No Comment — July 16, 2007, 9:14 pm

Making Murder Respectable

The great chronicler of the corruption of language, George Orwell, noted in Politics and the English Language (1946) that “political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The dangers presented by the proliferation of such language are ominous. Victor Klemperer carefully recorded them in his book, Lingua tertii imperii (The Language of the Third Reich, 1947), perhaps the greatest account ever written of the power of simple twists of language to work murderous evil. And when the homicidal misrepresentations of the warmongers slither into the realm of news reporting, the situation becomes graver still. America has long prided itself on its independent guardian press, but this hardly ever was the case and assuredly is not so today. Even the best of the print media—publications like the New York Times and Washington Post–show the corrosive effects of corrupted language.

Last year, I tracked the Times’s use of the word “torture” over a period of six weeks. The results? “Torture” is used to described the excessively loud music coming from a neighbor’s apartment; a clash in accessories accompanying formalwear; drudgery or highly repetitive and monotonous office work. But what about things that really are torture: waterboarding, beating a person’s face to a pulp, the use of electroshocks, long-time standing—or as the KGB calls it, stoika, the cold cell? These things appeared many times, and the word “torture” never appeared next to them other than inside of quotation marks. No, the words the Times preferred to use were “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Orwell would crack an anxious smile. He would say: so you see, it’s well underway. Who could imagine a better example than this?

And currently we see much the same thing going on in reporting on the air and in print surrounding Congress. Remember just a bit more than two years ago, when on a single occasion the Democrats threatened to filibuster a judicial nominee? It was raised as a threat to the Constitution and our form of government. The media quaked and trembled. The horror! At length, the Democrats folded under this pressure and allowed a number of grossly unqualified persons to obtain lifetime appointments to the federal bench.

And today? Hardly a week now passes in which the Republicans, now reduced to the minority, fail to use the filibuster. They use it even to obstruct “sense of the Congress” resolutions—that is, nonbinding statements. And they’ve let it slip that their intention is purely to obstruct: to insure that the Democratic Congress is unable to do anything—that it continues to be viewed by the public as essentially impotent. Senator Kent Conrad in an interview this weekend:

The leader has had to file cloture now over 40 times already this year. And cloture, as you know, is a special procedure to stop debate, to stop filibusters, in order to reach conclusion on legislation. I had a Republican colleague tell me it is the Republican strategy to try to prevent any accomplishment of the Democratic Congress. That is set in their caucus openly and directly that they don’t intend to allow Democrats to have any legislative successes, and they intend to do it by repeated filibuster.

And how is this reported in the media? The word “filibuster” never appears. Look for it. You’ll see that there was a “procedural vote,” or that Republicans relied upon a “procedural device to block a vote.” And here’s a Reuters article out this evening that is positively comic in its twists and turns to avoid using the word “filibuster.” Why exactly? Because, I am told, the “Republican leadership would be upset if we used that word.” Ahha, now we understand how news copy is written. That’s the “liberal media” for you.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



October 2015

Lives by Omission

Lifting as We Climb

Cattle Calls

Getting Jobbed

view Table Content


“One of the peculiar things about economic inequality is that the people who are most articulate about it are not poor, while the poor themselves have said little, at least in print, about their situation.”
Photograph © Reuters/Brendan McDermid
“It would be nice to get through this review without recourse to the term ‘writer’s writer.’ The thing is, in the case of Joy Williams, I have seen the cliché made flesh.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
“Miniatures originated in Persia and were brought to the Indian subcontinent when the Mughals conquered it in the sixteenth century. They could take on almost any subject: landscapes or portraits; stories of love, war, or play.”
Painting by by Imran Qureshi.
“The business of being a country veterinarian is increasingly precarious. The heartland has been emptying of large-animal vets for at least two decades, as agribusiness changed the employment picture and people left the region.”
Photograph by Lance Rosenfield
“Rosie and her husband had burned through their small savings in the first few months after she lost her job. Now their family of five relied on his minimum-wage paychecks, plus Rosie’s unemployment and food stamps, which, combined, brought them to around $2,000 per month, just above the poverty line.”
Illustrations by Taylor Callery

Ratio of children’s emergency-room visits for injuries related to fireworks last year to those related to “desk supplies”:


The ecosystems around Chernobyl, Ukraine, are now healthier than they were before the nuclear disaster, though radiation levels are still too high for human habitation.

The Islamic State opened two new theme parks featuring a Ferris wheel, teacup rides, and bumper cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today