Media torture the language

Palm Beach Post Columnist

Monday, February 02, 2009

On his second day in office, President Obama ordered an end to torture by Americans as we have known it since 9/11. What do you say to that?

If you are the media, you do not say the T-word. Like a Victorian avoiding mention of bodily functions, you find another way to describe it, as limbs became the stand-in for legs. For CBS News, torture became "the harshest treatment of terror subjects." At National Public Radio, it became "extreme interrogation tactics."

At the Los Angeles Times and CNN, the T-word was used, but only with attribution. In Los Angeles, "critics" described the techniques as torture, and at CNN "many" considered them to be torture. One guesses that the many include the critics. The T-word made it through one news cycle on The Associated Press but then became "harsh interrogations."

Instead of saying what had been stopped, The New York Times gingerly reported what was not: "(A)ll interrogations (are) to follow the noncoercive methods of the Army Field Manual." Fox News followed the Times in avoiding the negative to emphasize the positive field manual. Then Fox explained what is wrong with that. The manual "is intended for honorable combatants, meaning POWs in a military conflict. The (new) rule would prevent trained interrogators at the CIA from using lawful interrogation techniques against terrorists who have been trained to withstand Army Field Manual Techniques."

What we are talking about, as everyone knows, are techniques, including waterboarding, that were considered torture since their earliest appearance in the Western world. After World War II, we prosecuted waterboarding - also known as water torture - as a war crime. When President Bush saw photos of what went on at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, he thought that it had to be an aberration.

We know now that it wasn't. A handful of people in his administration - including lawyer John Yoo, whose name was on the findings, Vice President Dick Cheney, whose name is missing and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who decided lately that he is proud of it - decided that when we torture, it isn't torture. It's OK. They put that in a Justice Department memo.

That is the origin of the "lawful interrogation techniques" Fox News referred to. The same techniques were "lawful" on the same grounds, with the same kind of paperwork, when the Gestapo applied them, and the Gestapo was notorious for torture. A piece of paper can make torture lawful, but it can no more make it humane and ethical than it can make pig iron into pork sausage.

The impertinent Mr. Gonzales told National Public Radio that we will be sorry if Mr. Obama really manages to put our torturers out of business. Mr. Gonzales may miss them; I don't want to be in the same universe with authorized U.S. government torturers.

So, what has happened to the media all of a sudden that, in deference to a handful of ethically challenged former officials, they embroider fancy words around torture the way Big Brother's minions do in George Orwell's 1984? They have no trouble naming the deed when other countries do it.

"In our time, political speech and writing are largely in defense of the indefensible," Orwell said in another place, referring to such verbal abominations as "extreme interrogation tactics." As undertakers did in the days when premature burial was feared, Mr. Obama left a rope attached to an above-ground bell when he buried torture by executive order.

An interagency task force will review the country's interrogation methods. If the task force decides that we should bring back torture and ease Mr. Gonzales' worried mind, will we understand what the media are talking about when they write about the review?

Tom Blackburn is a former member of The Post Editorial Board. His e-mail address is tom_blackburn@juno.com