a Twinkie unless specifically approved by the secretary of Defense”; “put[ting] detainees on MREs (meals ready to eat—vacuum-sealed food pouches eaten by millions of soldiers, as well as vacationing backpackers) instead of hot rations”; and “keeping a terror suspect up past his bedtime for questioning.” (One would assume that MacDonald is aware that the U. S. State Department lists “sleep deprivation” among the many practices it condemns as torture when practiced by other countries—Washington Post, 3/1/05.) Notably, MacDonald casts blame not only on international organizations such as the ICRC but also on “fanatically cautious Pentagon lawyers” who forced an “uncharacteristically irresolute” Rumsfeld to reconsider certain policies.


While the administration has stated outright that it rejects torture, various pundits have been wary to do so, often scorning opponents of torture implicitly or explicitly. Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball (1/4/05) qualified retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s criticism of Attorney General Gonzales: “Let’s just get this straight, so we don’t sound like we’re goody-two-shoes here. You’re a military man. . . . You’ve been in combat in Europe.” The implication that most opponents of torture, lacking such a macho portfolio, are unrealistic do-gooders has been made explicit by others. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly (O’Reilly Factor, 3/14/05) jeered, “I guess the progressives want to give [terror suspects] condos on Miami Beach.”

Other pundits have suggested that opponents of torture are nuisances or hypocrites. Discussing the aforementioned lawsuit against Rumsfeld by the ACLU and Human Rights First, Fox’s Gibson (Big Story with John Gibson, 3/2/05) characterized the plaintiffs as “liberal, anti-war, ACLU-type activists,” and commented: “They allege a lot of stuff. And you feel like Seinfeld, ‘Yada-yada-yada.’”

Fox’s Sean Hannity (Hannity & Colmes, 1/5/05) posed a rhetorical question to lawyer and professor John Yoo, who advised the Bush administration that Geneva Conventions on torture and prisoner treatment did not apply to terrorists: “Don’t you love being lectured, Mr. Yoo, by the same liberals that just voted for a man that admitted to committing war atrocities?” (John Kerry, during the Vietnam War, said that he had “committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed” by following orders that were contrary to the laws of war—Meet the Press, 4/18/71.)

After Wesley Clark criticized Gonzales on Hardball (1/4/05), Matthews challenged him about Vietnam—“Did we threaten to throw people out of helicopters in Vietnam? . . . Did we hose people with hoses in their mouths until they talked?”—as if these accusations (which Clark denounced, and denied having particular knowledge of) limited his authority to speak about abuses in another war three decades later.

Other critics, commentators have declared, are buffoons whose opinions cannot be credited. Michael Goodwin of the New York Daily News (1/9/05) mocked Sen. Joseph Biden’s questioning of Gonzales rather than addressing any of the substance of Biden’s concerns, proposing that he engaged in an “offensive attempt to speak in ghetto jargon.” (The examples Goodwin provided—that Biden “called Gonzales ‘ol’ buddy’” and “said ‘I love you’”—hardly seem to fit the description.)

Although Robert Friedman of the St. Petersburg Times (1/23/05) argued that Gonzales “deserved tough questioning,” the sole example he offered from the Senate confirmation hearings served merely to mock Sen. Ted Kennedy. After noting that Kennedy challenged Gonzales about water-boarding, Friedman joked, “Gonzales should have gotten some sort of prize for keeping a straight face while Kennedy droned on about the horrors of near-drowning.” Goodwin (New York Daily News, 1/9/05, 1/19/05) and the New York Post (1/8/05) similarly attempted to discredit Kennedy with references to Chappaquiddick.

“Brave” calls for torture

In some cases, commentators have suggested that critics of torture might be not just ridiculous but dangerous. The Wall Street Journal editorial page (6/25/04) lamented the fact that, under pressure from opponents, the administration backed down from the extreme language of the Bybee memo: “We trust the folks who’ve forced this retreat stand ready to offer their mea culpas to the commission investigating the next major terrorist attack on the United States.” Politicians and pundits “who threw around words like ‘torture’ so glibly” after Abu Ghraib, the Journal (8/26/04) chided, were “worse than . . . wrong”; they “have endangered the lives of soldiers by forcing a retreat in interrogation techniques so severe that it’s hampering the U.S. ability to fight the counterinsurgency in Iraq.”

On PBS’s Journal Editorial Report (1/7/05), produced in association with the Wall Street Journal, the Journal’s deputy editorial page editor Dan Henninger opined:

I think that the effect of Abu Ghraib and this conversation [about torture] and what happened at [the Gonzales confirmation] hearing is going to impact the security forces who are tasked with getting . . . information, and they’re going to pull back. . . . I saw a story out of Afghanistan just last week in which an American commander said we are actually holding fewer prisoners specifically because of fears of abuse.

(It’s worth noting that the Geneva Conventions are designed to make it difficult if not impossible to use POWs as sources of intelligence—not because captured soldiers don’t frequently have useful, potentially life-saving information, but because attempts to force them to reveal such information inevitably lead to abuse.)

Various pundits have even made the explicit claim that torture may, in fact, be defensible in some cases. After a dismissive discussion of the ICRC’s criticisms of the treatment of U.S. prisoners at Guantánamo, syndicated columnist Linda Chavez (Baltimore Sun, 12/2/04) challenged, “If such methods are ‘torture,’ is the United States justified in using them anyway?” Making her answer clear, Chavez mused about gaining “information that might save lives—thousands, even millions of them.” Analogous arguments have been made by commentators such as Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post (6/14/04), UPI’s senior legal affairs correspondent Michael Kirkland (2/4/05), Dahlia Lithwick of Slate (1/7/05) and MSNBC’s Matthews (Hardball, 2/7/05).

From this perspective, those who advocate torture are worthy of praise. Dershowitz, Lithwick gushed, was “brave enough to make the argument publicly” for torture, proposing that “in very limited situations . . . it is simply more important to gather information than respect the bodily integrity of a deranged terrorist.”

In a series of convoluted and seemingly contradictory reflections, Hiatt suggested that if one could gain valuable information from torture, it would be “the moral thing to do” and that, although “maybe it would be wrong” for a president to “give an order to torture a prisoner to save thousands of lives,” he “should assume responsibility” for one of “the choices leaders must face.”

Notably, while Matthews proposed that although he “think[s] torture may be sometimes necessary,” he does not “want to be the one involved in it,” Lithwick declared herself ready to “hand [Gonzales] the shrimp fork” to “goug[e] out Abu Zubaida’s left eye” if he would reveal “where Osama Bin Laden is planning his next attack on U.S. soil.”

Back to the witch trials

A key premise underlies these arguments: Torture works and thus could provide intelligence that might help prevent terrorist attacks. It should be noted that this premise is a morally and legally dubious justification for inhumane and illegal practices; the Bush administration’s December 2004 memo, in fact, which clarified the congressional statute defining and prohibiting torture and which was designed to supersede the Bybee memo, stated unequivocally: “There is no exception . . . permitting torture to be used for a ‘good reason.’ Thus, a defendant’s motive (to protect national security, for example) is not relevant to . . . the statute.”

And with some exceptions, the contention that torture is effective is generally rejected by experts on the subject such as former CIA officers Milt Bearden (L.A. Times, 5/23/04) and Robert Baer (Nightline, 1/6/05), former Army officer Phillip Carter (Slate, 5/14/04) and scholar Darius Rejali (Salon, 6/18/04; 6/21/04). Journalist David Ignatius (Washington Post, 3/9/05) maintained that “in 30 years of writing about intelligence, I’ve never encountered a [CIA agent] who didn’t realize that torture is usually counterproductive.”

The argument that torture can be effective, Salon’s (11/16/01) Middle East correspondent Flore de Préneuf pointed out shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, is not only “morally absurd” but

technically flawed: Interrogators may not know if someone [has vital information about an impending attack] . . . unless they torture him into confessing first—a form of evidence-gathering that bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to the witch trials of the 17th century.

Yet the notion that torture is useful (and thus justified) is accepted without question by many in the media. Some commentators state this claim as fact. The practices designed to “break [detainees] down psychologically” that are criticized by the ICRC, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer explained on Fox’s Special Report with Brit Hume (12/1/04), represent “exactly what you want to do with a prisoner who may have information.” Gonzales critic Ted Kennedy, Hannity (Hannity & Colmes, 1/5/05) asserted, should “explain how he would get these barbarians to reveal the information they don’t want to reveal that would protect our troops.”

Some in the media defend this view with specious “arguments.” “If [torture] hasn’t [worked], many times over the centuries, then why do so many regimes engage in it?” Fred Kaplan of Slate (9/14/04) ruminated, adding, “Some no doubt do it for the kicks, but they’re not all purely sadists.” Jane Mayer, who detailed numerous cases in which prisoners tortured by various nations offered false information or confessions in the New Yorker (2/14/05), nonetheless told Matthews on Hardball (2/7/05), “I’m sure [torture] must work sometimes or they wouldn’t do it.” (By this logic, the witch trials must sometimes have discovered real witches.) Slate’s Lithwick (1/7/05) offered a variation on the theme: If torture does not generate “reliable information,” then “why even solicit a Bybee memo?”

“Sounded like a good idea”

Some pundits have tread even shakier moral and logical ground, implying that arguments against torture are moot because of the depravity of our foes. After remarking that the use of severe interrogation techniques by the United States can threaten “our soldiers” because they might then “be treated as badly by the other side,” Matthews (Hardball, 1/4/05) backpedaled: “Although they behead people already. It’s hard to get any worse in their treatment of us.” Linda Chavez (Baltimore Sun, 12/2/04) wrote:

We are forced into debating the moral parameters of torture because of the very nature of our current enemy. The United States is not at war with a conventional army but with men whose aim is to kill innocent civilians in the most horrific manner possible.

Although critical of the Bush administration, columnist Bill McClellan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (5/14/04) suggested in a somewhat confusing commentary that whether we approve torture should depend on the prisoner. McClellan recalled his reaction in the wake of September 11, 2001: “I thought that torture sounded like a good idea, but I was more squeamish than Dershowitz. Do what you have to do, but don’t tell us.” In the intervening two and a half years, though, “this Iraq thing has muddied everything,” leading him to a more limited endorsement: “It’s one thing to torture Khalid Mohammed, the John Belushi look-alike who helped plan 9/11 and who may have had information about new attacks. It’s something else to abuse detainees in Iraq.”

Media critics have for some time argued that many journalists and pundits have readily supported the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and parroted its rhetoric. In the case of characterizing and discussing torture, this charge is only half the story. When media figures refuse to define torture or support broad or vague formulations that permit heinous practices, they follow the administration’s lead. When pundits and commentators go even farther—mocking dissenters, ridiculing international standards and offering morally and intellectually bankrupt arguments in defense of torture—they assist the administration in an even more disturbing and sinister way.

In effect, media outlets from PBS to the Washington Times have proven themselves eager to make the arguments that the administration does not want to sully itself with but which in fact lie beneath many U.S. policies in the war on terror. Pundits and reporters have allowed the administration to disavow torture publicly while taking advantage of the troubling climate the media’s coverage has fostered in which the public becomes hardened, citizens grow willing to excuse severe practices by their government and extreme policies are left unchallenged. Notably, too, the administration’s overt statements appear moderate by comparison to torture’s cheerleaders in the media.

After all, government spokespeople need not concern themselves with the dirty work of defending what should be indefensible. Many in the media are ready and willing to do that for them.