Words in Boxes

Nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Banality of Torture

There are some words that by their very sound provoke a visceral emotional reaction. Words like “murder” and “vomit” can hit you like a punch in the stomach.

Another one of those words is “torture.” Those who talk about what we as a country to the prisoners of our War on Terror – and this includes people such as Republicans, Democrats, reporters, and average people in average conversations – usually don't use the word torture. Instead, they utter “rendition” and “interrogation” and “detention,” words whose vague technical sound obscures the ugliness of their meaning.

I'm focusing on words because I'd like to believe that the only way that people could actually be debating whether torturing people — even guilty people — is either legally or ethically acceptable is because they don't comprehend what they are really talking about.

A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review traces the history of the the reporting of and public debate about torture in the War on Terror, which is largely a story about how few involved actually cared about or believed the accusations:

...In the post-9/11 days, some reporters offered detailed accusations and reports of abuse and torture, only to be met with skepticism by their own editors. Stories were buried, played down, or ignored — a reluctance that is much diminished but still bubbles up with regard to the culpability of policymakers.

What is true and what is significant are two different matters. Everybody agrees that journalists are supposed to ascertain the truth. As for deciding what is significant, reporters and editors make that judgment, too, all the time — what story leads on the front page, or gets played inside, what story gets followed up. And when it comes to very sensitive material, like torture, many journalists would prefer to rely on others to be the first to decide that something is significant. To do otherwise would mean sticking your neck out.

Before the Abu Ghraib photos broke, some reporters did write solidly about torture allegations, but the stories were largely ignored, partly because the public didn't care and didn't want to believe or hear about it, but also because the news outlets did not try to make people care. For example, a 2002 Washington Post story reported

One official “directly involved” in renditions confidently explained, “We don’t kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them.” Priest and Gellman wrote, “Each of the current national security officials interviewed for the article defended the use of violence against captives as just and necessary. They expressed confidence that the American public would back their view.”


The story ran on page 1, but the headline did not exactly leave the clear impression that the U.S. had condoned violence against prisoners: "U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations". As for the witnesses speaking of regular beatings, that was mentioned in the thirty-first paragraph.

The entire moral and political justification for invading and occupying Iraq (such as it was) revolved around the proposition that we, as a democracy governed by laws, must act in a way that is better than the dictator we were deposing even if doing so would sometimes put us at a disadvantage. This assumes of course that torturing people for information gets better results than not torturing, which I doubt; the incentive is for the tortured to confess anything, not to confess the truth.

The article is long, but take the time to read the whole thing. It's worth it.

(via The Morning News)

I'm James Sulak, a software developer in Houston, Texas.

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