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Has the newspaper of record adopted a double standard for torture techniques—using the “t”-word when the techniques are applied by other nations, but using more evasive characterizations when agents of the United States government are in the spotlight? That question has now been authoritatively settled, and the answer is a resounding “yes.”
A new study by Harvard’s Kennedy School (PDF) looks systematically at how American print media characterized the use of waterboarding in incidents reported from 1903 (the famous case of Major Glenn, coming out of the Philippines) to the present day. Here’s the crux of their conclusions:
Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding. From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002?2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture. In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.
The way newspapers characterize practices like waterboarding has an immediate impact on the attitudes adopted by their readers. Accepting the language suggested by the Bush Administration (“enhanced interrogation techniques”) helped build public acceptance for the application of torture techniques. Victor Klemperer, in his masterful study of the manipulation of language in Germany from the thirties to the end of World War II, called such phrases “little doses of arsenic: they are consumed without being noticed; they seem at first to have no effect, but after a while, indeed, the effect is there.”
In his impressive attempt to catalogue these “doses of arsenic,” Klemperer awards pride of place to the words used by the state to describe prisoners, prison camps, and the treatments to which they were subjected. Indeed, one of the phrases developed in this era is still with us today. In special circumstances and usually only with the permission of higher authorities, interrogators were permitted to use a set of highly coercive techniques on prisoners, including hypothermia and stress positions. These techniques were called verschärfte Vernehmung: “enhanced interrogation.”
But as George Orwell pointed out in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” the process of language manipulation was hardly reserved to the Axis powers during the war. He wrote two novels that focused instead on the same sort of word games that Klemperer documented, drawing on the Soviet Union as an example. And he was convinced that the same malicious force was at work in the English language:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
So waterboarding in the hands of the Japanese, the Khmer Rouge, East Germans, Brazilians, and Argentinians is “torture,” the American newspapers tell us, but indistinguishable techniques when used with the authority of the American government are simply “enhanced interrogation techniques,” that “critics” “refer to as torture.” This is unalloyed hypocrisy. And it has social and political consequences far beyond the nuanced semantics that fill the columns of the public editor. It is shaping a darker, more brutal society—one prepared to accept torture as a legitimate tool in the hands of the state.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
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