No Comment — July 19, 2010, 2:58 pm

Bill Keller’s Political Correctness

The man who authored the New York Times’s doublespeak standards on torture, Bill Keller, responded recently to the Harvard University study of his paper’s use of the word “torture” with respect to specific techniques, including waterboarding, by saying:

I think this Kennedy School study — by focusing on whether we have embraced the politically correct term of art in our news stories — is somewhat misleading and tendentious.

Got that? It’s “misleading,” “tendentious,” and “politically correct” to point out that the newspaper of record uses “torture” to describe specific practices when used by governments other than the United States, but does not use the word when the same practices are used by the United States. In fact, of course, it is Keller who is being “politically correct.” He made plain in his comments to Brian Stelter that the Times decided not to apply the term torture to waterboarding because Vice President Cheney insisted that it was not torture. This is not merely being politically correct; it is being politically subordinate. This is particularly clear when we examine the work of a prominent Times reporter in the field: Bill Keller (hat tip: NYTPicker). Reporting on police brutality in the field from South Africa and the Soviet Union in the eighties, Keller had no compunction about using the word “torture.” Here’s a snippet from his reporting on Soviet police brutality that won him a Pulitzer Prize–describing the mistreatment of a factory worker in Petrozavodsk (Karelia):

A factory worker, according to the report, was kicked so severely that doctors had to remove a ruptured spleen. The medical report said doctors had found three pints of clotted blood in the abdomen.

Keller called this “torture,” and indeed it was. Soviet authorities insisted at the time that the conduct, while abusive, was not torture, yet Keller didn’t see fit even to bother his readers with their denials. Another major difference between the Soviet torture incidents and the more recent American ones is that the Soviet incidents, also covered in reform-oriented Soviet journals like Ogonëk and by the courageous Arkady Vaksberg in Literaturnaya Gazeta, were investigated by the office of the procurator general, with the investigations leading to dismissal and prosecution of the law enforcement officials involved. The idea that American officials of the Bush era who were involved in torture would be punished or prosecuted is, of course, simply unthinkable.

Bill Keller’s political correctness couldn’t be more clear cut. Aggressive interrogation tactics applied by a regime like the Soviet Union or South Africa in the eighties are “torture,” even though their officials insist they are not. But aggressive interrogation tactics applied by the Bush Administration cannot be called “torture” even if they are even more brutal, because that would offend Dick Cheney. This is precisely the sort of political manipulation of language that George Orwell warned against in “Politics and the English Language.”

Glenn Greenwald has now flagged another prime example of Times torture hypocrisy. Here’s the Times report from Thursday on an important court decision dealing with an asylum seeker from China, whom the Justice Department sought to deport:

The woman, Jinyu Kang, an ethnic Korean citizen of China who now lives in New York, had fled a Chinese arrest warrant for giving food and shelter to Korean refugees. Others named in the same warrant and caught by the Chinese police had described beatings, suffocation, electric shocks, sleep deprivation and other forms of torture to get them to disclose details about the human rights group to which they all belonged.

“It is disappointing, even shocking, that the government fails to acknowledge that the evidence is not only strongly in Kang’s favor, but, indeed, compels the conclusion that she will likely be tortured,” said the decision, issued by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit… The decision details “the horrific experiences” suffered by members of the group, and cites testimony that Ms. Kang’s son, who is still in China, was also tortured by the police during interrogation about his mother’s whereabouts. (Ms. Kang declined to talk about the case with a reporter through her lawyer, Man C. Yam.)

This is an important case, particularly because of the inexplicable and embarrassing conduct of the Justice Department. The evidence of torture is clear-cut and unchallenged. United States law forbids the deportation of a person to a country where the person faces the clear prospect of being tortured. So why does the Justice Department insist on deporting this woman? Perhaps the answer lies in those Justice Department memoranda, now rescinded but still haunting Justice Department dealings, under which these torture practices are no longer “torture,” largely because the Justice Department blessed their use by U.S. authorities in connection with interrogations.

Note that beatings, suffocation (caused by putting a bag over the head), and sleep deprivation are labeled “torture” both by the court and by the Times writer, when used by the Chinese authorities. But under Bill Keller’s guidelines these are simply “enhanced interrogation techniques” when they are used by American authorities. The Chinese Government insists that these practices are not “torture,” and it rationalizes its position much the same way that the Yoo-Bybee Memoranda would. Why does this rationalization work for Republican officials in Washington, but not for other government officials around the world? Only Bill Keller knows the answer to that question.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

No Comment November 4, 2013, 5:17 pm

The Torture Doctors

An expert panel concludes that the Pentagon and the CIA ordered physicians to violate the Hippocratic Oath

No Comment August 12, 2013, 7:55 am

Obama’s Snowden Dilemma

How will the Obama Administration handle Edward Snowden’s case in the long term?

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $34.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2014

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quinoa Quarrel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Had to Be There

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Study in Sherlock

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“In Thunupa’s footsteps grew a miraculous plant that could withstand drought, cold, and even salt, and still produce a nutritious grain.”
Photograph by Lisa M. Hamilton
Article
A Study in Sherlock·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is central to the pleasure of the Sherlock Holmes stories that they invite play, and that they were never meant to be taken seriously.”
Illustration by Frederic Dorr Steele
Post
My Top 5 Metal Albums and Their Poetic Counterparts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“1. Death, The Sound of Perseverance (Nuclear Blast, 1998)”
Photograph (detail) by Peter Beste
Article
Found Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I have spent my entire adult existence in a recession. Like most people I talk to, I assume the forces that control the market are at best random and at worst rigged. The auction shows only confirm that suspicion.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Post
The School of Permanent Revolución·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The University of Venezuela has provided a consistent counterweight to governmental authority, but it has also reliably produced the elite of whatever group replaced the status quo.”
Photograph © Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez

Percentage of Americans who say they would not enjoy spending time with their own clone:

70

Astronomers recorded the most powerful pulse of radiation ever observed; the radiation was emitted from a pulsar 12,000 light-years from Earth and was “capable of totally vaporising and ionising all known materials, shredding them into hot plasma.”

Alberta dentist Michael Zuk, the owner of a molar that belonged to John Lennon, revealed that he hoped to clone a new Lennon and raise him as a son. “Hopefully keep him away from drugs,” said Zuk, “but, you know, guitar lessons wouldn’t hurt.”

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

HARPER’S FINEST